USA (MNN) ― The position of the nation's top diplomat for religious freedom had remained vacant since President Barak Obama's inauguration in January 2009. Lindsay Vessey, advocacy coordinator for Open Doors USA, says last Thursday, "Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, who'd been nominated and failed to get a confirmation in the last session of Congress, was just confirmed as the Ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom."
It was the second go-around for Johnson Cook. President Barak Obama first sent a nomination to the Senate in June 2010, but South Carolina's Jim DeMint (R) put a hold on the nomination, effectively stopping the process.
"President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both made some positive statements on religious freedom, but in terms of their actual policy and actually taking action, we've seen very limited engagement," says Vessey.
The Obama administration tried again in February. This time, the nomination was backed by faith leaders and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the hearings were taken a little more seriously. Still, the confirmation took place without much fanfare. "It's something that we've been keeping track of with our supporters and constantly asking for prayer. The confirmation happens just last week, and I didn't even hear a word about it, didn't see any media on it."
Johnson Cook's job is to keep track of religious freedom at the State Department and the impact of foreign policy. She'll also be in charge of writing the annual International Religious Freedom Report. "Other duties that she would have would be basically diplomacy, reaching out to different countries where we have concerns about the state of religious freedom and trying to engage those countries and work with them to improve the state of religious freedom," says Vessey.
Vessey says the position could get tricky as Johnson Cook makes her way through foreign policy issues. "She would speak out on specific cases or legislation. Let's say someone is put in prison, and we would like to apply some quiet diplomacy, some pressure, to get that person released."
There are some concerns, but there's hope that Johnson-Cook is a fast learner. "A lot of organizations and individuals have pointed out that she seems to have not a whole lot of experience or expertise in this field, but she does seem to have a great interest," Vessey remarks.
Vessey is sympathetic to the strain this job will create. She says believers can get behind her as she begins to speak for those who have no voice. "Definitely pray for wisdom for her. This is a huge job covering religious freedom for the entire world. My hope is that she will be able to navigate the bureaucracy of the State Department, that she will be able to earn the respect of colleagues in the U.S. government, as well as the foreign governments that she's going to have to work with."
An online American Baptist Church biography indicates Johnson Cook has been a teacher, pastor, motivational speaker, and political adviser for three decades.
She was the first Black woman to be a senior pastor in the 200-year history of American Baptist Churches of the USA (elected in 1983).
Most recently, Johnson Cook served as the founding pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York--a plant of at Mariners' Temple, where she had been serving.