Role of Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy

Suzan Johnson Cook
   Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Dr. Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement
Washington, DC
January 23, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between top State Department officials and NGO leaders, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs. Today we will discuss the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Now let’s meet our guests. Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook is the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and Dr. Chris Seiple. We want to thank both of them for joining us. Dr. Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a research, education, and diplomatic institution that builds sustainable religious freedom worldwide through local partnerships. Welcome, Dr. Seiple. Thank you for joining us and for this very timely discussion.

DR. SEIPLE: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: Ambassador Johnson Cook, some of our viewers may be unfamiliar with the work of the State Department, the work that we do on religious freedom. Can you tell us about your position and the work you are doing?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is the principal advisor both to the Secretary of State and the President of the United States on issues of religious freedom. We are to promote religious freedom around the world using diplomacy, public outreach and diplomacy. We have an annual report that’s given on 199 countries now around the world about how they are dealing with religious freedom, and also there are grants to help those advance religious freedom. So I’m the principal advisor. I’m one of three who have served in this position. We serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States. It’s a political appointment. And so there was one, Ambassador Bob Seiple, and then Ambassador John Hanford, and now I’m under President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton.

It is an honor to serve. We travel the world, the globe literally. I’m from Harlem, and so I now say that I’m a Harlem globetrotter because I literally am around the world. (Laughter.) So it’s a pleasure to serve, and most of all it’s a pleasure to be able to engage with my colleagues in the nongovernmental organizations who are doing such great work. And so it’s an honor to really be with Chris Seiple.

MS. BENTON: Perfect. Chris, tell us a little bit about your organization before we kind of get started here with the conversation.

DR. SEIPLE: Sure, and thank you for having me. It is a pleasure to be working with the ambassador on the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, which I’m sure we’ll talk about shortly.

But the Institute for Global Engagement is not an international dating service – (laughter) – but it is a religious freedom organization that works transparently through local partners, as you said in your opening statement. And we try to find ways to build religious freedom in a way that’s consistent with culture, consistent with the best of faith, at the intersection of culture and the rule of law. We’re a think-and-do tank, try to think before you do, old-fashioned like that. And we publish the world’s best journal, the Review of Faith in International Affairs, because it’s the only journal. This is still an emerging topic. We publish books and then we do the religious freedom stuff overseas in East Asia but also in the Muslim-majority world.

MS. BENTON: Wow, great. Now, I understand that both of you do quite a bit of international travel to engage with religious leaders and promote religious freedom. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your most important, I guess, and memorable trips? Have you been successful in your engagement with religious leaders, Ambassador Johnson?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Very much so. I am a former faith leader, actually. I’m pastor of two congregations and also head of the largest African American clergy group in the world, the Hampton Ministers Conference. So it’s an important opening, because what we look for in diplomacy is pragmatic openings where we can find common ground to talk to leaders of all faiths and those who don’t believe. And having been a faith leader, we find that common ground; the doors open automatically because there’s a respect for everyone’s religion or faith no matter what.

I’ve had some exciting trips. Some of the most – all of them have been successful because we’ve been received and the doors have been opened. But I think one of the most memorable is my most recent trip to Morocco and to the Vatican. I was part of the Pope’s Day of Assisi, which was an interfaith day of looking at peace around the world, and there were more than 300 pilgrims, believers and nonbelievers, who dealt with religious freedom. And the Pope really emphasized both our President and our Secretary’s message that religious freedom is so important.

We are fortunate here in the United States to have it, but many places don’t have it. So what it allows us to do is really be on the pulse of new democracies that are forming and really to start conversations where perhaps there have not been any conversations about faith.

So when you think about more than 80 percent of the world believes in some form of religion and more than 700,000 a day are persecuted because of that, then faith is really an important topic to put on the table. So we’re very, very thankful that this government and the United States really puts it on the table. It’s an important aspect, and it cannot be ignored.

MS. BENTON: Great. Chris, what about you? I know you travel quite extensively, and you mentioned Asia and Muslim communities. What’s been one of the most memorable trips you’ve taken?

