WASHINGTON — One year ago, Sam Brownback was in paradise, but it felt like hell.
The town, called Cox’s Bazar, was once known as a top tourist destination in Bangladesh. Today, it’s associated with a different type of visitor: victims of religious persecution.
Brownback was there on official business. Two months earlier, he'd been sworn in as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and would now meet with Rohingya Muslims who had fled for their lives from nearby Myanmar.
Although the title was new, the job was familiar. As a senator, Brownback helped create the ambassador role in 1998.
In the two decades since, the position has come under fire. America’s international religious freedom efforts are called weak or worthless. Some claim we’ve essentially put Christian missionaries on the State Department’s payroll.
Brownback vowed to change his office's image. He would no longer simply "name and shame" intolerant governments. Instead, he would take action, convincing the world that religious freedom saves lives and strengthens economies.
"Time is short. Every passing day finds more people persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and even killed for simply practicing their innermost convictions," he said before his October 2017 confirmation hearing. "We cannot let this dire situation continue without an aggressive response."
Born and raised Methodist, Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002. In his time in Congress and as governor of Kansas, he built a reputation as someone willing to use political power to advance ideals informed by his faith. He has staunchly opposed abortion rights, overturned protections for LGBTQ workers and supported a travel ban seen by some as an attack on the Muslim community.
For these reasons and others, his confirmation to the post of religious freedom ambassador was tense, and Vice President Mike Pence had to step in to cast a tie-breaking vote. Throughout, Brownback swore he’d work for people of all faiths and none.
Here, along the southern coast of Bangladesh, he made good on his word.
Dressed in a baggy beige sweatshirt and pants the color of desert military fatigues, Brownback and his entourage moved slowly through the refugee settlement, stopping to talk with anyone willing, including children and imams.
He was horrified by what he heard. Since the previous August, around 700,000 refugees had fled Myanmar to escape attacks by the country’s military, which the United Nations and U.S. government have called "ethnic cleansing."
"To my deep dismay, every person I spoke with—man, woman or child—had witnessed firsthand the shooting, stabbing or murder of a close family member," Brownback later wrote.
Brownback said what they suffered was "as bad as or worse than" any other attacks he’s seen, including actions the U.S. government called genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.
"When these things happen the earth should shake. There should be substantial consequences," Brownback told Politico when he returned to the U.S.
Cox’s Bazar created an opportunity for the new ambassador. When he helped create the job, he hoped it would protect people of faith all over the world. Here was a chance to do just that.
And yet, one year later, Brownback’s visit has resulted in no meaningful policy action. The U.S. government has sent money to refugees in Bangladesh and sanctioned individual military officials but stopped short of labeling Myanmar’s actions as genocide, which would require further action on behalf of Rohingya Muslims.
"To go and say, 'I feel your pain,' is not a religious freedom policy," said Shaun Casey, who served as U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs from 2013 to 2017.
Too often over the last 20 years, U.S. officials have praised religious freedom without taking the actions necessary to protect it around the world, said Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute.
"The job of U.S. foreign policy is not simply to issue reports," he said. "It is to advance religious freedom, which requires more than identifying the problem."
And religious freedom is in need of advancing. More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously restrictive environment, according to Pew Research Center. Across the globe, people face job loss, jail time or death for practicing their faith.
In China, Uighur Muslims are sent to re-education camps and Protestant churches are bulldozed. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are jailed and missionary volunteers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are sent home. In the Middle East, Christians are trying to rebuild their churches, which were ravaged by bombings and other violence.
By title at least, Brownback is the top official in America charged with solving these problems. But since 1998, the office he leads has been hamstrung by inconsistency, competing policy goals and partisan clashes.
Brownback has the passion to change the world. But what about the power?
Brownback is trained as a lawyer, but he doesn’t sound like one. He says "wadn’t" instead of "wasn’t" and "gotta" and "outta," bringing a farm-boy accent to press calls and speeches.
His life and political career began in Kansas, where he served as secretary of agriculture beginning in 1986. Less than a decade later, he was in Congress, first in the House from 1995 to 1996 and then the Senate for 14 years after that.
As a senator, he co-sponsored the bill that revolutionized America's approach to religious freedom. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act created the position he holds today.
"This issue and Sam have grown up together," said Chris Seiple, who is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement and has known Brownback for more than 20 years.
Before 1998, the United States, like other signatories to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, pledged support for religious freedom but only haphazardly worked to protect it around the world. Members of Congress, including Brownback, met with religious prisoners during trips abroad, but there was no one in the State Department or White House focused on religious freedom full time.
"The State Department was neglecting religious freedom" compared to other human rights issues, said John Hanford, who co-authored the legislation.
