Facts about nominee for international religious freedom ambassador

8/11/2017, 11:42 a.m.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, President Trump’s nominee for international religious freedom ambassador, describes religious freedom as “the choice of what ...

By Adelle M. Banks

Religion News Service


Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, President Trump’s nominee for international religious freedom ambassador, describes religious freedom as “the choice of what you do with your own soul.”

If confirmed, the 60-year-old, two-term Republican governor, former U.S. senator and one-time presidential candidate would be the first politician confirmed as the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Previous ambassadors were religious or nonprofit leaders. Gov. Brownback would follow a rabbi and a Protestant minister.

“Religious Freedom is the first freedom,” he said in a tweet responding to President Trump’s announcement on July 26. “I am honored to serve such an important cause.”

Here are facts about the Methodist-turned-Catholic politician:

  1. He was a key sponsor of the legislation that created the office he may lead.

As senator, he supported the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which also created the ambassador post.

During his two terms as governor, “his actions on international religious freedom would be minimal,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the most recent international religious freedom ambassador. But Gov. Brownback’s support of the State Department office while he was senator, and his efforts to end the civil war in South Sudan, were noteworthy, Rabbi Saperstein said.

  1. He is a Catholic convert who has attended evangelical churches with his family.

Gov. Brownback has been a bit of a Christian church hopper. He grew up a Methodist but converted to Catholicism in 2002. Today, he attends Topeka Bible Church, said Teresa Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the nondenominational evangelical church with an average weekly attendance of 1,400.

Sometimes, he rises early for Mass before joining his family at the church, calling the routine, according to author Jeff Sharlet, a “great mixture of the feeding.”

  1. He has supported “religious liberty” issues and rallies with conservative Christians.

In 2016, he joined a “Rally for Religious Freedom” alongside Catholic bishops, the lead pastor of Topeka Bible Church and Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist who was sued after she cited her religious beliefs in refusing to create an arrangement for a gay wedding.

When then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now U.S. energy secretary, invited 49 other governors to attend “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis” in Houston in 2011, Gov. Brownback was the only other governor who showed up in person.

In 2012, he was criticized by church-state separationists for promoting a ReignDownUSA.com prayer event for which he said, “We’ve been favored like no nation in history and yet too often we’ve forgotten God.”

  1. His nomination has been hailed by a range of evangelicals.

The National Association of Evangelicals called Gov. Brownback “a strong candidate.” The Faith and Freedom Coalition declared “help is on the way” after dozens of reports of Christian persecution abroad “in the last month alone.” Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore noted Gov. Brownback’s “dealing with AIDS in Africa and advocating on behalf of persecuted religious minorities.” Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called him “a man of deep personal faith.”

  1. He signed legislation allowing religious campus groups to restrict membership.

The 2016 bill “allows religious organizations to establish religious belief as qualification for membership,” he said at that time.

The ACLU, reacting to his nomination, said, “In Gov. Brownback’s view, ‘religious freedom’ has meant issuing a license to discriminate against others, especially against LGBT Kansans.”

University of Vermont political science professor Peter Henne said Gov. Brownback’s appointment could change emphasis on LGBTQ issues abroad. “If there are countries repressing LGBTQ people for reasons they claim are related to religion, we might not push back on that as much as we would otherwise,” he said.