DR. SEIPLE: Two stories come to mind, one from each. And I think what the ambassador just said is so important. The International Religious Freedom Report gives hope to people around the world, a voice for the voiceless, that somebody out there understands that they are being persecuted for their faith. And that just – hope is a precious and tangible thing, actually, and they need to know that and see that when it’s being recorded by the U.S. Government – irrespective of administrations, by the way. This is a part of the American DNA and who we are as a people.

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

DR. SEIPLE: Two stories come to mind, though, and they really speak to how you engage people and how you’re received, because one time I was in a communist country, and they asked me about American foreign policy. And they said, “Help us understand.” And I said, “Well, we think we’re David, but we’re received as Goliath.” (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: That’s great. Yeah.

DR. SEIPLE: Well, I thought it was clever, right? Their response was, “Who’s David, and who’s Goliath?” (Laughter.) And so but it makes you think, especially in a communist context, religion has been intentionally educated out of the world view.

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

DR. SEIPLE: How do you find a way to reach them and say, you know what, religion can be a part of the solution? An example from the Middle East – we have worked in Syria, in Hama, and there is a woman there who is our partner. She established an all-women’s Islamic college in Hama, Syria, which is right at the epicenter of all the issues going on right now. And I said, “Well, how did you get started in all this? You’re a woman in a Muslim culture.” And I was engaging in some of these stereotypes we have of Islam, where there’s some truth to some of that; but on the other hand, there’s a truth of the example that I’m about to share. And she said, “Well, I took the Holy Qu’ran and I went to the mullahs in our town and I said, ‘Show me in the Holy Qu’ran where it says I can’t have an all-women’s college, where I can’t empower women and educate them.’ And they couldn’t do it.”

MS. BENTON: No answer, right?

DR. SEIPLE: No answer.


DR. SEIPLE: Which is to say some of the putdown against women is sometimes cultural and not just – it’s not in the Qu’ran. So the key point there is that the best of faith can defeat the worst of religion, and there are people in every context and every faith going back to their scriptures to say, actually, this is what it means to be equal, this is what it means to love your neighbor, those kinds of things. And that’s the point where we’re received as faith leaders from America. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what our position is.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Exactly. And I think key to all faiths is love thy neighbor as yourself, and that‘s the question that arises. I think a couple of things you said was that, first, religious freedom is part of the American DNA. And so it’s not a partisan issue. It’s a human issue. And that’s why we’re housed in the Democracy, Rights, and Labor, where it’s a human rights issue.

And so we’re seeing a lot of the emerging voices now are women and people of faith. So you can’t ignore it. And Secretary Clinton says half the population are female, so those are voices that need to be heard. But also much of the population are faith leaders, and so we have to be able to hear all these voices, which is why it’s so wonderful really working together on this Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy. It’s part of the Secretary’s strategic dialogues for government and civil society working together. Imagine a room filled with not just government leaders but – they are important to the conversation – but you have scholars and you have faith leaders and you have private sector all talking together so that the government can hear what outside of the government is dealing with.

And what’s exciting is that so many of our faith leaders and NGO leaders are passionate about religious freedom. I mean, this is their life. They’ve been doing it. And we need to hear from them and collectively now we can bring recommendations to the Secretary. So it’s a brilliant move, and we thank Secretary Clinton for engaging us and really introducing us as partners now for religious freedom.

MS. BENTON: Yeah, that’s great. There are a lot of people outside of government – nongovernmental organizations, students, professors, faith leaders often have ideas and are engaged around these issues. So I wonder – you talked a little bit about the Religious Freedom Report. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: It’s an annual report that comes out every year. It was 198 countries but now with South Sudan there’s 199 countries. And we look at – we work with the embassies and we work with the consulates to share with us what’s happening in their particular nation about religious freedom. Where there are places where it’s continuingly egregious acts against religious freedom, some of those countries are placed on what we call the Countries of Particular Concern. That’s designated by the Secretary of State at any time of year.

But the report is an important tool for us to always make sure – because we’re mandated by Congress, and so this report goes to Congress. In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act was formed and signed. President Bill Clinton was President at the time. Secretary Madeleine Albright was the Secretary of State. And so since that time, we are mandated by Congress to have this annual report, and Congress – it allows us to engage with them as well as the countries abroad. So it’s an exciting opportunity or tool to be used throughout the years and ongoing.

