Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Largefor International Religious Freedom
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Dr.Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for GlobalEngagement
MS.BENTON: Hello and welcome to the U.S. Department of State.This is Conversations with America, a discussion between topState Department officials and NGO leaders, where you canwatch 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. foreignpolicy. We’ve received questions and comments on today’stopic from around the world through our blog, DipNote, andhave selected several for this broadcast.
Now let’smeet our guests. Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook is theAmbassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, andDr. Chris Seiple. We want to thank both of them for joiningus. Dr. Seiple is president of the Institute for GlobalEngagement, a research, education, and diplomaticinstitution that builds sustainable religious freedomworldwide through local partnerships. Welcome, Dr. Seiple.Thank you for joining us and for this very timelydiscussion.
DR. SEIPLE: Thank you.
MS. BENTON:Ambassador Johnson Cook, some of our viewers may beunfamiliar with the work of the State Department, the workthat we do on religious freedom. Can you tell us about yourposition and the work you are doing?
AMBASSADOR JOHNSONCOOK: Well, the Ambassador-at-Large for InternationalReligious Freedom is the principal advisor both to theSecretary of State and the President of the United States onissues of religious freedom. We are to promote religiousfreedom around the world using diplomacy, public outreachand diplomacy. We have an annual report that’s given on199 countries now around the world about how they aredealing with religious freedom, and also there are grants tohelp those advance religious freedom. So I’m the principaladvisor. I’m one of three who have served in thisposition. We serve at the pleasure of the President of theUnited States. It’s a political appointment. And so therewas one, Ambassador Bob Seiple, and then Ambassador JohnHanford, and now I’m under President Barack Obama andSecretary Hillary Clinton.
It is an honor to serve. Wetravel the world, the globe literally. I’m from Harlem,and so I now say that I’m a Harlem globetrotter because Iliterally am around the world. (Laughter.) So it’s apleasure to serve, and most of all it’s a pleasure to beable to engage with my colleagues in the nongovernmentalorganizations who are doing such great work. And so it’san honor to really be with Chris Seiple
MS. BENTON:Perfect. Chris, tell us a little bit about your organizationbefore we kind of get started here with theconversation.
DR. SEIPLE: Sure, and thank you for havingme. It is a pleasure to be working with the ambassador onthe Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, which I’msure we’ll talk about shortly.
But the Institute forGlobal Engagement is not an international dating service –(laughter) – but it is a religious freedom organizationthat works transparently through local partners, as you saidin your opening statement. And we try to find ways to buildreligious freedom in a way that’s consistent with culture,consistent with the best of faith, at the intersection ofculture and the rule of law. We’re a think-and-do tank,try to think before you do, old-fashioned like that. And wepublish the world’s best journal, the Review ofFaith in International Affairs, because it’s the onlyjournal. This is still an emerging topic. We publish booksand then we do the religious freedom stuff overseas in EastAsia but also in the Muslim-majority world.
MS. BENTON:Wow, great. Now, I understand that both of you do quite abit of international travel to engage with religious leadersand promote religious freedom. Can you tell me a little bitabout some of your most important, I guess, and memorabletrips? Have you been successful in your engagement withreligious leaders, Ambassador Johnson?
AMBASSADOR JOHNSONCOOK: Very much so. I am a former faith leader, actually.I’m pastor of two congregations and also head of thelargest African American clergy group in the world, theHampton Ministers Conference. So it’s an importantopening, because what we look for in diplomacy is pragmaticopenings where we can find common ground to talk to leadersof all faiths and those who don’t believe. And having beena faith leader, we find that common ground; the doors openautomatically because there’s a respect for everyone’sreligion or faith no matter what.
I’ve had some excitingtrips. Some of the most – all of them have been successfulbecause we’ve been received and the doors have beenopened. But I think one of the most memorable is my mostrecent trip to Morocco and to the Vatican. I was part of thePope’s Day of Assisi, which was an interfaith day oflooking at peace around the world, and there were more than300 pilgrims, believers and nonbelievers, who dealt withreligious freedom. And the Pope really emphasized both ourPresident and our Secretary’s message that religiousfreedom is so important.
We are fortunate here in theUnited 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 newdemocracies that are forming and really to startconversations where perhaps there have not been anyconversations about faith.
