In his first news conference after being nominated as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department, Sam Brownback’s voice cracked. He told reporters he’d taken communion that morning. In many other parts of the world, people face death for that, he said.
The 60-year-old Kansas governor, elected in 2010 and again in 2014 after 15 years in the U.S. Senate and a term in the House, comes to his new position with high praise from fellow Christians and religious freedom advocates, who have watched his work on these issues for nearly two decades.
Brownback declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, citing State Department protocol until the Senate voted on his appointment.
But on Twitter following his nomination, Brownback wrote, “Religious freedom is the first freedom—the choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause.”
If confirmed, Brownback would be charged with monitoring and responding to what has been a growing frequency of threats on religious freedom globally.
Multiple reports from human rights groups show the years 2014 through 2016 were the worst on record for Christians worldwide, even as other religious minorities, such as the Yazidis in northern Iraq, also face persecution.
Those who have worked closely with Brownback on religious freedom issues say he is a natural fit for the post, which reports directly to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Brownback will lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, succeeding Obama appointee David Saperstein, a rabbi and attorney, who held the position from January 2015 through January 2017.
Brownback’s nomination comes as some 70 percent of the world lives under religious oppression, says Frank R. Wolf, former Virginia congressman who is now Distinguished Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, which monitors international religious freedom.
“Sam Brownback has been a leader on international religious freedom all during his career in Congress,” Wolf says. “I served with him in the House, and when he went over to the Senate we worked on these issues. He was the first senator to go to Darfur during the genocide, and he came back and advocated to help the people of Sudan. He was also very active in working on religious freedom issues in Egypt and China, among other countries. Sam’s experience as a governor and in Congress will help raise the profile of the office. Sam cares deeply about international religious freedom. I applaud his nomination and I encourage a swift confirmation.”
Support from Wolf, once called “the conscience of Congress,” carries weight. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998 with bipartisan support, established the Office of International Religious Freedom as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The act was amended in December 2016 to raise the visibility and effectiveness of the religious freedom office within the State Department. Among other things, training is now required for all U.S. foreign service officers in the “strategic value of international religious freedom.” Previously, it was optional.
For months, religious freedom advocates had bemoaned that the Trump administration was slow to name a successor to Saperstein.
Thomas Farr, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Institute and the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999 through 2003, urged the Trump administration during the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in May to promptly appoint a religious freedom ambassador.
“Part of the problem is that too many of our elected officials and too much of our State Department leadership no longer understands what religious freedom means and why it is important,” Farr told those at the Summit, sponsored by BGEA. “We must insist that the new American administration change this unfortunate reality, and do it soon.”
Farr told the Kansas City Star in June, when rumors of Brownback’s nomination were swirling, that “[Brownback] is not somebody who would just make speeches … but would actually move the needle on religious freedom in foreign countries.”
Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land, who served 11 years on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom under presidents Bush and Obama and lobbied for the 1998 religious freedom law, said Brownback’s prominence and track record will give him credibility at the State Department and in Congress. “I do not believe that President Trump could have made a better choice than Gov. Brownback,” Land said.
Religious freedom watchdog groups also were enthusiastic about Brownback’s nomination.
David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said in a statement: “This nomination demonstrates a genuine commitment on behalf of the Trump administration to religious freedom around the world. We look forward to working with Gov.
Brownback in his new capacity as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.”
With religious persecution reaching devastating levels around the world, Curry said a speedy confirmation is needed.
During his Senate tenure, Brownback pushed for the declaration of genocide during the Darfur crisis in Sudan, combated human trafficking and the African AIDS crisis, and introduced legislation calling North Korea to account for human rights violations.
He has also been a staunch supporter of the right to life and opposes same-sex marriage.
In 2012 as governor, Brownback drew criticism from secularists for proclaiming a “Day of Restoration,” urging people to “collectively repent of distancing ourselves from God,” according to the Wichita Eagle.