Freedom’s EnvoySeptember/October 2021
Sam Brownback has a habit of defying expectations. His childhood on his parents’ farm in the tiny community of Parker, Kansas—population 277— offered few hints he would someday represent his state in the U.S. Congress, first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate, before coming home to serve as the state’s forty-sixth governor. As a Republican leader on the national stage, Brownback became known for his blunt, folksy style, uncompromising conservative Christian ethos, and hard-charging political approach. And so in 2017, when then President Donald Trump nominated Governor Brownback for the key diplomatic post of U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, many Democrats and liberal pundits protested he wasn’t the right person for the job. When it comes to political skills, said one commentator, “Brownback is, as Winston Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, ‘a bull who carries a china shop with him.’”1
Yet during his three years as ambassador, Brownback defied typecasting, earning praise from many across the political spectrum, including his predecessor Rabbi David Saperstein, who served in the role under President Obama. Brownback led an ambitious, energetic, and religiously inclusive effort aimed at launching what he called a “global religious freedom movement.” He convened annual ministerials to advance religious freedom, which drew high-level government delegations from 100 countries along with more than 1,000 leaders of civil society organizations. He was also a key player in forming the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which now counts 32 countries as members.
In a recent interview with Liberty editor Bettina Krause, Ambassador Brownback reflected back on his tenure at the State Department and the role of religious freedom advocacy within U.S. foreign policy.
Bettina Krause: It seems like good timing that our conversation is happening the morning after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom. In recent years, it’s your office that’s been responsible for producing this report. I’ve seen some press this morning suggesting that President Biden’s administration is downgrading the State Department’s focus on religious freedom—that it’s casting religious freedom as a “coequal” human right rather than a foundational human right. How do you see it? Is this just a question of semantics, or is it something more?
Ambassador Sam Brownback: It’s more than semantics, but it’s not as bad as people play it. The current administration is going back to an old approach to religious freedom, and it’s the same approach taken by much of Western Europe. This approach says that all human rights are coequal, and no one right should be broken out or seen as more foundational than others.
But what we did is to focus on religious freedom. We did this because we believed the human rights project, in general, was in decline; everyone had started throwing everything into the bucket labeled “human rights.” And so, there are now things being labeled as “human rights” that people simply can’t agree on. For instance, I’m pro-life, and so when they say a woman’s right to choose is a human right, I’m saying, “Well, you lost me on that one. I don’t agree.”
What we did was to return the idea of human rights to what was in the original United Nations Declaration of 1948, because the human rights listed there had global agreement. Then we said that the right to religious freedom is so foundational, it has been so misused and abused, and it affects so many people in the world, that we simply have to get this one right. It’s like getting your cornerstone right; if we get it right, the rest of the building will be strong. But if we get it wrong, the rest of the building is going to be off. So we elevated religious freedom in that sense of calling it foundational. We believed that in working to get religious freedom right, it would inevitably help the rest of these human rights—such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and so on—to also flourish.
But now the left has said, “We don’t like the hierarchy of rights approach because that means you’re excluding things like abortion.” Secretary Blinken has said, “We’re going to stand for religious freedom like we have in the past—as one of many other rights.” So they’re going back to the old model, which I think was harmful to the human rights movement around the world, but it’s not as disastrous as some people see it.
Krause: The fact that the U.S. State Department is required to issue this annual religious freedom report actually goes back to 1998, to a piece of legislation that you helped usher through Congress when you were a senator from Kansas.2 It seems, then, that prioritizing religious freedom is firmly baked into U.S. foreign policy. Is that right?
Brownback: Yes, and the importance of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy has only grown through the years. When we first proposed the International Religious Freedom bill a number of people didn’t want to involve religious freedom in foreign policy because they said it’s getting too close to the First Amendment establishment clause language—the prohibition against establishing a religion. But Madeline Albright, who was secretary of state then, said, “No, I think this is all right.” And so, it edged across the line, but there was still a lot of discomfort with the topic.
Over time, though, it’s been recognized more and more that religion is absolutely central to so many issues. If we’re ever going to get peace in the Middle East, for instance, we’ve got to engage the religious actors. Previously, religion and religious issues were always held at arm’s length.
There’s also now a growing recognition that genocides are often centered on the mistreatment of a religious minority. Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and Christians were targeted by ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. The Rohingya Muslims are the target of Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar. The current fighting in Nigeria is primarily militant Muslim groups against Christians. And so there’s this growing understanding that religion is an important piece for understanding and engagement. It’s my hope that we’ll continue to keep growing in this field and that our aid programs will expand support for religious minorities.
I would also like to see us going into places where groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have claimed religious authority; where they say, “We’re the religious guys, and we have the correct interpretation of the Quran.” Rather than just conceding the field to ISIS, we in the West can help facilitate debate and discussion in these places. We need to hear the voices of Muslim clerics who say, instead, “You can’t claim that the Quran says to kill anybody who disagrees with you. That’s just not here.”
Krause: As you’re speaking, I’m reminded of a narrative gaining ascendence in some circles, which says religion itself is the problem. There’s a suspicion that strongly held religious belief of any kind is the real source of violence and persecution. How would you respond to that?