So when you think about morethan 80 percent of the world believes in some form ofreligion and more than 700,000 a day are persecuted becauseof that, then faith is really an important topic to put onthe table. So we’re very, very thankful that thisgovernment and the United States really puts it on thetable. It’s an important aspect, and it cannot beignored.
MS. BENTON: Great. Chris, what about you? I knowyou travel quite extensively, and you mentioned Asia andMuslim communities. What’s been one of the most memorabletrips you’ve taken?
DR. SEIPLE: Two stories come tomind, one from each. And I think what the ambassador justsaid is so important. The International Religious FreedomReport gives hope to people around the world, a voice forthe voiceless, that somebody out there understands that theyare being persecuted for their faith. And that just – hopeis a precious and tangible thing, actually, and they need toknow that and see that when it’s being recorded by theU.S. Government – irrespective of administrations, by theway. This is a part of the American DNA and who we are as apeople.
MS. BENTON: Exactly.
DR. SEIPLE: Two storiescome to mind, though, and they really speak to how youengage people and how you’re received, because one time Iwas in a communist country, and they asked me about Americanforeign policy. And they said, “Help us understand.” AndI said, “Well, we think we’re David, but we’rereceived as Goliath.” (Laughter.)
MS. BENTON: That’sgreat. Yeah.
DR. SEIPLE: Well, I thought it was clever,right? Their response was, “Who’s David, and who’sGoliath?” (Laughter.) And so but it makes you think,especially in a communist context, religion has beenintentionally educated out of the world view.
DR. SEIPLE: How do you find a way to reach themand say, you know what, religion can be a part of thesolution? An example from the Middle East – we have workedin Syria, in Hama, and there is a woman there who is ourpartner. She established an all-women’s Islamic college inHama, Syria, which is right at the epicenter of all theissues going on right now. And I said, “Well, how did youget started in all this? You’re a woman in a Muslimculture.” And I was engaging in some of these stereotypeswe have of Islam, where there’s some truth to some ofthat; but on the other hand, there’s a truth of theexample that I’m about to share. And she said, “Well, Itook the Holy Qu’ran and I went to the mullahs in our townand I said, ‘Show me in the Holy Qu’ran where it says Ican’t have an all-women’s college, where I can’tempower women and educate them.’ And they couldn’t doit.”
MS. BENTON: No answer, right?
DR. SEIPLE: Noanswer.
MS. BENTON: Yeah.
DR. SEIPLE: Which is to saysome of the putdown against women is sometimes cultural andnot just – it’s not in the Qu’ran. So the key pointthere is that the best of faith can defeat the worst ofreligion, and there are people in every context and everyfaith going back to their scriptures to say, actually, thisis what it means to be equal, this is what it means to loveyour neighbor, those kinds of things And that’s the pointwhere we’re received as faith leaders from America.Sometimes it doesn’t matter what our positionis.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Exactly. And I think key toall faiths is love thy neighbor as yourself, and that‘sthe question that arises. I think a couple of things yousaid was that, first, religious freedom is part of theAmerican DNA. And so it’s not a partisan issue. It’s ahuman issue. And that’s why we’re housed in theDemocracy, Rights, and Labor, where it’s a human rightsissue.
But the other pieces that we saw exactly what youwere speaking about with women and leadership in Morocco.And actually, part of – the King actually appointed womento be leaders both in the faith community but also ingovernment. And so we’re seeing a lot of the emergingvoices now are women and people of faith. So you can’tignore it. And Secretary Clinton says half the populationare female, so those are voices that need to be heard. Butalso much of the population are faith leaders, and so wehave to be able to hear all these voices, which is whyit’s so wonderful really working together on this WorkingGroup on Religion and Foreign Policy. It’s part of theSecretary’s strategic dialogues for government and civilsociety working together. Imagine a room filled with notjust government leaders but – they are important to theconversation – but you have scholars and you have faithleaders and you have private sector all talking together sothat the government can hear what outside of the governmentis dealing with.
And what’s exciting is that so many ofour faith leaders and NGO leaders are passionate aboutreligious freedom. I mean, this is their life. They’vebeen doing it. And we need to hear from them andcollectively now we can bring recommendations to theSecretary. So it’s a brilliant move, and we thankSecretary Clinton for engaging us and really introducing usas partners now for religious freedom.