Would you not agree?

DR. SEIPLE: Absolutely, absolutely. It is a voice for the voiceless and it provides the documentation. Even scholars have no way of thinking about how to engage the issue, so they go to this report and they say this is our basis for our data, for thinking about this, for taking this field to another level. So it’s needed. And actually, it’s being replicated now. Canada is thinking about an office of international religious freedom. The European Union is thinking about these kinds of things. So this is a global phenomenon that people are taking seriously.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And cannot be ignored. So it’s – absolutely. And what – in addition to the written word, now we’re online in terms of the report. But we’re also using new tools. We’re trying – I have an acronym map, because you know in the government everything’s an acronym, so I had to learn a new language. (Laughter.) But media and messaging – how are we getting it out? And we’re trying to use all the social media that’s available to us, and so I have a Facebook page. We also have I’m on Twitter now. And so it allows us to technologically get the word out. We’re starting to do webchats in places that we cannot physically get to. It allows the multiplication effect to happen.

So Chris Seiple, myself, Bill Vendley, who’s one of the other co-chairs for FACA, and Joe Grieboski -- we did a webchat on – and Ambassador Diaz, who’s the ambassador to the Holy See, we did a webchat about the launch of the strategic dialogue. About 30 different consulates and embassies around the world were able to tune in, ask their questions just like this show does. So it allows the multiplication effect to happen. It allows more people to be talking about religious freedom, which then leads to countries like Canada and the European Union thinking about should we form a religious freedom component as well. And many are starting to do that. So we’re a model.

MS. BENTON: Right. I was struck by the fact that you both commented that religion was part of America’s DNA. So when you hear that other countries are starting to recognize and move in the direction that America has always been, it must be quite gratifying when you’re going around the world and that is happening. So –

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: So, I mean, and we’re not perfect. I mean, my own faith tradition born out of the black church, we suffered under religious persecution. But we’ve learned as a people how to model that and go forward in that. I mean, I come from New York City, which is the most diverse city on earth, where there are 105 different ethnic groups and maybe a hundred different religious groups. And so we have had to learn how to live together, and that begins to be a model for others. So we’re not perfect. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but we are working towards it.

MS. BENTON: Oh, absolutely.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And it’s a wonderful, wonderful model. I lived in an apartment building, a high-rise in the Bronx, New York, near Yankees Stadium, and on my floor there were 17 apartments, 11 different ethnic groups. And we grew up as citizens of the world, learning to respect one another, to be tolerant of one another. And then I was also on the front lines of 9/11, where my passion for religious freedom really was birthed as a chaplain for New York City Police Department, having to say, look, we have to live together. Because what happens after 9/11? We have to live together. And so this is a wonderful opportunity to have this conversation.

MS. BENTON: Good deal. We’re fortunate to be joined by viewers from all around the world, and some of whom have submitted questions for you via the State Department’s blog, DipNote. So why don’t we take a few of those questions now.

Chelsea in Georgia writes: How does a lack of freedom halfway around the world impact us here in the United States?

Chris, I want to have you go ahead and field that question first.

DR. SEIPLE: Sure. Well, to see if I remember it right, but Dr. Martin Luther King said if one’s not free, none of us are free.

MS. BENTON: That is right. Yes.

DR. SEIPLE: It’s that simple. And the other – so that’s the right thing to do, right, to think about it, whether it’s theologically based or secular humanism, there’s a motivation to understand that about what you’re for. On the other hand, we’re all minorities someplace.

MS. BENTON: Right. Exactly right.

DR. SEIPLE: And so how we treat a minority in our cultural context, where I happen to be a majority, Christian or as a white American, it might be a different place – context someplace else. And so it’s in our self-interest, is what I’m getting at, for us to treat each other with respect. It’s what we should do, according to the best of our faith, but it’s also in our self-interest. And then you tie in the element of 9/11, which is this is a security issue. Religious freedom – and religious freedom is not about tolerance. Tolerance isn’t good enough. We have to have mutual respect.

MS. BENTON: Respect. Yes.