Brownback: I would say it’s the misuse of religion that has been the source of a great deal of conflict. Most Muslims in the world don’t agree with Boko Haram or ISIS. In our own history here in the United States, we’ve had the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed to be a Christian group. Yet it was not Christian. Fundamental for Christians is seeing every person as a dignified individual, a beautiful child of the living God, regardless of their skin color, their ethnicity, their beliefs, or anything else. But the misuse of religion, or I should say the opportunistic use of religion, has contributed to a lot of conflict in regions such as the Balkans, northern Iraq, and in many other places. But at the same time, religion is also part of the answer, too. Religion can and should be part of the equation for peace. We can’t ignore the positive power of religion.
A few years ago I cohosted with the president of Albania, a summit in the Balkans on religion as an instrument of peace. I mean, this is an area of the world that’s used religion for war for thousands of years, but they’re all tired of fighting each other. They now have a process of reconciliation in place where you admit your past wrongs, you own up to them, and you ask for forgiveness so you can move forward. Just as a sidebar, I think we in the United States need to do that with Native Americans and African Americans, because we took the land from them, we broke treaties, we spilled innocent blood, and we enslaved a group of people. We always try to skip the step of admitting we did something wrong and asking for forgiveness, and instead we just immediately go to paying money.
But this doesn’t get to the root of the problem if we never admit what we’ve done or ask forgiveness for doing it. It doesn’t solve the problem, but admitting our wrong can help finally lance the boil and allow healing to begin.
Krause: The office you led at the State Department has sometimes been criticized for taking a mainly “finger-wagging” approach to countries violating religious freedom. In your annual report you were required to list “countries of particular concern.” In a way it’s a “naming and shaming” approach. And the countries that are named each year clearly feel deep resentment when they’re called out within the international community and reprimanded by the U.S. government. How effective do you think this is as a tool for promoting religious freedom around the world?
Brownback: I think this approach has its limitations. That’s why we began instead to focus more on helping countries understand why it’s in their best interest to be religiously free and to protect their religious minorities. We started reaching out to countries and saying, “If you want to grow your economy”—and most countries do want to grow their economy—“you can’t just require that everybody be a Sunni Muslim.” Why? Because it’s going to limit the pool of people who can participate in the economy, it’s going to limit the amount of capital that can be attracted into the country, and it’s going to lead to conflict. It’s also a security threat, because if you label everyone who’s outside a certain religious group as “the enemy,” then perhaps they’re eventually going to work out ways to start fighting back.
We now have clear data showing that the more open an economy and the more protection given to religious freedom, the more that economy grows. The data also shows that the more you protect your religious minorities, the fewer security issues you’ll have. So we started saying to countries, “It is in your best interest to do this for yourselves.” And we’ve now seen countries such as Uzbekistan take hold of that understanding and begin to change. Just last year they released 2,000 religious prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In the same way, Sudan, which has been a pariah state, has now said, “We want to have a more open society.”
Krause: There have been a number of countries—including Sudan and Uzbekistan—which, during your tenure as ambassador, started taking these steps toward protecting religious and other rights. Yet your office has sometimes been criticized for praising these countries, which obviously still have a long way to go. They’re taking “baby steps,” but they’re clearly not yet providing a democratic utopia for their citizens! How did you calibrate your engagement with governments that some would still see as repressive?
Brownback: This is difficult, but I’m one who believes in relationships, and that life moves at the speed of relationships. If you have a bigger bandwidth within a relationship, you can move more information and data; when you have a smaller bandwidth, you move a lot less. And so I think we should build relationships with these governments. I’ve been working with the Uzbeks, off and on, for 20 years. I carried the first Silk Road Strategy Act,3 which was my first big bill when I was in the Senate in 1998. I’ve traveled back and forth at different times to Uzbekistan, working with them, and so there was a trust that had built up. When I got into this job [as ambassador], I met with the Uzbek ambassador and said, “You guys ought to be the poster child for how you transition from an old Soviet police-style state to one that has basic human rights and an open society.” Because I had that relationship, they knew I wasn’t lecturing them, but I actually believed in their nation. And so last year when they took steps—such as letting 2,000 people out of prison—I’m going to say “Good!” And I’m going to praise a country such as Sudan for repealing its apostasy law. This is a big deal in a society such as Sudan that’s very traditional. I’m amazed at what they did.
Krause: Yes, and it’s even more stunning in light of the fact that some other Muslim-majority countries—such as Pakistan—seem to be moving in the other direction. In Pakistan there are some who say that even life sentence for blasphemy is not sufficient; the death penalty should be mandatory.
Brownback: And I think that reflects the growth of the relationship between Pakistan and China, and the decline of the one between Pakistan and the United States. I’ve worked with the Pakistanis for years, and they were not always as favorable toward China. But as the U.S. relationship with India grew, it declined with Pakistan. And Pakistan, instead of being engaged with the West, shimmied over toward China, which has a closed society. China doesn’t believe in individual human rights—it believes in community rights, which are established by the state. It’s not surprising, then, that Pakistan recently blocked all Ahmadi Muslim literature from being accessed online. Like China, Pakistan has a firewall around the Internet. This is what I mean about the importance of relationships.