MS. BENTON: Yeah,that’s great. There are a lot of people outside ofgovernment – nongovernmental organizations, students,professors, faith leaders often have ideas and are engagedaround these issues. So I wonder – you talked a little bitabout the Religious Freedom Report. Can you tell us a littlebit about that?
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: It’s an annualreport that comes out every year. It was 198 countries butnow with South Sudan there’s 199 countries. And we look at– we work with the embassies and we work with theconsulates to share with us what’s happening in theirparticular nation about religious freedom. Where there areplaces where it’s continuingly egregious acts againstreligious freedom, some of those countries are placed onwhat we call the Countries of Particular Concern. That’sdesignated by the Secretary of State at any time ofyear.
But the report is an important tool for us to alwaysmake sure – because we’re mandated by Congress, and sothis report goes to Congress. In 1998, the InternationalReligious Freedom Act was formed and signed. President BillClinton was President at the time. Secretary MadeleineAlbright was the Secretary of State. And so since that time,we are mandated by Congress to have this annual report, andCongress – it allows us to engage with them as well as thecountries abroad. So it’s an exciting opportunity or toolto be used throughout the years and ongoing.
Would you notagree?
DR. SEIPLE: Absolutely, absolutely. It is a voicefor the voiceless and it provides the documentation. Evenscholars have no way of thinking about how to engage theissue, so they go to this report and they say this is ourbasis for our data, for thinking about this, for taking thisfield to another level. So it’s needed. And actually,it’s being replicated now. Canada is thinking about anoffice of international religious freedom. The EuropeanUnion is thinking about these kinds of things. So this is aglobal phenomenon that people are takingseriously.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And cannot be ignored.So it’s – absolutely. And what – in addition to thewritten word, now we’re online in terms of the report. Butwe’re also using new tools. We’re trying – I have anacronym map, because you know in the governmenteverything’s an acronym, so I had to learn a new language.(Laughter.) But media and messaging – how are we gettingit out? And we’re trying to use all the social mediathat’s available to us, and so I have a Facebook page. Wealso have humanrightsgov. I’m on Twitter now. And so itallows us to technologically get the word out. We’restarting to do webchats in places that we cannot physicallyget to. It allows the multiplication effect to happen.
SoChris Seiple, myself, Bill Vendley, who’s one of the otherco-chairs for FACA, and Joe Grieboski — we did a webchat on– and Ambassador Diaz, who’s the ambassador to the HolySee, we did a webchat about the launch of the strategicdialogue. About 30 different consulates and embassies aroundthe world were able to tune in, ask their questions justlike this show does. So it allows the multiplication effectto happen. It allows more people to be talking aboutreligious freedom, which then leads to countries like Canadaand the European Union thinking about should we form areligious freedom component as well. And many are startingto do that. So we’re a model.
MS. BENTON: Right. I wasstruck by the fact that you both commented that religion waspart of America’s DNA. So when you hear that othercountries are starting to recognize and move in thedirection that America has always been, it must be quitegratifying when you’re going around the world and that ishappening. So –
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: So, I mean, andwe’re not perfect. I mean, my own faith tradition born outof the black church, we suffered under religiouspersecution. But we’ve learned as a people how to modelthat and go forward in that. I mean, I come from New YorkCity, which is the most diverse city on earth, where thereare 105 different ethnic groups and maybe a hundreddifferent religious groups. And so we have had to learn howto 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 awonderful, wonderful model. I lived in an apartmentbuilding, a high-rise in the Bronx, New York, near YankeesStadium, and on my floor there were 17 apartments, 11different ethnic groups. And we grew up as citizens of theworld, learning to respect one another, to be tolerant ofone another. And then I was also on the front lines of 9/11,where my passion for religious freedom really was birthed asa chaplain for New York City Police Department, having tosay, look, we have to live together. Because what happensafter 9/11? We have to live together. And so this is awonderful opportunity to have this conversation.
MS.BENTON: Good deal. We’re fortunate to be joined by viewersfrom all around the world, and some of whom have submittedquestions for you via the State Department’s blog,DipNote. So why don’t we take a few of those questionsnow.
Chelsea in Georgia writes: How does a lack of freedomhalfway around the world impact us here in the UnitedStates?
Chris, I want to have you go ahead and field thatquestion first.
DR. SEIPLE: Sure. Well, to see if Iremember it right, but Dr. Martin Luther King said ifone’s not free, none of us are free.
MS. BENTON: That isright. Yes.