Religious freedom needed a champion, Brownback said, and the International Religious Freedom Act gave it dozens. There's now an ambassador and office dedicated to the issue at the State Department, as well as an independent, bipartisan commission charged with tracking religious persecution across the globe.
America has "more staff dealing with religious freedom in the State Department than the rest of the world combined," Brownback said.
They track faith-related violence and unfair laws, calling on governments to embrace religious freedom and release religious prisoners.
"No other government comes close to providing the detailed and largely accurate reports on what is happening abroad," said Farr, who was the founding director of the State Department’s religious freedom office.
It's not enough.
The International Religious Freedom Act justified its existence by stating that "more than one-half of the world's population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit" their citizens' religious freedom. Today, 83 percent of the world's population lives in an environment with "high or very high" religious restrictions, according to Pew.
"I look at these numbers and go, 'Man. This isn’t very good,'" Brownback said. "But you ask people about it and they go, 'Well, imagine how much worse it would be if we’d done nothing.'"
As Brownback noted, religious freedom "is one of those human rights that many countries feel free to violate." Victims of religious persecution rarely have political power.
"It’s not like if you violate a trade agreement and the other side can then put tariffs on your products," he said. "In most of these places, the person on the other side of your violation is mostly powerless."
On a deeper level, religious persecution spreads because it’s part of the human condition, said James Patton, president and CEO of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Faith groups clash with other faith groups and individual believers clash with other believers over who God is and what God wants for humanity.
"In our work, I always caution people not to think we’re going from Point A to Point B, to the end of conflict," he said. "We have to stand on one side of a scale that’s always being tipped."
Still, Brownback and others can't help but imagine what would be different if the U.S. had adopted a better approach. For much of the last 20 years, the State Department has struggled to integrate religion into its diplomatic efforts.
"People who work as our foreign service officers around the world are as intelligent a group of people as you’ll find in any U.S. government agency," said Hanford, who served as international religious freedom ambassador from 2002 to 2009. "But it is surprising how often there is a comparative lack of understanding of the important role that religion and religious practices play in the lives of people around the world."
Religious freedom, like women's rights or climate change, is a broad issue. It's difficult to handle from a single office, but there also aren’t enough resources to put a religious freedom expert into every regional delegation, Casey said, noting that the State Department can be like a "slow-motion trainwreck."
"Every country struggles with this," he said. "How do you integrate global concerns into regional and country-to-country relationships?"
Religious freedom also has to compete with other policy goals, and it often loses. The U.S. government, which is instructed by the International Religious Freedom Act to punish the worst violators of religious freedom, routinely waives potential sanctions.
"Unilateral sanctions are almost never imposed, and do not work when they are," Farr said.
For example, Saudi Arabia, which has been considered a "country of particular concern" for 15 years, avoids tariffs due to other national interests, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.
The government's hesitation to upset certain allies or further complicate already difficult relationships can be frustrating for religious freedom advocates, like Kristina Arriaga, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In 2017, she began advocating on behalf of the Rev. Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey and accused of religious terrorism. At first, she was treated more like a troublemaker than an advocate for human rights.
"When I first spoke to some career diplomats at the Tillerson Department of State, I was told that Pastor Brunson was in prison because he was an American, not because he was a pastor. I sensed they were not too thrilled about Commissioner Sandy Jolley and me raising Pastor Brunson’s case as a religious freedom case," she said.
It took a shift in State Department leadership for her concerns to be taken seriously. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey last summer, freezing the U.S.-based financial assets of two of the country's top officials. In October, the Rev. Brunson was freed.
Secretary Pompeo "was extremely supportive and he raised the issue to the highest levels of our government," Arriaga said.
As her experience illustrates, Brownback and members of the religious freedom commission are at the mercy of their superiors. A single ill-timed statement from the White House can disrupt years of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Hanford said.
Brownback has the odds stacked against him, no matter how confident he sounds.
"International religious freedom work is one of the most difficult challenges in the world. You’re … going up against centuries of tradition, deeply held religious convictions (and) often tyrannical government control. You’re sitting there thousands of miles away and trying to persuade countries to do things that often would be unpopular even with their own people," Hanford said.
God and government
On a sunny afternoon in late February, Brownback sits in his office at the State Department discussing his job, his government and his God.
His broad, wood desk and long windowsill hold reminders of professional successes and personal passions. There are family pictures, posters from a landmark meeting he helped organize last year and Post-it notes branded with the Future Farmers of America logo.
In some ways, Brownback's career was always building to this office. He co-sponsored the International Religious Freedom Act. He visited Darfur as a senator.
But he still has to pinch himself sometimes, like when he sat on a raised platform in Abu Dhabi last year next to the crown prince.
"I know a big God. That's the only way I can make sense of it all," Brownback said. To his left sit small stone tablets printed with the Ten Commandments.
