March 21, 2011

Does U.S. Senate really value international religious freedom?

Next week, for the second time in less than 12 months, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Reverend Suzan Cook Johnson, popularly known as Sujay. President Obama has renominated for the post of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom ("IRF"), after her first nomination last year expired at the end of the 111th Congress. Nominations do not just "expire", like a loaf of bread -- her nomination was torpedoed through the arcane rules of the Senate, also known as inside politics.

Numerous friends of mine have served as U.S. ambassadors, including a few with no international experience but compelling professional backgrounds and -- often -- a personal connection to a sitting President of the United States, either Democrat or Republican. They have mostly served with distinction, because successful diplomacy is not limited to career diplomats. I do not believe Sujay is a personal friend of Barack Obama, so how did she get the nomination? 

Sujay has lived and worked overseas, she has organized international summits of religious leaders, and she has led an organization of 12,000 ministers. She is a gifted communicator, author, pastor, and humanitarian. On 9/11, she ministered to first-responders, victims and families at Ground Zero. 

Most importantly, Sujay "gets" religious freedom. She understands that religious freedom is not an excuse for Christian triumphalism, but an affirmation that the majority of the world's population who hold religious views also have rights including the freedom of belief, and freedom from discrimination. She understands that these are human rights, and that religious freedom can be the catalyst for millions of American Christians to get behind specific policies promoting human rights and U.S. global leadership. There is an untapped constituency for religious freedom here in America, and globally there is a swath of persecuted humanity in desperate need of diplomatic attention. 

Sujay will elevate religious freedom within an administration that -- like most administrations before it -- does not put a high priority on religious freedom. Congress adopted the International Religious Freedom Act over the objections of the Clinton Administration, just as it later adopted the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act against the resistance of the Bush administration. Over 35 years ago, Congress avoided a presidential veto of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment -- holding the Soviet bloc accountable for free emigration and religious liberty -- only because it was attached to crucial trade legislation. 

From my own hands-on experience, career diplomats and civil service professionals have been opposed to such Congressional measures even more than the political appointees were. Those schooled in classic human rights methodology can be the least attuned to the significance of religious freedom -- it's seen more as an issue of religion than of liberty, when by definition it is proof text for minority rights. I have no doubt that some in the State Department will be relieved over the coming weeks if they can prepare the annual religious freedom report without having to run it by the President's designated advisor on religious freedom.

In bipartisan fashion, over the past decade, the IRF post and that of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism have too often gone unfilled as other political priorities got in the way. To his credit, President Obama has renominated Sujay. But while such envoy positions have always relied upon Congressional initiative and passions, last year Capitol Hill generated insufficient momentum to get Sujay through. 

If individual Senators have specific concerns about Sujay's qualifications, why can they not air them publicly so she can defend them? Are they so unwilling to allow this Administration a possible connection to those millions of American Christian voters? Are they being pushed by partisan experts protective of their own influence on religious freedom? 

Whatever the reasons for any Senator to hold up this nomination, is there no Senator committed enough to religious freedom to stand up and work the Senate's levers? Perhaps America does not deserve to fill this position, now or in the future. Perhaps we are not worthy of promoting this issue. The rest of the world, however -- if you've been watching -- needs us to do so. Even if we have not earned the right, it is our obligation.

No comments:

Post a Comment