DR. SEIPLE: It’s that simple. And the other– so that’s the right thing to do, right, to think aboutit, whether it’s theologically based or secular humanism,there’s a motivation to understand that about whatyou’re for. On the other hand, we’re all minoritiessomeplace.
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 whiteAmerican, it might be a different place – contextsomeplace else. And so it’s in our self-interest, is whatI’m getting at, for us to treat each other with respect.It’s what we should do, according to the best of ourfaith, but it’s also in our self-interest. And then youtie in the element of 9/11, which is this is a securityissue. Religious freedom – and religious freedom is notabout tolerance. Tolerance isn’t good enough. We have tohave 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 wherepeople can respect each other, then we’re less likely tohave extremists and terrorists. And that’s the key to thefuture. That’s the key to the 21st century.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And we’ve found wherereligious freedom is operative that their countries are morestable, communities are more stable. And where there’s theabsence of it, there’s chaos and there’s the lack ofpeace. And so it affects us around the world. It’s reallywhat we call the domino effect; one affects one MartinLuther King also said darkness can’t drive out darkness,but only light can do that. So hopefully, we’re trying tobring 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 fightingagainst anti-Semitism, and that’s special representativealways talks about the mutual respect aspect. So I think itcrosses all barriers, what we’re trying to do with theimportant issues of the day.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Verymuch so. I mean, we’re from different places –
AMBASSDOR JOHNSON COOK: — and even inAmerica we’re from different places. But we find respectfor one another and we find common ground and we say, “Howdo we go forward together?” And I think that’s reallywhat we’re modeling around the world: How do we go forwardtogether 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 isobviously something which the U.S. Government cares about alot, but why does it matter? I mean, I think you’vealready talked a lot about that, but that’s interestingthat that question still is on the minds of young people,because they’ve grown up in a different kind of era, so itdoes matter.
DR. SEIPLE: Well, in some ways, it’s anindication of how far we’ve come. So if you’re askingthat question, then you perhaps – I don’t want toascribe anything to her, but for – maybe she’s never hadany of these experiences.
MS. BENTON: That’sright.
DR. SEIPLE: But if you go back to our founding, Imean, it was – in Massachusetts, it was Anglicans againstwhat became Baptists with Roger Williams going to RhodeIsland to establish Rhode Island as a place where Quakersand Jews could practice faith, and not just in an Anglicanecclesiastical way set up by the order there, and JohnWinthrop. So – or take Virginia, which – I’m aVirginian. It was Baptists and Anglicans, now Episcopalians,fighting each other, and that’s what led to ThomasJefferson and James Madison working on religious freedom forVirginia.
So it’s a part of who we are, but we kind offorget it sometimes because – not that life is easy, butwe’re not – we don’t suffer that kind of assault ofany kind – psychological, emotional, spiritual, orphysical. Seventy percent of the world has their faithrestricted in how they practice faith.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSONCOOK: And we’re very fortunate in the United Statesbecause it’s written into our Constitution to have freedomof expression, and so it’s the right for people to believeor not to believe. That’s what religious freedom is. Andso we’re very fortunate to have that written and engravedin our society. But also, perhaps we’ve been practicing itall along. I think the phraseology of religious freedom hasjust come to the forefront since there were so manyincidents in the last few years – 9/11 one, and then theburning of the Qu’ran in Florida. I think that the phrase“religious freedom” kind of came to the forefront, butwe’ve been practicing it as a nation as long as we’vebeen in existence. And so it’s very important.
Andparticularly for the new generation, because they’regrowing up as citizens of the world. They’re growing up indormitories beside every ethnic group. They’re in classeswith every ethnic group. And so we can’t live separately.We have to really live respecting one another and tolerantof one another’s right to believe or not to believe.
MS.BENTON: Right, right. Good. We have a question from S.B. inNorth Carolina, who actually has two questions. He writes:In what capacity do you recommend faith communities to getinvolved in foreign policy? So let’s go with that onefirst.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Okay. Well, S.B., this isS.J. (Laughter.) Faith communities are an important voice tobe heard, and that’s why this strategic dialogue withcivil society is so important because faith communities areleaders in our communities. Most people listen to theirimam, their rabbi, their pastor, their priest, becauseit’s not just religion; it’s a relationship. And sowe’re talking about faith communities being an integralpart of that alongside scholars and academicians, alongsidegovernment, alongside private sector. All voices need to becollectively be heard because we’re collectively livingtogether.
