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Jon Gambrell, AP
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks to journalists in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Feb. 24. Pakistan has "a desire to change" its ways and be removed from an American blacklist of countries that infringe religious freedoms, Brownback said while on a tour of a Mideast long riven by faith.

For 21 years, the United States has had an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

So what?

That’s a question this page has been asking for years. Because of the First Amendment, the United States has long been a beacon for believers who are persecuted worldwide, and yet a recent Pew Research Center report found more than 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants live under intolerable religious restrictions.

The ambassador’s position was created as part of the Religious Freedom Act of 1998, bipartisan legislation meant to shore up the right to worship freely and exercise religion without restraint. But no president has used the ambassador’s position to its full potential — as a fundamental cog in U.S. foreign policy or as a high-profile State Department tool to bring comfort to the afflicted and meaningful punishment to the perpetrators.

The remedy for that may be more personal than you think.

Thanks to the excellent reporting of Deseret News religion reporter Kelsey Dallas, the question — so what? — has been put in perspective. Her profile of the current ambassador, former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, revealed a man genuinely passionate about his work and dedicated to ending oppression, but still at the mercy of both competing goals within the administration and the struggles over religious issues Americans are waging among themselves.

To the latter point, arguments in the United States over the rights of a baker or wedding photographer to refuse service on religious grounds, or whether a religious order should be forced to provide a health care package to its workers that includes funding for contraception, can weaken efforts abroad.

Religious freedom once had bipartisan support. Now it is becoming a wedge issue in the culture war. That’s troubling because it suggests to the world that the U.S. may no longer understand its historical role as a protector of fundamental religious rights — one of the pillars of liberty and dignity.

" Religious freedom once had bipartisan support. Now it is becoming a wedge issue in the culture war.  "

These internal struggles, while important to the long-term perspective of how the right to exercise religion will be interpreted in the law, pale in comparison to the systematic murders, torture and harassment happening abroad. But efforts to punish these crimes — through sanctions or other official actions — often fall victim to other foreign policy or strategic goals. And the office of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom gains or loses influence with each passing administration.

That said, Brownback deserves credit for raising the profile of his office and that of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has hosted international ministerials and roundtables. His goal is to form an international group that has real power to punish offenders, which would have the marvelous effect of uniting the civilized world behind religious freedom.

These are wonderful developments, and they have allayed many of the fears people once had that Brownback would pursue a Christian-only form of religious freedom.

But everything he does is subject to the whims of the White House and the Secretary of State, to which he is but one of several moving cogs. Making it the most important cog, however, depends not on any politician, but on you.

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For all its faults, the federal government ultimately is representative. The more Americans understand and appreciate the underlying need for religious liberty, and the more they become outraged at violations worldwide, the more political leaders will respond.

The people must answer the question — so what? — before Washington truly puts the answer in motion.

Brownback’s energy and enthusiasm have taken the issue a long way. But until Americans are united behind the reason his office exists, the intensity of worldwide persecution is unlikely to subside on its own.