Suzan Johnson Cook defends her work on religious freedom and explains why she left

(RNS5-JUN14) Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook addresses the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on June 14, 2011. For use with RNS-COOK-UN, transmitted June 14, 2011. RNS photo courtesy U.S. Mission to Geneva.
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook participates in a Facebook chat at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on may 20, 2013.

[State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook participates in a Facebook chat at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2013.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Suzan Johnson Cook, who resigned this month as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said she left for one central reason: She wants to earn more money in the private sector so she can give her sons the gift of a “debt-free college education.”

Johnson Cook served almost 30 months, and was the first African-American, woman, and pastor to hold the job. Though many praise her, she also leaves amid criticism that she failed to stand up for some of the world’s most persecuted victims of religious oppression.

Others question how much power the ambassador for religious freedom actually wields.

In an interview, Johnson Cook said that she left to safeguard her sons’ futures. One, 18, is a freshman at Princeton University, the other, 21, a senior at Johns Hopkins University who plans to be an orthopedic surgeon.

“The reality is, for them to be able to pursue their dreams, I can’t do it on a government salary,” she said.

Dividing her time between homes in Washington and Long Island, N.Y., she said she is looking to sit on corporate boards, join the speaking circuit, consult for nongovernmental organizations and relaunch her own speaker’s bureau, Charisma Speakers.

But the Baptist preacher — who founded a church and led several others in New York, and became the first woman to lead the influential Hampton University Ministers’ Conference of black clergy — believes she’s done preaching. Publicized as “Dr. Sujay” and “America’s chaplain,” Johnson Cook ministered to the victims of 9/11 as a New York City police chaplain.

“I did 32 years, three decades, in inner city New York City,” said the Bronx native. “Never say never, but I believe that season is complete.”

(RNS) The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook opens the 89th annual Hampton University Ministers' Conference in 2003. Cook, an American Baptist minister from the Bronx, N.Y., was named by President Obama as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. RNS file photo by Mike Heffner.

(RNS) The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook opens the 89th annual Hampton University Ministers’ Conference in 2003. Cook, an American Baptist minister from the Bronx, N.Y., was named by President Obama as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. RNS file photo by Mike Heffner.

She said she would now work to protect civil rights and religious rights in a “global parish.”

Johnson Cook visited 27 countries as ambassador, and was the third person to hold the post since Congress created it in 1998 as part of the International Religious Freedom Act.

“Once you have gone to nations, and you’ve been in the diplomatic world,” said Johnson Cook, “I don’t know if you can necessarily go back.”

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer with the Hudson Institute, said Johnson Cook could have done more with the job.

The ambassador “is supposed to be an early warning signal before massacres break out, and I think she missed some of the biggest crises of our day,” said Shea, referring to the mid-August massacre of Coptic Christians in Egypt, violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and attacks on Nigerian Muslims and Christians by the militant group Boko Haram.

It is “shocking” that Johnson Cook “would be utterly silent and not speak about the largest, single persecution of the largest single religious minority in the Near East in 1,300 years,” said Shea, referring to suffering of the Copts.

Johnson Cook countered that she did act, but said her post allowed her to do so only as an adviser to the secretary of state and president. She said she met often with the Coptic Christian community, worked with other diplomats on Nigeria and supported U.S. efforts to “press the Burmese government on religious freedom.”

“As for particulars and details,” she continued, “they couldn’t be openly discussed because of security clearance issues, and it wasn’t my job to cross those lines.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised Johnson Cook’s efforts in Foggy Bottom “at a time of growing global threats to religious freedom from secular sources, political despots and religious extremists.”

“The ambassador drew on her broad religious leadership experience to help guide the State Department to engage constructively these developments, and was an indispensable factor in the State Department’s vigorous efforts to address these threats to human rights,” he said.

Singer Pat Boone (far left) and Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, chat before the start of the National Day of Prayer observance on Capitol Hill on Thursday (May 2). The Rev. Rob Schenck, Washington evangelical leader, looks on. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Singer Pat Boone (far left) and Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, chat before the start of the National Day of Prayer observance on Capitol Hill on May 2, 2013. The Rev. Rob Schenck, Washington evangelical leader, looks on. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Thomas Farr, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, said the State Department restricted Johnson Cook in several ways, including that she reported to the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, not directly to the secretary of state.

“She had very few resources she could employ to develop strategies to advance international religious freedom,” he said.

Farr called on the Obama administration to nominate someone of high stature within international and religious freedom circles to succeed Johnson Cook.

“If the administration takes its time with this nomination, or nominates someone without those qualifications, it will confirm what many already suspect: It does not view U.S. international religious freedom policy as a priority,” Farr said.

Johnson Cook expressed satisfaction with her tenure and named several programs that she led or advanced.

She co-chaired the religion and foreign policy working group of the State Department’s “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society” initiative to engage those outside diplomatic circles, where she got participants “really talking about taking religious freedom on seriously.”