Krause: You mentioned China, and it seems to me that we’re entering a new era in international religious freedom challenges, in part because China is exporting not just its ideas but also its technology. As you look to the future, what alarms you? What gives you sleepless nights?
Brownback: The use of technology really concerns me. In my job [as ambassador], China was my target number one. And that’s not because they’re worst in the world on religious persecution. North Korea, Eritrea, and a handful of other countries are even worse. But China is developing new technological systems with artificial intelligence, facial recognition, ubiquitous cameras in public spaces, the ability to track everybody’s cell phone traffic, and genetic sampling. They’re going to be able to isolate people of faith with the use of social credit scores. You may not be thrown in jail, you may not be shot, but you’ll be isolated within the economy and society. Anybody who calls you will get your same low social credit score; you’ll be excluded from going to schools or traveling.
The issue I’m really watching now, and one I’m deeply concerned about, is China’s digitizing of all their money. Once they do that, if they pull that off, they’ll be able to track every financial transaction in the country. So if they don’t like you, if they decide Seventh-day Adventists are bad people, it’s a turn of the switch, click of the button, and you no longer have any access to money.
Krause: As I’ve read about your career—in Congress and as governor of Kansas—it’s striking to me how often you’ve engaged with issues of international religious freedom, even while you’ve served in roles that are primarily domestically focused. What initially sparked this interest in you? Where did that come from?
Brownback: I had the good fortune of having cancer in 1995. It was a relatively simple one, I didn’t have to do radiation or chemo, but it really grabbed my attention. You don’t know what’s going to happen—if you’re on top of it or not, or if this is going to be the end. And I had to ask myself, “Am I happy with how I’ve lived my life?” As I looked back, I wasn’t. I had given in to earthly things. And so I said, “Lord, my life is Yours. Now whatever You want to do, I’ll sign up, and let’s go.” And that was very liberating in one sense.
I remember the chaplain of the Senate giving a Bible study a year or two later, and he asked, “How many constituents do each of you have?” Now, if you’re a senator, you know exactly how many constituents you have, and you know what groups are broken up into and what it will take to keep you at 50 percent plus one. So, everyone—going around the group—gives numbers. And the chaplain said, “Well, may I suggest to you that you actually just have one constituent, and that’s God. And if He’s happy, everything’s going to work out. And if He isn’t, there’s going to be real problems.” And I thought, That’s a great idea, that’s a wonderful way of looking at things. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to have a constituency of one. And so I started saying, “OK, I’ve got one constituent, and He’s a really good one. I wonder what He’s interested in. Well, I know He’s interested in the poor, I know He’s the author of life, and I know He’s interested in people’s souls as paramount.” And that really grew my focus in these areas. I remember about six months after I was into this project, thinking, I wonder if you can get reelected with one happy constituent! And in fact, my poll numbers had gone up in that period of time.
Krause: Well, that’s one of the most interesting political strategies I’ve ever heard!
Brownback: It’s a delightful one. I get off track with it sometimes, I get nervous, I get worried about this or that. As a guiding philosophy it’s hard, but it’s also simple and it’s beautiful, and I sleep well at night.
Krause: When the Senate was considering your nomination as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, some critics were saying, “He’s too Christian for this role; he’ll come at this too much from a certain mindset.” But yet some of those same critics have since lauded your advocacy for people of all and any faiths. Was this idea of the importance of religious freedom for all people—regardless of their faith tradition—something you had to learn, or has that always been part of your understanding?
Brownback: I had to learn it. Years ago my focus was on protecting Christians, and then I would get challenged on that. Over time, the more I read about Jesus, I realized He took all comers. He saw each person’s soul. He didn’t turn away the woman at the well, who was a Samaritan. Instead, He said, “Give Me a cup of water.” He just never excludes anybody. He was sent for all humanity, and He takes all of us where we are. He doesn’t require us to take 10 steps toward Him, and then we’re in. He just takes us where we are.
I’m convinced that it’s not people of deeply developed faith who fight; it’s people who aren’t well formed in their faith who will always come into conflict with those who believe differently. They may have the exterior of their religion, but it’s a faith that begins and ends in the head. They don’t have it in their heart. And that’s the difference.
1 Mark Silk, “The Nightmare of Sam Brownback,” Religion News Service, July 28, 2017 (viewed on June 15, 2021, at https://religionnews.com/2017/07/28/the-nightmare-of-sam-brownback/).
2 The International Religious Freedom Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, was groundbreaking legislation aimed at promoting religious freedom as a foreign policy priority of the United States. It created infrastructure within the State Department, as well as an independent monitoring body that works to highlight violations of religious freedom internationally and to advocate on the behalf of those persecuted for their religious beliefs.
3 This legislation, sponsored by then-Senator Brownback, passed in 1999 and expanded U.S. support for the economic and political independence of the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.