- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011

A n important position within the United States State Department remains vacant 26 months into the administration of President Obama. The post of ambassador at large for international reli-

gious freedom is empty due to an extended delay on the part of the White House in submitting a nomination and then the nominee not being approved in the closing days of the last session of the Congress. The time has come for the U.S. Senate to proceed with the confirmation of the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook.

This ambassadorship was created by an act of Congress in 1998 with the signing by President Bill Clinton of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act. The IRF ambassador at large was intended to be a key diplomatic position and one that would help place religious freedom issues at the core of American foreign policy. By legislative act and stated policy, the advancement of religious freedom internationally is basic and important to the image and moral authority of the United States.

It is certainly appropriate to discuss the reasons as to why the administration delayed nominating a person for this position and Mrs. Cook may not be the first choice of any number of individuals and groups. There are many who have strong feelings on these two basic points, but the fact is that President Obama has chosen to submit her name again to the Senate for confirmation. Now that more than half of the administration’s four years in office is past, it is evident that Mrs. Cook is likely the only person who will have the opportunity to serve as IRF ambassador in the next two years. The Senate should act on Mrs. Cook’s nomination.

During the period between her two nominations, several leaders in the conservative and evangelical communities have had the opportunity to become acquainted with Mrs. Cook. Leaders across the religious spectrum have had dialogue with her and she has stated her commitment to seek to bring people of diverse perspectives to the table for consultation and exchange and to do all that she can to help make the ambassador’s role one that better complies with the spirit of the original IRF legislation. I have come away from my own conversations with Mrs. Cook impressed with her desire to reach out to those of us across the spectrum of politics and religion and to truly make religious freedom issues an essential component of American diplomacy.

While the IRF ambassador’s office sits empty, we observe the wave of unrest and extremism across the globe. Recent reports abound with news of the murder of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. The influence of religious extremism is rising in numerous locations which, means that religious minorities - whether Christian, Islamic or other - are at risk and in grave danger in some countries. In an era when our nation and world face the threat of terrorism, including those extremists who invoke their religion in the pursuit of political and military power, the call of religious freedom becomes very important and must be a hallmark of this and future administrations.

Now is the time for the Senate to act on Mrs. Cook’s nomination and to proceed with confirming her as the new U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. She may not be everyone’s first choice, but she is President Obama’s choice. That is how our system works - it is the president who nominates the candidate of his choice. We need to get on with business, which, in this case, is the advocacy of religious freedom around the globe. We also call on the administration to place this position in a more prominent role in the State Department. The ambassador should report to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and not have to work through multiple layers of bureaucrats.

It appears that Mrs. Cook’s nomination needs to become a priority for a number of players in the process, including the White House, State Department and Senate Democrats as well as not be blocked by any Senate Republican. Mrs. Cook has reaching out and impressed upon a growing number of us that she wants to listen, learn, reach out to conservatives and others, and make the ambassador at large for international religious liberty a position that will have a positive and meaningful impact in these challenging times. It’s time to move forward with her nomination.

John E. Chowning is vice president for church and external relations the president at Campbellsville University, a Baptist-affiliated university in southern Kentucky. This article reflects his personal views.