Johnson Cook said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also asked her to host a meeting on the implementation of U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which calls on member states to combat religious intolerance. She said she drew on her background in ministry and law enforcement to bring U.S. and foreign security officials together.

And generally, she said, her experience as a pastor boosted her office.

“As a faith leader, no matter what your faith is, when you go across the waters, there is a common respect and you find common ground from other faith leaders,” said Johnson Cook.

That “brought a whole lot of diplomatic dialogue that perhaps hadn’t happened before.”


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • Sadly, this administration has been so negligent in standing up for religious freedom and against the persecution and killing of Christians around the world that one could fairly conclude this administration is virtually anti-Christian.

  • This makes me unbelievably sad. The money? So that one son who will be an orthopedic surgeon and the other who is matriculating at an Ivy League University won’t have any loans to pay back?

    I guess that means the rest of us who are working in religious institutions and non-profits –doing all sorts of things for the greater good but not getting paid handsomely, –are just dupes, or irresponsible parents. Yes, we’re still paying back our own loans too — though not on the salaries of orthopedic surgeons.

    I had high hopes for Cook, I’ve heard her preach. This dashes them. If she wanted to be an investment banker that’s what she should have become.

  • Paula, your response seems very unfair. Leaving Suzan Johnson Cook’s decision out of this, I can’t see how helping a child to become a person who can alleviate pain and suffering is a selfish choice. You make it sound like becoming an orthopedic surgeon is like becoming a CEO at a tobacco company. I hope you or someone you love is never on the operating table in need of an orthopedic surgeon. But if you are, I hope you thank that person’s parents, because there’s a good chance they did quite a lot to help that surgeon become the person who can help you.

  • Paula, I second Lauren Markoe’s response. I interviewed Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook when she was appointed ambassador for The Progressive Christian magazine. One of the character traits that came through clearly was her entrepreneurial spirit. She founded and ran both churches and businesses during her active pulpit ministry, and she comes from an African-American background in which education is the key to a life of service and satisfaction. Her desire for her sons to have such lives should be commended, not condemned. IMHO.

    Yes, I wish she had been able to do more with her position, but I think that’s more the fault of the institution into which she was asked to fit than to her own skills. Diplomacy is more about a soft word spoken at the right time and place than about a grand show of umbrage and/or force. It is a quite different arena from the pulpit. So I think we should wish Dr. Sujay “godspeed” and thank her for her service.

  • Read “A Note on Uberveillance” by M. D. Michael. Newport News Police and Virginia State Police had Dr. Lawrence Chang implant me w/o my knowledge and consent. It enables torture. They use it as a sensor and pulse energy projectiles at you. I had a heart attack. It enables voice to skull communication. See Safeguards in a World of Ambient Intelligence by Springer page 9. See Mental Health and Terrorism by Amin Gadit. See Bio Initiative Report 2012. See Forbes.com and search Brandon Raub. Law enforcement tases citizens into “excited delirium” (see at nij.org) to make them act in ways they normally would not. There are 3 reasons to have it implanted 1) mental health, 2) criminal record, and 3) infectious disease. All the mass shootings are the work of law enforcement. They want to take away your right to bear arms and make America a police state. They torture people into a state of what the national institute of justice calls “excited delirium.” People are suddenly going crazy, they’re being tortured.

  • The article quotes a Reform (!?) rabbi as including “secular sources” among the threats to religious freedom worldwide. Perhaps the rabbi is not aware that secularists — whom he presumably identifies with atheists, humanists, skeptics and agnostics — are themselves among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
    In seven countries, atheism (obviously if professed openly) is a capital offence as is “abandoning the faith”. In many other countries, using the Internet or any other public forum to discuss atheism and reason is a criminal offence. A recent report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union gives many details. For me, the real failing of this U.S. ambassador and her predecessors is not in her alleged low-key defence of religion but in their failure to speak up for the full range of freedoms of “religion and belief” as prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Contrast this to the strong stance against ALL persecution based on both religion and belief taken by the United Nations’ special rapporteur, Heiner Bielefeldt. And he is a Catholic theologian!

  • I think that the USA is in a difficult position to deal with islamist creating chaos in all the Middle East and killing Christians as they consider them unbeleivers of ««mohammed as prophet»USA does not want to upset the Saoudi because of the Petrol so killing some of the 20 millions in Egypt to keep peace is the price to have the flow coming in..Hope they realise their wrong doing.Coptic Christians are essential for the economy of Egypt
    they have the knowledge and the skills and are more educated and respected by many moslems.

  • He was merely distinguishing between religionist-based threats to religious freedom vs. non-religionist threats, for eg., the Chinese government, as opposed to people who hold a secular world view.

  • She was better paid than most of us, and frankly, when someone describes them self as the president’s spiritual adviser….you know they aren’t.