Religious Freedom and Tolerance

Suzan Johnson Cook

Commencement Address
Campbellsville University
May 5, 2012

What an honor to be here with you today. President Carter, thank you for inviting me to share this moment with all of you. You’ve worked hard and sacrificed much to come to this moment of graduation. Congratulations to each and every one of you!1

I understand your university was recently named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for 2012, because of the involvement of students, faculty, and staff undertaking service outreach. In addition to everything you’ve learned here in the classroom, you’ve obviously learned how to give back to your community as well. You are finding your call.

I hear that many of you went on Spring Break Mission Trips.  Instead of going to the beach, you went to Jackson, Mississippi to paint and repair homes. Some of you DID go to the beach … to Panama Beach, Florida, but it was to act as good Samaritans for other students on spring break. Many of you participated in Operation Christmas Child, where you filled shoeboxes with candy, toys, socks, and gloves, to send to children around the world. I would certainly say you are finding your call.

You have spent four years learning and growing in a university which believes in serving others. Now, you are about to embark on a journey of ever-greater engagement with the world around you. Whatever else you remember as you begin working in business, in education, in science, in medicine, in ministry – don’t lose sight of this great lesson taught here at Campbellsville University:  Find your call and do it.

My call has taken me to my current position as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Not only in this role, but also in my heart, I am committed to advancing religious freedom for everyone in every part of the world. I travel overseas promoting religious tolerance and helping to build bridges between people of different faiths – whatever that faith may be. Our country holds that the freedom to believe, or not to believe, is a fundamental human right which transcends faith, background, or tradition.

More than ever, religious freedom matters around the world. Just turn on the news and you’ll see the number of situations worldwide today where conflicts spring from religious controversy. Your classes have probably shown you the key role that religious intolerance plays in world events.

But, you may ask, we live in a country in which we are free to worship as we believe. So what does religious freedom have to do with me?

Let’s start close to home.

Our constitution holds religious freedom to be a fundamental human right. Many of our founding mothers … and fathers … fled their countries to escape religious persecution and found refuge here. Baptists were among the Christian groups who faced persecution for their beliefs in past centuries. They knew too well what it was like to suffer … literally … from religious persecution.

Many of my foreparents, as well as others in the Black church, were brought here against their will and experienced persecution on these shores. They were not always free to worship where or when or how they wanted – nor even with whom. Many were relegated to the balconies or separate areas of a church, required to listen to a message preached by those who enslaved them.

We understand what religious persecution means. And we understand that freedom of religion is not just for people who believe like us.

I personally experienced this in the days following 9/11. It’s the reason I took this role as the spokesperson for President Obama on international religious freedom.

Something happened to me on the morning of September 11, 2001, which pulled me in a direction I never imagined.

That day, I was in the Bronx, having just returned from voting when I heard that the first airplane had struck the World Trade Center.  The enormity of what was happening did not strike me until later as more news reports came in and I picked up a hitchhiking firefighter who told me that he was in need of a ride because he had received a call to report to his station.

Being a New York Police Department chaplain, I was soon asked to report to police headquarters – ten blocks from Ground Zero. Families of officers who were missing in action after the collapse of the towers had gathered there and I and the other seven chaplains prayed, counseled, and consoled them.

I then went to Ground Zero itself to work with police, fire fighters and medics as they searched through the night for survivors, including so many of their colleagues who had put themselves in harm’s way to help others. When rescue personnel saw I was a chaplain, they paused to catch their breath and to pray – regardless of their religion. At that moment I saw the unifying power of religion – almost in direct contrast to those who tried to use religion as an excuse to commit violence against innocent people.  In the face of adversity, Americans prayed together and we were even more unified.

We found our common humanity and sought to find common ground. We formed municipal, national, and international faith coalitions to build bridges of understanding, respect, and tolerance to push out suspicion, prejudice, and intolerance.

I saw firsthand what can happen when people put aside religious differences to build bridges together. In my travels as Ambassador-at Large, I have seen that great things can happen when members of different faith communities come together to share ideas and to grow a vision of harmony together through relationships that stretch beyond borders, beyond religions. These experiences are part of what inspired me – and continue to inspire me – to take our American message of international religious freedom and tolerance to the world.