God also helps people make sense of Brownback. When you meet him and work with him, you can tell it’s more than the paycheck that gets him out of bed in the morning, said Greg Mitchell, co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, which brings together policy experts, humanitarian groups and religious freedom advocates to brainstorm new programs and partnerships.
"I think he feels like he was called to this job and this work," Mitchell said.
God comes up naturally when Brownback is asked what led him to religious freedom activism. He believes free will is a "massive" gift from God and will do everything he can to preserve it.
"When people take that away from you … and don't let you practice your faith, it strikes me really as violating a very foundational thing that God gave us as humans: that right to do with your own soul as you see fit," he said.
To some, this perspective is a problem. Brownback’s conservative Christian faith, and the policies it's led him to support, nearly derailed his nomination to the role he now holds.
Originally nominated by President Donald Trump in July 2017, Brownback suffered months of bad press before the Senate considered his qualifications. He was mocked for the failed tax reforms he oversaw as governor of Kansas and criticized for revoking protections for LGBTQ workers.
"He has consistently conflated 'religious freedom' with a license to discriminate, signing an executive order that gave a blank check to religious organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples," argued a letter from the Human Rights Campaign opposing Brownback's nomination.
He also supported Trump's travel ban, which affected primarily Muslim-majority countries, and, as governor of Kansas, signed anti-Sharia law legislation, a move that critics said sanctioned Islamophobia.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2017, Brownback sidestepped a question about LGBTQ rights from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia.
"Is there any circumstance under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing people based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable?" Kaine asked.
"I don’t know what that would be," Brownback said in response. He argued that international religious freedom work should be kept separate from debates over LGBTQ rights or abortion, promising to work on behalf of all people in need.
These assurances didn't impress many liberal observers, including some members of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. When the Senate voted on Brownback's nomination in January 2018, not a single Democrat supported him.
"I think people were reacting to the president as opposed to Sam," Seiple said.
Others said the situation was more complicated than that.
"We didn’t, at the time, view his nomination as indicative of the administration’s support for broad religious freedom, but rather for (Christian) religious privilege," said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists.
One year after the close confirmation vote, Brownback tries not to waste time on political grudges. His to-do list is overflowing, and every person he meets seems to have a story to share about religious persecution.
"I went in to buy a pair of cowboy boots in Kansas over the holidays and a young man was there that had known my son growing up," he said. "He was telling me about people that he knew that were being persecuted in India for practicing their faith."
He seems to take this pain personally, longing for a day when no one suffers because of what they believe.
"Why should anybody be persecuted for peacefully practicing their faith, whatever that faith is? That just, at a core level, irritates me and makes my blood boil," he said.
Clad in a blue-striped button down, gray sweater vest and bright purple tie and speaking with a drawl, he doesn’t immediately strike you as a man who could enter the religious freedom landscape and make a difference. His supporters say that’s exactly what he’s done.
"He's injected new life and vigor into the whole international religious freedom movement," Mitchell said.
In the 15 months since he took office, Brownback’s met with dozens of victims of religious persecution, increased coordination between the U.S. government and private organizations working to end religious persecution, inspired other countries to hire religious freedom ambassadors and co-hosted a first-of-its-kind religious freedom gathering of leaders from more than 80 countries that spawned regional summits on this topic in the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.
Attendance at International Religious Freedom Roundtable meetings in Washington, D.C., used to hover around 70, even when they only happened once a quarter, Mitchell said. Due to Brownback's encouragement, they take place around twice a month and attendance regularly surpasses 100.
"Brownback is coming up with ideas like everyone else at the table," he said. "He really is so genuine about wanting to get results."
Many of these developments happened through sheer force of will. Beyond producing an annual report on religious freedom violations, Brownback has few official duties. It's up to each ambassador to make the most of their position, Hanford said.
"Advocacy is the real purpose of (the role.) You have to figure out on a country-by-country basis how best to pressure these governments into making changes," he said.
You also have to manage egos on the homefront, coordinating responses to religious freedom violations with the secretary of state and White House.
"We have influence (on sanctions) but it's a discussion so there are multiple entities that have a role in the discussion. Ultimately, the secretary or president is going to make that call," Brownback said.
Brownback's supporters say he navigates Washington, D.C., power structures better than most, crediting his time in Congress with teaching him the ropes. He's the first former congressman to hold the role of religious freedom ambassador, and it shows, said Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
"He's really approached this job in a different way than the other ambassadors have. He's been instrumental in this uptick of activity and impact," Grim said.
Brownback's political expertise has guided him as he's taken some calculated risks. No one has attempted something quite like last summer's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom before, Farr said.
"No previous administration has attempted such a bold move," he said.
The three-day event, aimed at increasing coordination between governments and organizations working to boost religious freedom around the world, brought together members of dozens of religious communities and leaders from more than 80 countries.