DR. SEIPLE: Mutual respect is preemptive peace.

MS. BENTON: Right, right.

DR. SEIPLE: And if there’s a space where people can respect each other, then we’re less likely to have extremists and terrorists. And that’s the key to the future. That’s the key to the 21st century.

MS. BENTON: Right.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And we’ve found where religious freedom is operative that their countries are more stable, communities are more stable. And where there’s the absence of it, there’s chaos and there’s the lack of peace. And so it affects us around the world. It’s really what we call the domino effect; one affects one. Martin Luther King also said darkness can’t drive out darkness, but only light can do that. So hopefully, we’re trying to bring light to places where it’s been very dark. Yes.

MS. BENTON: I’m struck by the mutual respect piece. I know we have a representative who is out there fighting against anti-Semitism, and that’s special representative always talks about the mutual respect aspect. So I think it crosses all barriers, what we’re trying to do with the important issues of the day.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Very much so. I mean, we’re from different places –

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

AMBASSDOR JOHNSON COOK: -- and even in America we’re from different places. But we find respect for one another and we find common ground and we say, “How do we go forward together?” And I think that’s really what we’re modeling around the world: How do we go forward together creating peace?

MS. BENTON: Exactly, exactly. Well, we have another question I’d like to get to. Audrey (ph) in Washington, D.C., writes: Religious freedom is obviously something which the U.S. Government cares about a lot, but why does it matter? I mean, I think you’ve already talked a lot about that, but that’s interesting that that question still is on the minds of young people, because they’ve grown up in a different kind of era, so it does matter.

DR. SEIPLE: Well, in some ways, it’s an indication of how far we’ve come. So if you’re asking that question, then you perhaps – I don’t want to ascribe anything to her, but for – maybe she’s never had any of these experiences.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

DR. SEIPLE: But if you go back to our founding, I mean, it was – in Massachusetts, it was Anglicans against what became Baptists with Roger Williams going to Rhode Island to establish Rhode Island as a place where Quakers and Jews could practice faith, and not just in an Anglican ecclesiastical way set up by the order there, and John Winthrop. So – or take Virginia, which – I’m a Virginian. It was Baptists and Anglicans, now Episcopalians, fighting each other, and that’s what led to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison working on religious freedom for Virginia.

So it’s a part of who we are, but we kind of forget it sometimes because – not that life is easy, but we’re not – we don’t suffer that kind of assault of any kind – psychological, emotional, spiritual, or physical. Seventy percent of the world has their faith restricted in how they practice faith.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And we’re very fortunate in the United States because it’s written into our Constitution to have freedom of expression, and so it’s the right for people to believe or not to believe. That’s what religious freedom is. And so we’re very fortunate to have that written and engraved in our society. But also, perhaps we’ve been practicing it all along. I think the phraseology of religious freedom has just come to the forefront since there were so many incidents in the last few years – 9/11 one, and then the burning of the Qu’ran in Florida. I think that the phrase “religious freedom” kind of came to the forefront, but we’ve been practicing it as a nation as long as we’ve been in existence. And so it’s very important.

And particularly for the new generation, because they’re growing up as citizens of the world. They’re growing up in dormitories beside every ethnic group. They’re in classes with every ethnic group. And so we can’t live separately. We have to really live respecting one another and tolerant of one another’s right to believe or not to believe.

MS. BENTON: Right, right. Good. We have a question from S.B. in North Carolina, who actually has two questions. He writes: In what capacity do you recommend faith communities to get involved in foreign policy? So let’s go with that one first.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Okay. Well, S.B., this is S.J. (Laughter.) Faith communities are an important voice to be heard, and that’s why this strategic dialogue with civil society is so important because faith communities are leaders in our communities. Most people listen to their imam, their rabbi, their pastor, their priest, because it’s not just religion; it’s a relationship. And so we’re talking about faith communities being an integral part of that alongside scholars and academicians, alongside government, alongside private sector. All voices need to be collectively be heard because we’re collectively living together.

