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Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedown during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a senator, Sam Brownback co-sponsored the bill that still guides America's religious freedom work overseas. He spoke up for persecuted communities and met with the victims of faith-related violence.

To many, he seemed like the perfect candidate to serve as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. But others, including Senate Democrats, worried about his record on LGBTQ rights and past statements on Islam.

Brownback barely survived the confirmation process. Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tiebreaking vote in his favor in January.

"It was troubling to me because I'd worked with a number of those individuals on religious freedom issues and they know I could do the job and would be passionate about it," Brownback said.

But eight months into his new job, he has little time to worry about his reputation. His to-do list is long, and there's always some new conflict or policy concern to add.

"One of the advantages of being 62 is you're kind of past feeling like you need to prove anything," Brownback said. "You just go do your job. That's what you do."

His work includes traveling the world to encourage religious freedom protections and contributing to foreign policy debates. This summer, he hosted a first-of-its-kind ministerial on religious freedom, facilitating conversations between leaders from 84 countries.

Before taking on the role of ambassador, Brownback served as the governor of Kansas from 2011 to 2018. Before that, he spent 16 years in Congress.

After delivering a keynote address at this week's Law and Religion Symposium at Brigham Young University, Brownback spoke with the Deseret News about why religious freedom matters, which global conflicts haunt him most and how he responds to his critics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What's it like to have a job that you helped create?

Sam Brownback: It’s a great delight. Honestly, (religious freedom) is an issue I've felt strongly about for a long time.

I really believe in the job. And this administration is really willing to fight for religious freedom.

The position’s been there for 20 years but, at times, in the past, administrations weren’t as willing to fight for it, or they would fight some but not a lot.

This administration will fight passionately for it.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedown during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

DN: Who sets your priorities? How do you decide what to work on and where to travel?

SB: I’ve been around the political system enough to know you read the tea leaves. When the administration starts focusing on something, you get there with your portfolio.

The vice president’s office has been very focused, as has the president, on (American Pastor) Andrew Brunson and getting him freed in Turkey.

They’ve been very focused on rebuilding the area of Northern Iraq where the Christians and Yazidis lived.

And they’re both very focused on China and Iran now, both of which are, in our parlance, countries of particular concern because of their lack of religious freedom.

There are a lot of issues out there, but you get an opportunity to (make a difference) when the administration is focused on something.

DN: Speaking of "countries of particular concern," previous religious freedom ambassadors and the State Department, in general, have been criticized in the past for "naming and shaming" other nations without actually inspiring better behavior. How have you worked to make your office more effective?

SB: I think naming-and-shaming is appropriate. That’s why it was in the (International Religious Freedom Act.) It’s just insufficient.

So what I’ve done is really talked about the broader impact of religious freedom. If you want to grow your economy, you need to embrace religious freedom and embrace more people of diverse thinking. If you want less terrorism, you need to have more religious freedom so people don’t need to radicalize.

Part of this approach comes from my background being a governor where you’re constantly looking at ways to grow your economy because your people need jobs and they want more income. If we can appeal to other countries in terms of security and economic growth, then religious freedom gets more attention.

DN: The U.S. government has also been criticized for appearing to care more about Christians than members of other faith groups. How do you respond to that complaint?

SB: It's just false. My first trip abroad included going to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. They are a Muslim group being driven out primarily by Buddhists.

At the ministerial retreat, we included people of all faiths and people of no faith at all. We advocate to get people out of jail that are held for their faith regardless of who they are.

Our standard here is we don't pick a winner or a loser on faith issues. We push governments to stand for the right of religious freedom.

In Muslim-dominated countries, you might see a blogger that's an atheist and blogging about atheism get arrested. We say, "Look. He has a right to practice whatever he chooses, including no faith at all."

Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press
FILE - In this Monday, April 16, 2018, file photo, Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, talks to members of the media outside the prison complex Aliaga, Izmir province, western Turkey, where jailed pastor Andrew Craig Brunson appeared on his trial at a court inside the complex.

DN: There was a lot of excitement around your ministerial in July. Global leaders were clearly interested in participating, even on short notice. Why did it take until 2018 to have a meeting like that?

SB: There's been a hesitancy in Western countries to emphasize religious freedom. We — and I’m including the U.S. in this — have been more willing to emphasize economic or security issues than we have religious issues.

There’s always been this unease in Western societies about religion. It’s because we believe so strongly in separation of church and state. There's a sense that, if you're talking about religion, you're getting close to that line.

But that’s just not true. In our First Amendment, we protect this right to religious freedom. It's the government's role to protect that right, which is being trampled on.

Much of the world has been slow to embrace (discussions on religious freedom), but once we did open the gate up on it, there was a lot of interest.

DN: As you mentioned, there's a lot of tension in the U.S. surrounding how we separate church and state. How do domestic debates on religious freedom affect your international work?

SB: Fortunately, the statute that set this job up prohibits me from dealing with domestic religious freedom issues, which are the ones we get divided on. Internationally, we’re fairly united as a country and the political parties support that religious freedom is a basic human right.

It's in the United Nations' charter of human rights. It's in our Constitution.

By statute, I stay away from domestic religious freedom issues and that’s a good thing. That keeps us in a united position.

DN: What religion-related conflicts or concerns do you find yourself thinking about at the end of each day? What are your top priorities moving forward?

SB: China is sure up there. They’ve got one of the worst situations and it’s getting worse.

12 comments on this story

You can’t buy a Bible online. They are closing down churches. They’ve got Muslims in re-education camps. They’re persecuting the Falun Gong. They’re really a top concern.

I also want to get regional religious freedom summits going so that we spread this movement globally that we really put forward here. That’s a big priority.

Finally, I really want to get religious leaders of the Abrahamic faiths together, Jews, Muslims and Christians together, around one statement saying that our faith does not support the use of violence in the promotion of the faith. I think it would really be a powerful message to the world and so that’s been a big priority to push.