WASHINGTON (ABP) -- President Obama has responded to more than a year of speculation and criticism among advocates for international religious freedom by naming an American Baptist pastor and motivational speaker as the nation’s top diplomat for religious freedom.
But some international-religious-freedom advocates are questioning the nomination of Suzan Johnson Cook as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom because of her lack of professional experience in foreign policy.
On June 15, the White House announced that Obama had tapped Johnson Cook for the post, which had remained vacant since Obama’s inauguration nearly a year and a half ago.
Johnson Cook has been a teacher, pastor, motivational speaker and political adviser for three decades. Most recently, she served as the founding pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York.
Before founding that congregation, from 1983 to 1996, Johnson Cook was pastor of the historic Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church in New York -- which meets on the oldest Baptist worship site in Manhattan, dating to 1795.
Mariners’ Temple and Bronx Christian Fellowship are both aligned with American Baptist Churches USA, and Johnson Cook’s ordination is through the denomination.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement praising the choice. “Dr. Johnson Cook is an experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service,” she said. “President Obama could not have found a more fitting choice for this important position.”
Johnson Cook’s name had been floated for months as a potential choice for the long-vacant post. But the pick may not have placated activists for global religious liberty, many of whom have accused the administration of soft-pedaling the issue since Obama and Clinton took office.
Thomas Farr, who served as the first director of the office Cook will oversee if she is confirmed, praised her resume as a pastor, but told Religion News Service that the position really needs someone with a strong grasp of, and experience in, the complex field of foreign policy.
“If the Obama administration were taking this issue seriously, it would choose an expert in international religious freedom with experience in foreign affairs. It would choose a proven leader who can change things at the State Department and re-energize our flagging [religious-freedom] policy,” he said. “Perhaps Rev. Cook will surprise the skeptics and prove to be that leader. I hope so, and will certainly do everything I can to help her.”
Robert Seiple, who served as the first international-religious-freedom ambassador after the position was created by a 1998 law, said the job is a delicate one even for experts in the field.
‘‘You don’t get a lot of grace in the State Department for on-the-job training,” he said, according to RNS. “Hopefully, she will have access to the powers that be and will have a chance to learn what she doesn’t know and be supported on this issue.”
A White House spokesman said June 17 that, because she still must be confirmed to her position by the Senate, Johnson Cook was not availble for an interview.
Johnson Cook holds degrees from Emerson College, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary and United Theological Seminary. She is the owner of Charisma Speakers and has served since 1990 as a chaplain for the New York Police Department. She advised President Bill Clinton on race relations and also advised Obama when he was a senator. The New York Times has called her one of the best preachers in New York and described her as “Billy Graham and Oprah rolled into one.”
On June 15 Obama also named another prominent Baptist pastor to an independent federal panel -- created by the same law as the ambassador’s position -- that monitors religious freedom worldwide. He appointed William Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia and immediate past president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
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