But the faith community is an important voice that sometimes had not been heard as loudly, but I think this Administration and – is really making sure that it’s at the forefront. And I think it’s no accident you have a faith leader who is in this role. I don’t think it’s any accident that many of the places that we go to, faith is, like, at the top of their list. They’re like, “We’ve been waiting for you to come. Thank you for at least lifting faith instead of sweeping it under the rug.” It’s a real viable issue that has – religion was around before governments were around. And so how do we now use that as part of the conversation for peace?

DR. SEIPLE: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great point, especially Christianity and Islam. We invented globalization. The church was the original international NGO. And so the point of faith – good faith – is that you’re serving your local community. And you cannot serve your local community and not engage somebody unlike yourself, so that’s the starting point. And then you need to, more broadly, steward your citizenship. If you’re an American faith community, you have to take care of those in your own neighborhood.

But we have a responsibility. For better or for worse, we are the world’s greatest power. And whatever your views are on declinism or this, that, or the other, there’s a lot of people who look to us as a beacon of hope and read this report and they want to know how they can be engaged. And so not just Baptists looking after Baptists or Hindus looking after Hindus, but in this multiethnic, multi-religious fashion where we respect differences. And I think that’s the key.

It’s not an interfaith era. Without being too glib, interfaith is kind of touchy-feely, let’s cooperate and graduate, all roads lead to heaven. Okay. That’s okay. I’m not against it. But multi-faith is saying there are very deep differences – irreconcilable, theological differences about how we worship something greater than ourselves. Let’s acknowledge that – I’m not going to call you a bigot because you believe there’s only one way to heaven, or multiple ways – and then come together around our common values. And this is what we’re seeing in our communities here.

Just as one example, Northwood Church in Fort Worth, Texas, a friend of mine, Bob Roberts, he has the rabbi and the imam from that area, Keller, Texas, and they get together and they worship their own god in their own way in each of the sacred sanctuaries. But more important – not more importantly, but as a function of that, then they serve together – sweat equity serving their fellow Americans as Muslims, Jews, and Christians. That’s the way it’s got to go.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Yeah. Similar to that, in New York City, prior to coming to government was the Partnership of Faith of New York City, which actually was birthed right after 9/11. Again, the imams, pastors, rabbis working together, worshipping together, exchanging pulpits, and also socially having families come together so that we can understand each other’s culture before Sunday or Saturday morning or Friday night, what is it that makes you tick. And as we’re going forward into these new cultures around the globe, we have to understand what makes you tick. And faith is a big part of that.

So we have a course now that’s offered at the Foreign Service Institute. It’s four modules now. But as Foreign Service officers are going to be going abroad, some – you have to understand not just the government, not just the entrepreneurial side of it, but what is the culture? And sometimes, that culture includes their faith community. And they may call it sectarian, but it’s definitely inculcated, ingrained in that society. So you have to understand what – why do they have Friday off? Why do they stop five times a day to pray? And so you don’t schedule a meeting in their prayer time.

All of that is very important. When I travel abroad, sometimes they’ll tell me, “Friday, we’re not going to host you because in this country, that’s a sacred day.” And Sunday is our sacred day. So understanding what makes a culture tick is very important to the respect level of that culture.

MS. BENTON: So I want to get S.B.’s second question: Some faith communities are overwhelmed with issues in their local communities. How would you encourage the leaders of these faith communities to still engage their participants in international matters?

DR. SEIPLE: Well, again, we don’t know his context. But I would say if you’re overwhelmed, all the more reason to engage, all the more reason to share the burden. I mean, that’s the one thing we know about this era, is that we don’t have the money to pay for it. So that means we’re going to have to be more creative and we’re going to have more partnerships to solve complex challenges that no single state or non-state government or non-government can solve themselves.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And we also have faith leader roundtables so that the leadership of different faith communities – and we’ve had, across the board, almost every faith and nonbelievers – we have agnostics and atheists as well – at the table so that they can share with us what the concerns are that the government needs to hear, and that perhaps we can partner together and help them. That’s where our grants program comes in. But it’s important that – part of my task is not just letting you know what I do, but it’s also informing them as to what religious freedom is and how they can participate. And part of participating is “Let us hear from you.”

President Obama said early in his Administration we have to listen to and learn from one another, and so listening to is part of the job. And we have the faith leader roundtables to do that.