I would like to tell you that religious intolerance is a thing of the past, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Even as we speak, there are thousands around the world being persecuted, imprisoned, and harassed on the basis of their faith. As Pew statistics inform us, we live in a world where 2.2 billion people face social hostility because of their religion or where their governments restrict their worship. It is our core conviction that religious freedom and respect for diversity is essential for a peaceful society. And research shows that where there is religious freedom, there is more stability in the country.

Is it any surprise, then, to find that communities of faith can hold the key to brokering peace? Regardless of tradition, people of faith can work to build peace and strengthen civil society, and to model for society the values of tolerance, dialogue, and respect. Can you imagine if people around the? world acted in a way that embodied tolerance, dialogue, and respect? Can you imagine the peace that could ensue?

At the State Department, we are working with government, civil society, and faith communities to advance these values. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated, “I’m very proud of … putting people at the center of our foreign policy, especially those long pushed to the margins like women and young people, religious and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, civil society. That was important because we want to make clear that America’s values of inclusivity and democracy, of fairness and equality of opportunity really were at the core of who we are and who we will be.”2

But it is not just the job of governments to foster support for universal rights and mutual respect.

I’m here today to tell you that YOU, as members of a faith community, play an essential role: to build bridges across religious differences, to work together against religious hatred, violence and repression.

Let me repeat something we know:  religion matters around the world. According to Pew statistics, 85% of the world population follows a faith tradition. Thus people of faith are often best positioned to spread the message of tolerance and reconciliation. People of faith run many of the world’s schools and health care facilities. Major development and charitable groups are run by religious organizations or are founded upon a religious commitment to compassion. And these groups are a crucial thread in the economic and political fabric of society.

Faith communities have a stake in having the freedom to worship and serve as they believe – which means they also have a responsibility to ensure that other religious groups have the same freedom. They can lead in combating hatred, or they can spread intolerant views and entrench differences. As members of a faith community, each and every one of you can work to promote mutual respect and freedom for people of your own faith, for people of other faiths, and for people who don’t belong to any religious group.

One of the core values at Campbellsville University is “servant leadership.” Servant leadership. I love that phrase. Think, as you go forward, continuing to discern your call, what are some of the ways that you can take a leading role in serving others who face persecution due to their religious beliefs?

Be informed. Find out more about persecution experienced by members of your own faith and by members of other faiths.

Get involved. Join an organization that works for religious freedom.

Volunteer your time. Last year, the State Department launched a “2011 Hours Against Hate” campaign asking young people around the world to do something for someone who isn’t like them … To pledge two hours serving food at a homeless shelter … To pledge three hours serving at a religious charity other than their own. The response was so overwhelming that we’ve launched a 2012 Hours Against Hate campaign this year.

As young people, you have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in the world around you. Recent events around the world like the Arab Spring have shown the power of youth to network and organize for social change. In fact, Secretary Clinton has made youth empowerment a priority. You have tools at your disposal, like the internet and Facebook, that the older generation couldn’t have dreamed of.

Civic engagement is crucial. But it’s also important to live our values in every facet of our daily lives. To reach out to your neighbors, even those who look different from you, who pray differently from you. It all starts there.

Take a moment to appreciate what your hard work has accomplished. And now take a deep breath, because there’s more to be done. You stand poised to live your values, and to work for your values, on a much larger stage. I hope I’ve convinced you today that religious liberty for all people is one of those values. And most important, I hope I’ve helped you start to see yourself as key to spreading the message of religious tolerance, freedom, and respect.

It has been an honor to share this moment with you. I look forward to hearing about the difference that you make in the days, months, and years ahead.


1 This printed text served as the basis for my address. Some extra comments were inserted spontaneously during its delivery to fit the dynamics of the occasion.

2 Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Department of State: Diplomacy in Action, “Remarks at the TIME 100 Gala,” Jazz at Lincoln Center, Time Warner Building, New York City, April 24, 2012 (www.sgov/secretary/rm/2012/04/188438).