Sam Brownback gave up his final year as Kansas governor to take an obscure diplomatic post long viewed as a State Department backwater. Now, 18 months later, the Kansas Republican hopes to launch a global movement to end religious persecution.
No one expects Brownback to single-handedly end thousands of years of religious conflict. A State Department report last month said more than 80 percent of the global population lives under some form of religious restriction.
But Brownback has given the job of U.S. Ambassador at-Large for Religious Freedom new stature, with the help of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a like-minded Kansas Republican.
During a week in Washington that saw President Donald Trump hurl racist insults at the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, Brownback championed religious pluralism at a gathering of 900 diplomats and faith leaders from more than 100 countries.
“It’s time. It is past time to bring down these religious restrictions, so that the iron curtain of religious persecution can come down for one and all. And it comes down now,” Brownback said at the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
Brownback touted the three-day event as the largest human rights conference ever held by the State Department. It featured speeches by Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials, international diplomats and survivors of religious violence and persecution.
“Really imagine the burst of freedom, most of the world’s population would experience if religious freedom were protected,” Brownback said in his opening speech.
Brownback was at a low point in his political career when Trump offered him the job as the nation’s voice for religious minorities around the globe.
The former presidential candidate and U.S. senator entered the governor’s office in 2010 with a landslide victory and a mandate to pursue his aggressive tax cut plan, which he promised would spur an economic renaissance on the prairie.
By the time he left in early 2018, he had become a political pariah. His approval rating was among the lowest in the nation and his signature policy had been dismantled by lawmakers, who overrode his veto after three years of budget shortfalls.
Brownback was a co-sponsor of the legislation that established the ambassadorial post in 1998, but the job wasn’t his first choice.
“When they offered me the job, it wasn’t the one I was seeking. But when they offered it to me, I went, ‘Yeah, that’s a great fit.’ And then the more I’ve gotten into it, this is a fabulous time to be in this kind of position. The administration is really behind it,” Brownback told The Star in a brief interview.
“There’s a lot of energy in the faith and civil society community because there’s just been so much brutality around the world on all sorts of faith, so you can see a mixture here that you can actually get something done.”
But his selection proved controversial because of his record on LGBT rights. Confirmation required a rare tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence after every Senate Democrat voted against him.
For most of the past two decades the office “has been sidelined within the Department, seen by senior diplomats as a boutique human rights issue with little connection to American foreign policy interests,” said Tom Farr, the president of the Washington-based Religious Freedom Institute who served as chief of staff for two previous ambassadors.
Farr and others point to the summit as evidence that Brownback has succeeded in elevating the issue.
“He has set the bar much higher than I have seen from his predecessors,” said Muhammad Musri, the president and senior imam of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, one of the domestic groups that participated in the conference. “You know, it wasn’t so important a position in the State Department, and now it’s really taking on a life of its own.”
Bob Fu, a Texas-based pastor who leads China Aid, a group that provides legal aid to Christians in China, said the “level of engagement between the U.S. government and persecuted faithful groups in civil society has never been in this intensity.”
Shortly after his confirmation, Brownback, a devout Catholic convert, found an eager ally in that mission when Trump appointed another Kansas Republican, Pompeo, to serve as secretary of state.
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, called the first ministerial on the issue last year and established mandatory training on religious freedom for U.S. Foreign Service officers so that they can better respond to situations they might encounter.
“It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom,” Pompeo said during his keynote address on the final day of the conference.
David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, said his long-standing relationship with Pompeo has enhanced his ability to marshal State Department resources in service of religious freedom.
“It’s the perfect marriage of man and job and moment,” he said.
U.S. officials offered a clear message of religious pluralism, international cooperation and devotion to human rights throughout the three-day summit. But the tension between the summit’s goals and Trump’s rhetoric was hard to ignore.
At times the conference seemed to be set in an alternate reality as the rest of Washington was consumed in a bitter debate over the president’s attacks on four Democratic congresswomen, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress.
The administration that pledged to launch a global religious freedom movement also pursued a travel ban against people from Muslim-majority countries.
“I think there is definitely a bit of contradiction between some of the statements of the president and the actual work being carried out by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback,” Musri said.