But the faith community is an important voicethat sometimes had not been heard as loudly, but I thinkthis Administration and – is really making sure thatit’s at the forefront. And I think it’s no accident youhave a faith leader who is in this role. I don’t thinkit’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 atleast lifting faith instead of sweeping it under the rug.”It’s a real viable issue that has – religion was aroundbefore governments were around. And so how do we now usethat as part of the conversation for peace?
DR. SEIPLE:Absolutely, and I think that’s a great point, especiallyChristianity and Islam. We invented globalization. Thechurch was the original international NGO. And so the pointof faith – good faith – is that you’re serving yourlocal community. And you cannot serve your local communityand not engage somebody unlike yourself, so that’s thestarting point. And then you need to, more broadly, stewardyour citizenship. If you’re an American faith community,you have to take care of those in your ownneighborhood.
But we have a responsibility. For better orfor worse, we are the world’s greatest power. And whateveryour views are on declinism or this, that, or the other,there’s a lot of people who look to us as a beacon of hopeand read this report and they want to know how they can beengaged. And so not just Baptists looking after Baptists orHindus looking after Hindus, but in this multiethnic,multi-religious fashion where we respect differences. And Ithink 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-faithis saying there are very deep differences –irreconcilable, theological differences about how we worshipsomething greater than ourselves. Let’s acknowledge that– I’m not going to call you a bigot because you believethere’s only one way to heaven, or multiple ways – andthen come together around our common values. And this iswhat we’re seeing in our communities here.
Just as oneexample, Northwood Church in Fort Worth, Texas, a friend ofmine, Bob Roberts, he has the rabbi and the imam from thatarea, Keller, Texas, and they get together and they worshiptheir own god in their own way in each of the sacredsanctuaries. 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 togo.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Yeah. Similar to that, in NewYork City, prior to coming to government was the Partnershipof Faith of New York City, which actually was birthed rightafter 9/11. Again, the imams, pastors, rabbis workingtogether, worshipping together, exchanging pulpits, and alsosocially having families come together so that we canunderstand each other’s culture before Sunday or Saturdaymorning or Friday night, what is it that makes you tick. Andas we’re going forward into these new cultures around theglobe, we have to understand what makes you tick. And faithis a big part of that.
So we have a course now that’soffered at the Foreign Service Institute. It’s fourmodules now. But as Foreign Service officers are going to begoing abroad, some – you have to understand not just thegovernment, not just the entrepreneurial side of it, butwhat is the culture? And sometimes, that culture includestheir faith community. And they may call it sectarian, butit’s definitely inculcated, ingrained in that society. Soyou have to understand what – why do they have Friday off?Why do they stop five times a day to pray? And so youdon’t schedule a meeting in their prayer time.
All ofthat is very important. When I travel abroad, sometimesthey’ll tell me, “Friday, we’re not going to host youbecause in this country, that’s a sacred day.” AndSunday is our sacred day. So understanding what makes aculture tick is very important to the respect level of thatculture.
MS. BENTON: So I want to get S.B.’s secondquestion: Some faith communities are overwhelmed with issuesin their local communities How would you encourage theleaders of these faith communities to still engage theirparticipants in international matters?
DR. SEIPLE: Well,again, we don’t know his context. But I would say ifyou’re overwhelmed, all the more reason to engage, all themore reason to share the burden. I mean, that’s the onething we know about this era, is that we don’t have themoney to pay for it. So that means we’re going to have tobe more creative and we’re going to have more partnershipsto solve complex challenges that no single state ornon-state government or non-government can solvethemselves.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And we also havefaith leader roundtables so that the leadership of differentfaith communities – and we’ve had, across the board,almost every faith and nonbelievers – we have agnosticsand atheists as well – at the table so that they can sharewith us what the concerns are that the government needs tohear, and that perhaps we can partner together and helpthem. That’s where our grants program comes in. But it’simportant that – part of my task is not just letting youknow what I do, but it’s also informing them as to whatreligious freedom is and how they can participate. And partof participating is “Let us hear from you.”
PresidentObama said early in his Administration we have to listen toand learn from one another, and so listening to is part ofthe job. And we have the faith leader roundtables to dothat.
