Sam Brownback is U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in the State Department. He formerly served as a congressman, three-term U.S. senator, and governor in his native Kansas.
Q: As you look across the global landscape, how would you characterize the state of religious freedom?
A: Not good, really. But I think we’ve got a moment to make it much better. Not good in that three-fourths of the world’s population lives in a religious-restrictive environment, and there are a number of places where it’s deadly because of one’s religious beliefs. It can be deadly to be a person of one of the minority faiths, and in many cases those are Christians, so it’s a very troubling landscape.
But I also say promising in that there is broad global support for religious freedom. I think our effort has to be to push it aggressively, and that’s what this administration is doing. In July, we had the first-ever Ministerial on Religious Freedom with 87 countries represented. The White House is pushing hard on religious freedom in many forums, and I think we’ve got a really good chance to expand religious freedom for a number of people in different places.
Q: Which nations or regimes are especially troubling to you right now?
A: China in particular. One, because it’s obviously so big and it has such a big sphere of influence; but two, they’re really putting in some draconian measures against people of faith—of all different faiths. Iran is very troubling because of their export of radicalism and the deadly force that people use. Nigeria, where a large number of people are being killed associated with their faith. Burma, where persecution is so intentional toward the Rohingya Muslims, and toward the Kachin people in the north who are Christians. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of places. Even now in Venezuela and Nicaragua, you’ve got churches being attacked by communist governments.
Q: What do you hope distinguishes this State Department’s service when it comes to the issue of religious freedom?
A: I hope people see that this administration is very serious about religious freedom, that it’s a top priority. I was recruited by the vice president for this job, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cares deeply about this job. The president and the vice president care deeply about religious freedom, and I think the world is getting that message. They’re seeing the administration stand up on these issues. The Ministerial on Religious Freedom, for example, was the first ever. Most nations have signed on to the 1948 U.N. Charter on Human Rights, which includes religious freedom, but nobody’s ever made much of an issue of it, and then you just get this slide into religious persecution. So this administration has sent a clear signal: it’s important to us, and we’re going to fight for it and make it a top priority. Like the prior administration made other issues top priority, we’re going to make religious freedom a top priority.
Q: What do you say when you speak to former congressional colleagues, perhaps well-meaning ones, who might not understand the issue or why international religious freedom should be important to America?
A: That religious freedom is a God-given right and that no government has the right to interfere with it because it’s a God-given right. And that’s in our Declaration of Independence. It’s in our First Amendment, and there’s also the U.N. Human Rights Charter. And I really try to tie it into the dignity of being a human. I remember having a meeting with the Vietnamese delegation on this. I was talking about the inherent dignity of the individual as having the God-given right to choose to do with their own soul what they choose to do. And that this is part of who you are as a dignified human. And it was like it was a different thought to them. They’d not thought of it that way, but it resonated with them. They thought everything came from the government; the government gives you what it decides it’s going to give you. But the idea of human dignity resonates universally because it’s truthful. It’s natural law.
Q: As far as theological beliefs, how does the notion of human dignity—the understanding that each person bears God’s image—influence how you approach your job every day?
A: I approach it as a wonderful opportunity to promote a fundamental right of every individual, regardless of their faith orientation. There’s no “this would be good for Muslims or Buddhists or Christians or whatever.” This is good for human beings, and it’s good for government. I look at it as every day I get a chance to promote a very tangible human right, that if we’re successful in this office, there will be hopefully millions of people whose personal daily lives get better, that they will have less pressure put on them, that they’ll have better access to the things that they need in life, that they won’t be anxious about being persecuted or killed for their faith.
Q: That seems like a very American value to be able to do that.
A: Yes, it is, but moreover it’s a very human value and a very God-given value that’s been under-supported, promoted, pushed and stood up for in prior administrations here and all over the world.
Q: Have the dire circumstances that you see globally changed the way you pray?
A: It has, and it continues to. I pray regularly that the gates of religious freedom would fly open around the world. I pray for courage and strength and discernment for the president and the vice president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And I hear people’s stories that so often hearten and lift me up because I see the strength of their faith and what their standing amid persecution means. What a great chance we’ve got to stand up and help people.
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