"Normally when you have international events associated with religious freedom, they're (attended by) low people in the diplomatic echelon," Arriaga said. The ministerial, on the other hand, "featured minister-level people, the equivalent of our secretary of state, who came to talk to each other and compare notes."
Events like the ministerial, which spawned a new declaration on promoting religious freedom and regional gatherings on the issue, have helped Brownback quiet some of the complaints that surrounded his nomination. He's formed partnerships with people of all faiths and none, both in D.C. and abroad.
"Ambassador Brownback has taken pains to be inclusive of the nontheistic community in word and action," said Matthew Bulger, legislative director for the American Humanist Association.
Fish noted, "It hasn’t been as bad as we thought."
In the process, Brownback’s gained more than friends and professional connections. His faith has deepened, as has his understanding of Islam.
"That’s the image of Islam: You’re saying 'God is great' as you're killing a bunch of people," he said. "Now, I'm working with a substantial group of Muslim leaders … that hate that presentation of Islam. … I'm going, 'You know what, if I were you, I’d be hacked, too.'"
His job exposes him to the worst forms of religious persecution, to families in refugee camps and imprisoned pastors. But it also brings him face to face with people who kept believing in the face of impossible obstacles.
"You see that depth of conviction," he said. "That's beautiful and I get to see that on a regular basis."
In turn, the religious freedom community sees their issue in the international spotlight like it's never been before.
"Victories don’t come fast and easy in this kind of work. But there's new life and vigor and a higher degree of hope now," Mitchell said. "Something special is building."
Later this year, Brownback and his team at the State Department will host a second ministerial at the State Department, continuing to seek a better global response to religious persecution. Brownback hopes to help build an international body empowered to punish the worst offenders. Like the United Nations, except more effective, he said.
"I would love to see some sort of international body that has some teeth," Brownback said.
He and others feel like world leaders are closer than they've been in a long time to ending religious persecution. At the same time, they know remaining roadblocks will be hard to overcome.
"There is tremendous interest in certain parts of the world and so we’re seeing some response to that. At the same time, there are other parts of the world that are completely disconnected from what's going on," Grim said.
Religious freedom violations are taking new forms that will be hard to combat even with international cooperation. In China, for example, an artificial intelligence-fueled surveillance system tracks when citizens enter houses of worship, allowing leaders to punish those believed to be too religious.
"I’m very concerned that they're going to try to export the religious persecution system they've put in place," Brownback said.
Still, governments like China may not be the biggest threat to Brownback's efforts. Many religious freedom advocates said his own administration is a major cause for concern.
The Trump administration is "trying to take care of their political base: Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals," Casey said. "To the extent that (Brownback) lets that go unaddressed, he's an instrument of this administration’s hypocrisy."
At the very least, the Trump administration's domestic religious freedom policies have undermined some of Brownback's work overseas.
Diplomats must answer for what happens on the homefront, said Farah Pandith, who served as U.S. special representative to Muslim communities from 2009 to 2014.
"No State Department official can do work overseas without recognizing that every single thing that happens in America bears on their work on the ground," she said.
Pandith remembers when a preacher in Gainesville, Florida, made the national news for talking about burning the Quran. Suddenly, a man with only around 50 people in his congregation had the power to derail high-level policy talks.
"What matters is the image overseas of who we are as Americans," Pandith said.
Increasingly, that image includes widespread acceptance of Islamophobic or anti-Semitic comments and actions. The Trump administration’s promise to end religious persecution feels empty when they allow it to continue in their own backyard, Casey said.
"There's this deep contradiction. They're saying, 'I believe in religious freedom for all,' while showing a bias against Muslims," he said, citing policies like the travel ban.
In general, American support for religious freedom is slipping, Farr said. Conflict over LGBTQ rights and women’s health have derailed the bipartisan consensus that once distinguished religious freedom efforts from other policy debates.
"There is a relationship between the decline of religious freedom in America and the relative ineffectiveness of American foreign policy over the past 20 years. It is difficult to sell a product which you do not understand, and in which you no longer believe," Farr said.
The Trump administration could help reverse this trend with a more consistent approach to this right, Patton said.
"There's an effort abroad that seems positive, but the reality at home doesn’t seem so positive," he said. "If the administration were as vocal about protecting religious freedom here in the domestic sphere, I think it would have a beneficial effect."29 comments on this story
Brownback believes his successes have happened because of the people above him, not despite them. It took Trump's election to turn religious freedom into a top policy goal, he said.
"You had to get an administration that wanted to really push (religious freedom) and that's what this one does and is. Once you had that, then you could go into some venues that you couldn't before," he said.
However, any progress made will fall apart if American leaders don't take religious conflict in the U.S. seriously, Farr said.
"If religious freedom is damaged or lost in America, where else can it be restored? The answer is nowhere," he said.