Let’s make the religion ambassador work

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The resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom will allow the Obama Administration to take another step towards getting its religious act together. As indicated by RNS’ Lauren Markoe, who broke the story, Cook’s only discernible qualification for the job was founding an organization for female faith leaders from around the world. What she had was the right political connections.

The ambassadorship exists because of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which came about as the result of a misguided effort on the part of House Republicans to embarrass the Clinton Administration. Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that Cook’s two predecessors were also political appointees: Robert Seiple, former president of the evangelical aid organization World Vision; and John Hanford, a longtime aide to Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Neither were able to make much of an impact.

From Syria, where Christians are facing the consequences of their longstanding dependence on the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, to Myanmar, where Muslims are under attack by Buddhists long fearful of the influence of Islam on their society, religious liberty is implicated in some of the trickiest issues in the world today. There’s evidence that Secretary Kerry understands this, and wants to do something about it. He should secure as Cook’s successor someone with actual ambassadorial experience — a senior diplomat who knows what it is to deal not only with foreign governments but also with the the State Department’s ways and means.

  • David

    In fact the irfa was a bipartisan effort with near unanimous support on both sides and was the product of many years effort that predated the Clinton era.

    Furthermore, your comments on the qualifications of Mr Hanford and Mr Seiple and the impact of their tenure betrays your complete lack of research on the subject.

    Please become informed before feeling like you’re entitled to an opinion, particularly one that portrays good public servants in a negative light. There are plenty of incompetent politicians to choose from for your rants. These men are not among them.

  • If you want to know something about the politics behind IRFA, David, you might take a look at this edited transcript of a conference our center held shortly after passage (http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/Religious%20Persecution/relperse.pdf). On pp. 8-9 you’ll find Hanford’s own polite account of how the legislation came about. (His less polite account was off the record.) It is no disrespect to him or to Seiple to suggest that it is time for a State Department insider to be named religious liberty ambassador.

  • David

    That link doesn’t work for me though I’d be interested to read the article.

    On that note it’s interesting that you bring that conference up since you of all people should know better, having hosted it.

    And again, your inferring that Mr Hanford is capable of anything less than polite betrays the fact that you’re stretching things maybe just a tad.

    It sounds like you’re falling into the trap of thinking that to get any kind of recognition online is as simple as sounding informed and dragging others through the mud.

    No doubt you are well aware of how the irfa came to be, which is why it’s sad to read such a negative review on your blog on one of its key authors.

    I’m not trying to argue that fresh blood is a good thing in this case, particularly given how the state department had diluted the powers of this position to suit its own political whims.

    However, let’s not put the blame for that on the shoulders of men who performed very well in their role given their circumstances or even played a key part in bringing this issue to politics in the first place.


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