MS. BENTON: That’s excellent. Todd Tee (ph) inAlaska writes: I see that President Obama declared January16th as Religious Freedom Day. How is that different thanany other day? Shouldn’t we be able to have the freeexercise to practice and express our faith any day of theyear?
DR. SEIPLE: Well, 16 January 1786 is when theReligious Freedom Statute was passed by the Virginia GeneralAssembly by a guy by the name of Thomas Jefferson. AndJefferson was in a fight with Patrick Henry, the guy whosaid, “Give me liberty or give me death.” We’re allfans. But Patrick Henry wanted to pay Anglican prieststhrough the state, and Anglicans and Baptists didn’t getalong, and there were sometimes fights and all these kindsof things, and it was – as a function of that, they passedthis Religious Freedom Statute. That’s why January 16th isthat day.
Now it also speaks to how do you think aboutreligious freedom. Jefferson called it the first freedom. Ibelieve – it’s basically, I believe; therefore, I am. Ibelieve in a greater being who gives me the right to thinkand to choose freely – freedom of conscience orbelief.
Now, if you’re a secular humanist or somethinglike that, you can say, hey, I think; therefore I am, andGod is a function of my own thinking. I don’t care whereyou’re coming from, but the point is that you’rethinking 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, ifyou have freedom of speech or assembly, religious freedom isa result of that. I don’t think that way. I thinkreligious freedom is the first freedom, because it’sfoundational to a society being civil according to the bestof its multiple faith traditions, and that’s why that dayis so important, and that’s why that day was chosen,because it came out of the Virginia experience.
AMBASSADORJOHNSON COOK: And see, S.J. gave that question to C.S.,because I knew he would understand – he knew thedates.
MS. BENTON: He has that one. That’s good.That’s good.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: While I’mlearning 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 thatChina’s shortcomings in religious freedom is being ignoredby the Department of State? I’m actually going to askAmbassador Cook if she’ll respond to that.
AMBASSADORJOHNSON COOK: Thank you. No country is ignored, and that’swhy 199 countries are reported on. No country is ignored. Infact, China was designated a country of particular concern.I plan to visit China in a few weeks, and so it’s part ofthe conversation. It’s – religious freedom is one partof the conversation with China. Certainly there are manythat the Administration is involved in. There’s theStrategic and Economic Dialogue that happens there as well Iwill be going specifically to deal with religious freedomissues. I sit with ambassadors and members of the governmentand designees here that are in the states, and we also willhave a faith leader roundtable with Chinese officials thatare here. And then when I go there again, it’s aboutbuilding relationships. So no country is being ignored. Infact, the government is very, very important to target andmake sure that we have conversations with all that havepragmatic openings. And so we hope the opening is there. Iplan to visit.
MS. BENTON: That’s right.
DR. SEIPLE:Well, it also speaks to broader issues. How do youinstitutionalize in the track one, government-to-governmentrelations? How do you institutionalize a human rightsdialogue 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 dothey come together in a track 1.5 fashion? That’s thequestion that we’re all thinking about in terms ofdiplomacy. So for example, in Vietnam, the U.S. has abilateral relationship with Vietnam and talks about humanrights in that dialogue, and the U.S. Government and theVietnamese Government invited our organization toparticipate in the human rights dialogue. That’s astructure to talk about these things and allow religiouscommunities and NGOs to speak into this in a way that willbe more sustainable. Because governments can talk, but ifpeople aren’t involved –
MS. BENTON: Can you tell uswhat exactly is the Religion and Foreign Policy WorkingGroup? What’s the structure, and how does it fit into thehistoric context?
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: It would be mydelight to share with you. It’s part of the Secretary’svision for civil society working with government. TheWorking Group on Religion and Foreign Policy is co-chairedby Under Secretary Maria Otero; Joshua DuBois, who is thedirector of the White House’s faith-based initiatives; andmyself. Under our Working Group for Foreign Policy andReligion, there are three subgroups. Chris Seiple and Ichair – co-chair together the religious freedom subgroup.He’ll share with you kind of the context of thishistorical importance, but it’s an exciting time for civilsociety sitting together with government, top down, bottomup, being able to talk to one another. Imagine scholars andfaith leaders and NGO – nongovernmental organizationleaders sitting together with government officials andtalking about religious freedom. That’s the excitement ofthe vision.
