President Obama’s recent announcement of his intent to nominate the Rev. Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook, or Dr. Sujay, as she is known on the “circuit,” as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, was soft news in a busy news week. But despite the lack of attention to what should be a critical diplomatic post, the nomination speaks volumes about the President’s proclivity for flash rather than substance in religious matters.
The Rev. Sujay, a motivational preacher known for hosting Wall Street Wednesdays and Wonderful Washington Worship meetings, is a member of the American Baptist Convention. Touted as a cross between “Billy Graham and Oprah Winfrey,” the Reverend is author of several books, including Live Like You’re Blessed, A New Dating Attitude, Praying for the Men in Your Life, and her most recent, Moving Up: Dr. Sujay’s Ten Steps to Turning Your Life Around and Getting to the Top.
It is from this foundation that Dr. Sujay, if confirmed by the Senate, will represent our nation and the President’s ideas about religious freedom from a decidedly upbeat Christian position. Her resumé, mentioned in the White House press release (but somehow not available anywhere online, as her own website is still “under construction”), includes being the founder of Wisdom Worldwide Center (which has no website, online presence, or apparent physical location), Chaplain to the New York Police Department, and a member of the Domestic Policy Council in the Clinton Administration. Impressive, perhaps, for the Christian speakers’ circuit, but not for diplomacy. So why would President Obama choose Cook?
Dr. Sujay’s resumé, with no discernible international policy experience, her close ties to the Clinton administration, and several ill-defined business ventures, suggest that President Obama cares little about supporting religious freedom around the world. As Mark Silk put it succinctly, “This is the Religion Ambassador?” The Washington Post is carefully tiptoeing around the question of Rev. Cook’s appointment, quoting the first Ambassador-at-Large, Thomas Farr, who called Cook an outstanding pastor, but also lamented her lack of experience.
Yet her friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, lauded her as “an experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service.” Coming from the Secretary of State, that is high praise indeed. Yet praise is not enough to turn a motivational preacher into a cogent, respected ambassador for religious freedom. President Obama’s appointment of a woman with no discernible training in diplomacy, inter-religious dialogue, or strategic international policy is disappointing. From my perspective, this appointment is an embarrassing, patronizing attempt to honor gender, black church tradition, and a reward to a political ally of the Secretary of State.
As someone who has written about the civic engagement of African-American women in my latest book, Rev. Cook’s scattered resumé lacks the distinction of other notable black women historically involved in both religious affairs and international engagement, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, civil rights leader, and founder of the National Council of Negro Women, or Sue Bailey Thurman, who was committed to inter-religious and interracial understanding (she and her husband Howard Thurman were the first African-Americans to meet with Mahatmas Gandhi). They and other black clubwomen logged many miles as members of the National Council of Negro Women, traveled the world in support of women’s rights, and were dogged supporters of education and the civil rights movement. They labored for the improvement of women’s lives through protest, dignity, and struggle, not self-help pabulum.
Dr. Sujay’s preaching resumé and leadership legacy rests on the shoulders of these women and others who were involved in black church politics and domestic policy. Bettye Collier Thomas profiled these women in her latest book Jesus, Jobs, and Justice. These women were hard-working pragmatists who realized that negotiation is work, not merely a rhetorical strategy. President Obama, who shed tears at long-time president of the National Council of Negro Women Dorothy Height’s funeral, should know better.
With all respect to Dr. Sujay, the issues of religious freedom around the world, from Muslim-Christian violence in Africa, to protests by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, to religious repression in North Korea, should not be entrusted to a person whose most recent speaking engagement included a May 2010 women’s conference called “Don’t Block My Flow.”
Perhaps this appointment is proof that Dr. Sujay’s self-help philosophy works, but let’s be honest: that is woefully inadequate preparation for the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. President Obama’s choice of pop culture religionists, rather than substantive, cogent thinkers and advocates for religion may come back to haunt him as religious tensions around the world increase, rather than decrease.
Anthea Butler is associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World (UNC Press, 2007).