MS. BENTON: That’s excellent. Todd Tee (ph) in Alaska writes: I see that President Obama declared January 16th as Religious Freedom Day. How is that different than any other day? Shouldn’t we be able to have the free exercise to practice and express our faith any day of the year?

DR. SEIPLE: Well, 16 January 1786 is when the Religious Freedom Statute was passed by the Virginia General Assembly by a guy by the name of Thomas Jefferson. And Jefferson was in a fight with Patrick Henry, the guy who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” We’re all fans. But Patrick Henry wanted to pay Anglican priests through the state, and Anglicans and Baptists didn’t get along, and there were sometimes fights and all these kinds of things, and it was – as a function of that, they passed this Religious Freedom Statute. That’s why January 16th is that day.

Now it also speaks to how do you think about religious freedom. Jefferson called it the first freedom. I believe – it’s basically, I believe; therefore, I am. I believe in a greater being who gives me the right to think and to choose freely – freedom of conscience or belief.

Now, if you’re a secular humanist or something like that, you can say, hey, I think; therefore I am, and God is a function of my own thinking. I don’t care where you’re coming from, but the point is that you’re thinking about it and believing it, and then through that, all the other freedoms take place – freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. Now, some other people would say, hey, if you have freedom of speech or assembly, religious freedom is a result of that. I don’t think that way. I think religious freedom is the first freedom, because it’s foundational to a society being civil according to the best of its multiple faith traditions, and that’s why that day is so important, and that’s why that day was chosen, because it came out of the Virginia experience.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And see, S.J. gave that question to C.S., because I knew he would understand – he knew the dates.

MS. BENTON: He has that one. That’s good. That’s good.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: While I’m learning acronyms, he knows the dates that – (laughter) – these things happen. So thank you, C.S.

MS. BENTON: Chris, Chuck in Louisiana writes: Why does it seem that China’s shortcomings in religious freedom is being ignored by the Department of State? I’m actually going to ask Ambassador Cook if she’ll respond to that.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Thank you. No country is ignored, and that’s why 199 countries are reported on. No country is ignored. In fact, China was designated a country of particular concern. I plan to visit China in a few weeks, and so it’s part of the conversation. It’s – religious freedom is one part of the conversation with China. Certainly there are many that the Administration is involved in. There’s the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that happens there as well. I will be going specifically to deal with religious freedom issues. I sit with ambassadors and members of the government and designees here that are in the states, and we also will have a faith leader roundtable with Chinese officials that are here. And then when I go there again, it’s about building relationships. So no country is being ignored. In fact, the government is very, very important to target and make sure that we have conversations with all that have pragmatic openings. And so we hope the opening is there. I plan to visit.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

DR. SEIPLE: Well, it also speaks to broader issues. How do you institutionalize in the track one, government-to-government relations? How do you institutionalize a human rights dialogue and then allow for, what they call track two, people-to-people to have inputs. So which track – government and grassroots, track one and track two, how do they come together in a track 1.5 fashion? That’s the question that we’re all thinking about in terms of diplomacy. So for example, in Vietnam, the U.S. has a bilateral relationship with Vietnam and talks about human rights in that dialogue, and the U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government invited our organization to participate in the human rights dialogue. That’s a structure to talk about these things and allow religious communities and NGOs to speak into this in a way that will be more sustainable. Because governments can talk, but if people aren’t involved –

MS. BENTON: Can you tell us what exactly is the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group? What’s the structure, and how does it fit into the historic context?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: It would be my delight to share with you. It’s part of the Secretary’s vision for civil society working with government. The Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy is co-chaired by Under Secretary Maria Otero; Joshua DuBois, who is the director of the White House’s faith-based initiatives; and myself. Under our Working Group for Foreign Policy and Religion, there are three subgroups. Chris Seiple and I chair – co-chair together the religious freedom subgroup. He’ll share with you kind of the context of this historical importance, but it’s an exciting time for civil society sitting together with government, top down, bottom up, being able to talk to one another. Imagine scholars and faith leaders and NGO – nongovernmental organization leaders sitting together with government officials and talking about religious freedom. That’s the excitement of the vision.

