Former Ambassadors at Large for International Religious Freedom
Note: All biographies are archives from the time of the that Ambassador’s service.
Ambassador Sam Brownback (2018 – 2021)
Sam Brownback was sworn in as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on February 1, 2018 and served until January 20, 2021. He served as Governor of Kansas from 2011 to 2018. Previously he served as a U.S. Senator (1996-2011) and a U.S. Representative in the House of Representatives (1995-1996) from Kansas. While a member of the Senate, he worked actively on the issue of religious freedom in multiple countries and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. He also served as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture (1986-1993) and was a White House Fellow in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (1990-1991). Prior to his public service, Ambassador Brownback was a private attorney in Kansas and taught agricultural law at Kansas State University, co-authoring two books on the subject. He earned a B.S. from Kansas State University and a J.D. from the University of Kansas.
Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein (2014 – 2017)
David N. Saperstein was the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. He was confirmed by the Senate on December 12, 2014, and was sworn in and assumed his duties on January 6, 2015. The Ambassador at Large is, by law, a principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State and serves as the United States’ chief diplomat on issues of religious freedom worldwide. He also heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The President also has designated Ambassador Saperstein to carry out the duties in the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2014.
Ambassador Saperstein previously served for 40 years as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), overseeing the national social justice programming for the largest segment of American Jewry. A rabbi and an attorney, for 35 years Saperstein taught seminars in First Amendment Church-State Law and in Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
During his tenure at the helm of the RAC, Ambassador Saperstein has headed several national religious coalitions, including the Coalition to Protect Religious Liberty. He has served on the boards of numerous national organizations including the NAACP, (and most recently chaired its national Religious Affairs Committee), the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, and the World Bank’s “World Faiths Development Dialogue.”
In 1999, Ambassador Saperstein served as the first Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In 2009 he was appointed by President Obama as a member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. From 2011-2014, he served on the State Department’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society as a member of its “Religion and Foreign Policy” working group.
A prolific writer and speaker, Ambassador Saperstein has appeared on numerous television news and talk shows. His articles have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the “Harvard Law Review.” His latest book is Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time.
Ambassador Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook (2011 – 2013)
Suzan D. Johnson Cook was sworn in as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on May 16, 2011.
Prior to joining the State Department, Ambassador Johnson Cook served as the senior pastor and CEO of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City from 1996-2010. She was also the founder and president of Wisdom Women Worldwide Center and the owner of Charisma Speakers.
In 1993, Johnson Cook was a White House Fellow on the Domestic Policy Council. In that role, she advised President Bill Clinton on a range of issues including homelessness, violence, and community empowerment. She also worked with the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on faith-based initiatives from 1994 until 1997. President Clinton appointed her in 1997 to serve on his National Initiative on Race as his only faith advisor.
Johnson Cook held the position of Chaplain to the New York City Police Department for twenty-one years, the only woman to serve in that role. She was also a founder and board member of the Multi-Ethnic Center in New York City. From 1983-1996, she served as Senior Pastor to the Mariners Temple Baptist Church, and was a professor at New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996.
Johnson Cook has travelled to five continents to promote religious freedom. She has led interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and throughout the Caribbean. She worked with World Vision in Ruschlikon, Switzerland in its efforts to combat global poverty, and travelled to Zimbabwe and South Africa to meet with Zulu faith leaders to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance. As a young woman, Johnson Cook worked with Operation Crossroads Africa, where she participated in a cross-cultural exchange with student groups in Ghana and Nigeria. She also spent time living and studying in Valencia, Spain.
Johnson Cook is the recipient of several awards, including the Woman of Conscience Award, the Martin Luther King Award, the Visionary Leaders Award, and has also authored ten books. She received her Bachelor of Science in Speech from Emerson College in Boston in 1976 and a Master of Arts from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City in 1978. She completed a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1983 and 1990, respectively. She was also the recipient of the President’s Administrative Fellowship at Harvard University, where she served as Associate Dean and later as professor.
Ambassador John V. Hanford III (2002 – 2009, Archived)
John V. Hanford III was the second person to serve as U. S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. President Bush nominated Mr. Hanford on November 6, 2001. After confirmation by the Senate, he took the oath of office on May 2, 2002. The Ambassador at Large is, by law, a principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State and serves as the United States’ chief diplomat on issues of religious freedom worldwide. He also heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Prior to his position at the State Department, Ambassador Hanford served for 14 years as an expert on international religious freedom issues, while working on the staff of Senator Richard Lugar. During this period, Ambassador Hanford mobilized numerous efforts involving U.S. Senators and Representatives, Presidents and Secretaries of State to address some of the world’s most severe problems of religious persecution.
In 1998, Ambassador Hanford served as the chief architect of a bipartisan Congressional effort to craft enhanced U.S. policy on international religious freedom. He led a team of Congressional offices in authoring the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and worked with the bill’s lead sponsors in guiding the Act through the legislative process to a unanimous vote in both houses of Congress. IRFA is regarded by many as one of Congress’s most significant legislative achievements in the area of human rights.
Prior to his work in the Senate, Ambassador Hanford served in pastoral ministry on the staff of West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia.
Ambassador Hanford holds a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a B.A. degree in Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he attended on a John Motley Morehead Scholarship. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.
Ambassador Robert A. Seiple (1999 – 2000)
On May 5, 1999, Robert A. Seiple was confirmed as the State Department’s first Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. This position, created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, is charged with promoting religious freedom worldwide, promoting reconciliation in those areas where conflict has arisen along religious lines, and making sure that this issue is woven into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy.
Mr. Seiple, of Federal Way, Washington, was the President of World Vision, Inc., the largest privately funded relief and development agency in the world. In that capacity, he increased the annual income base of the organization from $145 million to over $350 million per year. Additionally, Mr. Seiple guided the organization toward an expanded involvement in advocacy in the worldwide struggle against poverty and hunger. He founded the Institute for Global Engagement, a strategic think tank within the organization for global advocacy.
Mr. Seiple was born December 6, 1942 in the rural community of Harmony, NJ. He received an AB degree in American Literature from Brown University in 1965. From 1966-1969, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps attaining the rank of Captain. He flew 300 combat missions in Vietnam and was awarded 5 battle stars, the Navy Commendation Award with Combat ‘V,’ 28 air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. This experience motivated him to become an outspoken advocate for the healing of Vietnam’s relations with the U.S.
Returning to his alma mater in 1971, Mr. Seiple held a number of administrative positions, including Director of Athletics and Vice President for Development. In his last position during a 12-year tenure, he successfully directed the Campaign for Brown, the largest fund-raising campaign ever attempted at the University at that time.
Mr. Seiple, who was President of Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1983-1987, was named Churchman of the Year in 1994 by Religious Heritage America. The interfaith, non-profit organization seeks to identify and honor outstanding Americans who are motivated by religious principles and beliefs and who provide positive role models. In 1995, he was awarded the Brown University “Independent Award,” a Doctorate of Public Service by Gordon College, and the U.S. Secretary of State’s Distinguished Public Service Award.