For some months now, folks concerned about the federal government’s engagement with freedom of religion abroad have been agitating for the White House to get around to naming the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Yesterday, it finally did so, and I’m afraid they are not going to be happy.
The nominee is Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist pastor from the Bronx known for stirring preaching and writing spiritual self-help books. (In a short profile in the New York Times in 2002, Jane Gross described her as “Billy Graham and Oprah rolled into one.”) Other than serving as a chaplain to the New York Police Department, Dr. Sujay’s (as she styles herself) only government experience was as a White House fellow attached to the domestic policy council in the Clinton White House. Her international experience is, as far as can be told, nil. (She is identified as president and founder of the Worldwide Wisdom Institute, but what that is other than a line on a resume is impossible to tell from her website or anywhere else on the Web.)
Her predecessors as Ambassador-at-Large were, in the Clinton Administration, Robert A. Seiple, who came to the job having served as president for 11 years of World Vision, Inc., the huge Christian relief and development agency. In the Bush administration, it was John V.Hanford, who had spent 14 years working on international religious issues for Sen. Richard Lugar and who also played a critical role in drafting the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which established the Ambassador-at-Large position.
The position is a tricky one. Not only does the office holder have precious little line authority but also has to deal with both the State Department’s need to balance human rights against other policy priorities and the free-wheeling U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has its own funding and staff, and no qualms about taking potshots at U.S. allies with less than stellar religious freedom records.
In short, this is not a bully pulpit. Which is the one place where Johnson Cook seems to know her way around.