DR. SEIPLE: I’ll say the same thing in a different way. In February of last year, I believe, Secretary Clinton had this vision of including civil society in a strategic dialogue to have a better foreign policy, a foreign policy more relevant. So she created – by law, for her recommendations from civil society, people not in government, she had to have – there’s a Federal Advisory Committee Act, call the FACA. We always have an acronym in Washington, as the ambassador knows.

So the Federal Advisory Committee has five working groups – Empowering Women, Labor, Human Rights and Democracy, Religion and Foreign Policy, and Governance. There are government and civil society co-chairs to each of those working groups. The five co-chairs of the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group are myself, Dr. Bill Vendley with Religions for Peace out of New York – those are the civil society co-chairs, and the three government co-chairs are Josh DuBois from the Office of White House Neighborhood Partnerships, Under Secretary Otero, and Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook.

Within our working group, there are three subgroups – Religion, Stability, and Democracy; Religion and Conflict Prevention and Mitigation; and Religion and Development. So that’s the structure, and so that’s how we convene the scholars and the academic – and the practitioners to all be at the same table, all faiths, all backgrounds from America and around the world to gather their input and then form that as recommendations that will go from the subgroup to the Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy to the Federal Advisory Committee, where we sit with the co-chairs from the other four working groups. And then it goes to Secretary Clinton for an up or down vote on the recommendations.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And it’s a year-long project. We launched October 18th formally. We had a webchat with consulates and embassies around the world. And then next year – now in this year at the end of the year, we will present those recommendations in that order to the FACA and then to the Secretary to vote up and down. So it’s exciting for us to sit at the table together. So it’s wonderful. It’s a really great vision.

MS. BENTON: Right. I think it’s wonderful when you were talking about all of our issues in foreign policy, we’re talking about working around a set of shared values and what the goal is, and so it’s nice to know that the whole piece around religious freedom is based on that as well.


MS. BENTON: So this has been a good conversation.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: It has. Lively. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: Yes, lively. And I am sad that it’s over, but Suzan, could you share some final thoughts with us, and then I’d like to ask Chris to just do that, too. Just –

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Thank you. Well, it’s a privilege and an honor, number one, to have been appointed by the President and Secretary Clinton to serve in this historic wonderful role. It is important. I’m passionate about religious freedom based on my own history, but also those who are around me who I’ve served for these 32 years. It is a priority of this Administration. I am the voice – the poster child, if you will, for religious freedom to go all into the world to really have openings, pro-democratic societies, places where they will listen and hear, and places that will allow me to listen to them. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to be at this point in history to really put this on the map – messaging, media, accessibility, advocacy, policy, presence. I’m present to be at the table.

MS. BENTON: Wow. That’s excellent.


DR. SEIPLE: Yeah. Sign me up. (Laughter.) Well, it’s like the ambassador alluded to earlier. This conversation is demonstrative of what we’re talking about. We happen to be of the same faith and even Baptists, but we’re coming from different sides of the political aisle, and we’re here because this is not bipartisan, but nonpartisan. It’s DNA and who we are as Americans. And what does that really mean? Tolerance is not enough. Mutual respect. Don’t be defined by what you’re against; be defined by what you’re for. Go out there and listen so you can demonstrate that you understand your own holy text. If God said in my tradition – Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” well, what does that really mean? Are you going to only love people who look and vote like you, or are you going to love people who don’t look and vote like you.

It’s got to start at home. That gets back to that earlier question from SB. If it doesn’t start here, don’t you dare go abroad. Don’t you dare go abroad and take your ideas there. So think about those things, and as you do, walk in other people’s shoes. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Sometimes people think this dialogue stuff is all touchy feely. No. Walk in their shoes so you can understand where they’re coming from so you can relate to them, and it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice one bit of your identity or your theology. But as a function of your theology and your identity, love them and do things together for the common good. And any government’s going to be excited to that and being able to tap into that power.

MS. BENTON: Very much. Perfect. Well, thank you so much, both of you, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Dr. Chris Seiple, for just sharing your work and knowledge of this issue with us. And I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. Please note the video and transcript are available on We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about this Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. Thank you and we look forward to engaging with you again very soon.