Brownback, no longer in Kansas, has ‘big’ plans as religious freedom envoy

- Mei 28, 2018

As a senator in 1998, Sam Brownback helped push through the law that created the role of the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom.

Twenty years and a controversial governorship later, the Kansas Republican now occupies that position, which oversees the annual State Department report on atrocities, discrimination and other ills visited on people of faith overseas.

He plans to take advantage.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, Brownback vowed to move the report beyond its traditional “name-and-shame process,” which he said hasn’t “had broad success,” and to more closely track what happens after the report is released. Brownback also wants to convince global policymakers that promoting religious freedom can reduce terrorism and boost the economy.

“There is a direct correlation,” he said.

Brownback said pieces of this plan will be unveiled Tuesday as part of a “big announcement” to coincide with the scheduled unveiling of the latest religious freedom report, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will spearhead.


Brownback, a convert to Catholicism who also frequented an evangelical church, has been in this new job for four months. It’s a job he barely got. Senate Democrats uniformly opposed his nomination, and Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Democrats were unsatisfied with Brownback’s answers on LGBT issues, saying he wasn’t unequivocal enough that religious rights don’t trump the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Some lawmakers and activists also worried that Brownback would prioritize the safety of Christians above that of other vulnerable groups abroad. As governor, Brownback signed a law that effectively barred state courts from taking into account Islamic, or sharia, law, when making decisions. He also joined other Republican governors in trying to bar Syrian refugees from being resettled in Kansas.

At the same time, Democrats were keenly aware that Brownback is a polarizing political figure. The tax cuts Brownback supported during his time as Kansas governor have been blamed for the state’s severe financial woes in recent years. Many deemed it a Republican fiscal experiment gone awry.

But now, with the confirmation fight behind him and far from the red-state politics of Kansas, Brownback appears relaxed and eager to tackle a new challenge. He dismisses concerns that he’ll prioritize one religious group over another.

“Religious freedom is my top priority. Every religion. Or no religion at all,” he says. “You’ve gotta be dogged about that. This is about protecting the right. It’s not about favoritism.”

He also downplayed his record on gay rights, echoing Pompeo in insisting that the State Department is “committed to defending the human rights and dignity of all persons.”


On his first overseas trip, in mid-April, Brownback visited Turkey and Bangladesh.

In Turkey, he attended the trial of American Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, whom the Turkish government has accused of links to a group alleged to have staged the failed 2016 coup attempt in the country. (The increasingly authoritarian Turkish government has accused tens of thousands of people of ties to the unsuccessful coup.) Brownback is urging Turkey to clear and release Brunson, who has lived in the Muslim-majority country for more than 20 years.

In Bangladesh, Brownback heard heartbreaking accounts from Rohingya Muslims fleeing an extraordinary military crackdown by Myanmar’s Buddhist-dominated army. Since late August, around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, more than half of them children, have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.

The Trump administration has already declared Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya an “ethnic cleansing,” but U.S. officials are still researching the issue, and there’s a chance America will declare the crisis a “genocide.” That label, depending on how U.S. officials choose to interpret international law, could require more U.S. effort to protect the victims.

Brownback declined to say whether he would recommend that Pompeo label the crackdown a genocide. However, he repeatedly said the crisis is “the worst I’ve seen,” noting that he’s looked into past tragedies, including what the U.S. ultimately called a genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“It’s the most thorough actions taken by a government I’ve witnessed in the world,” Brownback said of the Rohingya crisis. “When these things happen, the earth should shake. There should be substantial consequences.”


Brownback chuckled and dismissed the notion that he took his new diplomatic role to help rehabilitate his reputation after his much-criticized stint as governor, which ended Jan. 31. He blamed the fall in commodity prices — including oil — for much of his state’s financial problems. He had less than two years left in his second term as governor anyway and said he felt like a lame duck.

Of course, there’s also the challenge of working for Trump, a man who proposed barring all Muslims from entering the United States during his presidential run.

Brownback, however, defended Trump, saying the president has moved away from such campaign talk. He also cast Trump’s executive orders barring citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from the U.S. as being driven by security concerns, not religious bias.

More than anything, Brownback praised Trump’s desire to shake things up in Washington.

“He’s a man of action,” Brownback said. “He will do things. He will move.”


 

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