“And that is evident. I mean, you can’t deny it when you have a ban on Muslims or a ban on people from seven Muslim countries. And the issue here is this nation is not about one person and the administration is not just about the president.”
Brownback noted that the same crowd gave standing ovations to both Pompeo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, a rare event in partisan Washington.
Pelosi joined Brownback on stage for a panel on religious repression in China, where more than a million Uyghur Muslims have been sent to concentration camps for re-education.
“I think that what’s happening in a China is a challenge to the conscience of the world and we cannot let it go, because if we do we have less chance of addressing human rights and religious freedom in other countries as well,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi and Brownback both praised each other’s commitment to religious freedom and bonded over their shared Catholic faith during the panel discussion. In the end, the gathering couldn’t fully escape the divisions of the moment. Pelosi’s appearance was cut short when her aides pulled her away because a House debate over a resolution condemning Trump’s racist tweets had descended into chaos.
The panel with the House speaker had followed a speech by Jewher Ilham, a young Uyghur woman whose father has been imprisoned by the Chinese government since 2014. Ilham specifically criticized the ways the Chinese government has used language to marginalize Muslims.
“The Chinese government uses language that is designed to tap into the Islamophobia that exists in other parts of the world. They use terms like ‘religious terrorists’ and refer to Uyghur beliefs as ‘those thoughts’ to portray faith and thinking as some kind of threat,” Ilham said.
“It is ridiculous to say that 1 million people are brainwashed terrorists, but this is the kind of language to justify tearing families apart and putting so many innocent people into camps.”
Trump’s administration has made a point of using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe attacks by ISIS and other Jihadist groups. It’s a phrase that President Barack Obama avoided out of concern about marginalizing other Muslims.
Ilham was among 28 survivors of religious persecution that Brownback took to the White House to meet Trump on Wednesday. She said she was surprised when Trump was friendly to her after reading his comments about Muslims in the news.
“He was a lot nicer than I expected… I did not expect him to be willing to speak to us, to actually have a conversation,” she said in an interview.
Ilham said she met with Brownback a month before the ministerial to discuss the treatment of Uyghurs and that he ensured she have a chance to speak at the conference.
“I really appreciate it because the Uyghurs issue needs to be mentioned definitely because it’s the largest humanitarian crisis after World War II and we do not want to repeat the history,” she said.
During a news conference at the end of the summit, Brownback called for international pressure on China to close the camps and release the detained Uyghurs.
“I think we need to get more global pressure. I think we need to get more from Muslim countries. To date, we haven’t had that many speak out about it. Turkey has, but we need to get others. I think we really have got to say this is unacceptable behavior,” he said. “It always was, but it certainly should be in 2019 to operate these detention facilities.”
The conference comes at a time when the U.S. is facing questions about its own commitment to human rights as Trump looks to block migrants from seeking asylum at the southern border.
Pompeo’s announcement of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights has also been met with skepticism by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who see it as an effort to undermine LGBT rights in favor of protections for religious conservatives.
The ACLU said the Trump administration’s past actions “have made it abundantly clear that the administration has zero interest in being a global champion of human rights” despite the rhetoric from Pompeo.
Brownback’s office analyzes the status of religious freedom around the globe and responds to cases of religious persecution. But he is barred from evaluating the state of religious freedom in the U.S.
“That’s the one country we can’t cover, that I don’t have statutory authority in,” Brownback said when asked to assess the state of religious freedom and tolerance at home. “And that was purposeful because the debate internally in religious freedom is substantial and so they wanted to keep this job as bipartisan as possible.”
“In my home state of Kansas, we had a case where a Hindu man was shot in a bar in a suburb of Kansas City. It was a horrible thing. He was shot and killed… These things when they happen it does matter how the government responds. You need to respond aggressively and say we will not tolerate this and we’re going to prosecute this to the full extent of the law,” he said.
Brownback’s associates say the job has returned the former governor to his roots. While his time in Topeka was focused on tax cuts, in the U.S. Senate he was best known for speaking out against genocide in Darfur and other humanitarian crises.
“I think ‘meant for’ is the proper way to put it,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who served alongside Brownback. “He feels very deeply about this. He always has. He was interested in the welfare of refugees and people going through a horrible situation long before he got appointed to this, so this is sort of a dream job for him.”