DR. SEIPLE: I’ll say the same thing in adifferent way. In February of last year, I believe,Secretary Clinton had this vision of including civil societyin a strategic dialogue to have a better foreign policy, aforeign policy more relevant. So she created – by law, forher recommendations from civil society, people not ingovernment, she had to have – there’s a Federal AdvisoryCommittee Act, call the FACA. We always have an acronym inWashington, as the ambassador knows
So the FederalAdvisory Committee has five working groups – EmpoweringWomen, Labor, Human Rights and Democracy, Religion andForeign Policy, and Governance. There are government andcivil society co-chairs to each of those working groups. Thefive co-chairs of the Religion and Foreign Policy WorkingGroup are myself, Dr. Bill Vendley with Religions for Peaceout of New York – those are the civil society co-chairs,and the three government co-chairs are Josh DuBois from theOffice of White House Neighborhood Partnerships, UnderSecretary Otero, and Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook.
Withinour working group, there are three subgroups – Religion,Stability, and Democracy; Religion and Conflict Preventionand Mitigation; and Religion and Development. So that’sthe structure, and so that’s how we convene the scholarsand the academic – and the practitioners to all be at thesame table, all faiths, all backgrounds from America andaround the world to gather their input and then form that asrecommendations that will go from the subgroup to theWorking Group on Religion and Foreign Policy to the FederalAdvisory Committee, where we sit with the co-chairs from theother four working groups. And then it goes to SecretaryClinton for an up or down vote on therecommendations.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: And it’s ayear-long project. We launched October 18th formally. We hada webchat with consulates and embassies around the world.And then next year – now in this year at the end of theyear, we will present those recommendations in that order tothe FACA and then to the Secretary to vote up and down. Soit’s exciting for us to sit at the table together. Soit’s wonderful. It’s a really great vision.
MS.BENTON: Right. I think it’s wonderful when you weretalking about all of our issues in foreign policy, we’retalking about working around a set of shared values and whatthe goal is, and so it’s nice to know that the whole piecearound religious freedom is based on that aswell.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Exactly.
MS. BENTON: Sothis has been a good conversation.
AMBASSADOR JOHNSONCOOK: It has. Lively. (Laughter.)
MS. BENTON: Yes, lively.And I am sad that it’s over, but Suzan, could you sharesome final thoughts with us, and then I’d like to askChris to just do that, too. Just –
AMBASSADOR JOHNSONCOOK: Thank you. Well, it’s a privilege and an honor,number one, to have been appointed by the President andSecretary Clinton to serve in this historic wonderful role.It is important. I’m passionate about religious freedombased on my own history, but also those who are around mewho I’ve served for these 32 years It is a priority ofthis Administration. I am the voice – the poster child, ifyou will, for religious freedom to go all into the world toreally have openings, pro-democratic societies, places wherethey will listen and hear, and places that will allow me tolisten to them. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to be atthis 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 toearlier. This conversation is demonstrative of what we’retalking about. We happen to be of the same faith and evenBaptists, but we’re coming from different sides of thepolitical aisle, and we’re here because this is notbipartisan, but nonpartisan. It’s DNA and who we are asAmericans. And what does that really mean? Tolerance is notenough. Mutual respect. Don’t be defined by what you’reagainst; be defined by what you’re for. Go out there andlisten so you can demonstrate that you understand your ownholy 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 likeyou, or are you going to love people who don’t look andvote like you.
It’s got to start at home. That gets backto that earlier question from SB. If it doesn’t starthere, don’t you dare go abroad. Don’t you dare go abroadand take your ideas there. So think about those things, andas you do, walk in other people’s shoes. It doesn’t meanyou have to agree with them. Sometimes people think thisdialogue stuff is all touchy feely. No. Walk in their shoesso you can understand where they’re coming from so you canrelate to them, and it doesn’t mean you have to sacrificeone bit of your identity or your theology. But as a functionof your theology and your identity, love them and do thingstogether for the common good. And any government’s goingto be excited to that and being able to tap into thatpower.
MS. BENTON: Very much. Perfect. Well, thank you somuch, both of you, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Dr. ChrisSeiple, for just sharing your work and knowledge of thisissue with us. And I’d also like to thank each of you forjoining us today. Please note the video and transcript areavailable on State.gov. We hope that Conversations withAmerica will continue to inform citizens about thisAdministration’s efforts to address the challenges of the21st century. Thank you and we look forward to engaging withyou again verysoon.