More quiet religious-liberty news

In case you have not heard, the U.S. State Department has a new ambassador at-large for international religious liberty. She is the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and, during her decades of ministry as a Baptist pastor and chaplain, she has had a solid history of activism on a number of interesting public issues.

To say the press coverage of this development has been minimal is a bit of an understatement. The post has been open for quite some time, leading to behind-the-scenes debates about whether the Obama White House was anxious to fill it.

The CNN report is the one most people will see — unless the Associated Press has done something and I missed it — and it is essentially a short story based on a press release. Note the lack of any interview material from Cook herself and the emphasis on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Read this paragraph carefully:

The office seeks to shine a light on everything from authoritarian regimes that impede freedom of worship for their citizens to violent extremists who work to exploit sectarian tensions.

“The Obama administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely,” Clinton said before administering the oath to Cook at a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department.

Human-rights activists, reading that, would note that there is much more to religious liberty than the “freedom of worship” and that, around the world, “sectarian tensions” would more accurately be described as the persecution of religious minorities by oppressive majorities. This wording is something like saying that the Civil Rights Movement in the American South was the result of “racial tensions” and that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a “sectarian leader.”

Clinton’s stronger reference to believers being able to “practice their beliefs freely and safely” echoes the kind of language that was used consistently in the Clinton administration, as will as in the White House under President George W. Bush. Cook, in fact, has close ties to the Clinton administration.

However, if you want to hear more from Cook, you will need to read the longer and more detailed report from CBN — the Christian Broadcast Network that is part of the media world of the Rev. Pat Robertson. This is another clue to the wider reality, which is that global religious liberty issues are now — alas — considered “conservative news.”

In this longer report, we read what appears to be actual coverage of the news event in question:

“We have a passionate, visionary and experienced defender of religious freedom. And we have a big stack of issues just waiting for her,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Clinton met Cook, a Baptist preacher from the Bronx, when she served as a domestic advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

Cook has been described as “the Harriet Tubman for women in ministry.” She helped break down barriers as the first female chaplain for the New York Police Department and the first black woman to be elected senior pastor of the American Baptist Churches of the USA. …

However, her role as ambassador may prove to be her biggest challenge “because around the world, religious freedom is under threat both by quiet intolerance and violent attack,” Clinton said.

This longer report also includes some detailed comments from Cook, either from an interview or remarks in the ceremony. In other words, it seems likely that Cook was available for those who wanted to talk with her:

“Dr. Sue J.,” as her parishioners know her, remains undaunted, saying she’s prepared to step onto a volatile world stage as Christians and people of other faiths face growing persecution.

“For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain,” she said. …

“Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society,” Cook said. “In this season of the Arab Spring, we must encourage the highly religious countries of the Middle East and North Africa to guarantee full equality under the law for all religious actors.”

“Full equality under the law” is the key phrase.

One more comment on this story, due to reader interest via email. For those who are curious, many Baptist congregations have been ordaining women for decades, especially in northern churches and in African-American congregations.

However, among Protestants, some of the earliest women to be ordained were in highly conservative Pentecostal flocks. Among Southern Baptists, the ordination of women occurs most often among the so-called “moderate” congregations whose approach to faith and worship more close resembles the American Baptists, the denomination in which Cook was ordained.

How much freedom will Cook be given to do her work, especially in the tense conflicts along the “Ring of Fire” from Nigeria to Indonesia? That is a story that the mainstream press should watch carefully. But don’t hold your breath.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Diane

    Thanks for sharing! Due to the lack of coverage, I never would’ve known about this appointment without GetReligion.

    In the South, Cooperative Baptists also ordain women — that was the reason they separated from (or were kicked out of, depending on the interpretation) the Southern Baptist Convention.

    SBC churches with women pastors can be excluded from their local associations/conventions. This is currently a big issue in the Georgia Baptist Convention:

  • Stan

    Hats off to Hillary. Good on the State Dept to have Rev. Cook serve as our ambassador for religious rights and subtly women’ rights, too. Good thing we have a foreign policy that tries to share and extend the legalization elsewhere of religious freedoms, as well as our values of democracy, liberty and justice, and religious liberties come as part of the package deal with all liberties.

    “Full equality under the law” is pretty narrow some places, even here, and yet we can’t dictate how others govern themselves, including religious liberties. We can be a beacon of enlightenment and equality.

  • Julia

    Good on the State Dept to have Rev. Cook serve as our ambassador for religious rights and subtly women’ rights, too.

    Is she going to be pressuring the Pope to ordain women?

  • Julia

    And the Orthodox and the Copts and the Shintos in Japan?

  • Jerry

    More and more I appreciate such quiet news stories because so much of life goes on quietly. And big pictures are usually made up of small building-blocks.

  • tioedong

    Maybe she can visit the one million Christians in Saudi who are forbidden to have a bible or have a church to attend…

  • J

    You vaguely suggest that perhaps the Obama administration didn’t want to fill the post. Au contrare, as this New York Times article describes. It was election politics and a procedural hold in the Senate by Jim Demint that held up the appointment: she was appointed in June 2010 (, but not confirmed until recently!

    Religion News Service had coverage of the swearing in, which was picked up by Huffington Post.

  • Jerry

    J raises a great point. Stories like this also need to highlight the ability of a single Senator to in effect veto a President’s selection rather than allowing an “up or down vote” that used to be the cry of those who now oppose allowing votes to be taken. Demint’s refusal to allow an up or down vote was documented on that web site.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt–Good eye: Religious freedom isn’t just about “freedom to worship.” Later in the story I saw this weak, religion eviscerating phrase again.
    For those who remember the history of atheistic Communism in the Soviet Union the phrase “freedom to worship”– instead of “freedom of religion”– was a red flag defending restriction of religion to worship services inside the walls of religious edifices. And the religious services had to meet government standards.
    But, for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union used to brag about its “freedom to worship.” Is this where we now are???

  • tmatt


    In the gov’t or in journalism?

    Please ask that as a journalism question.

  • Mike O.

    “And we have a big stack of issues waiting for her.”

    I would be curious what some of those issues are and which ones have priority. I don’t necessarily fault the author of that article for not getting that info from Ms. Clinton, but I hope that if and when Rev. Cook sits down for an interview that this gets probed further.

    In fact, if there is an interview with the new ambassador I’d be curious if these questions get asked and answered:

    1) Specifically, what do you hope to accomplish in your new position?

    2) As an ambassador from the United States acting on a global stage, what do you reasonably believe the effect of your office can be? Are you hoping to shed light on issue, or do you think you can work with the parties involved in these issues to generate solutions?

    3) Are there any international religious issues that you feel are out-of-bounds for your office?