Trump picks Gov. Sam Brownback to be religious freedom ambassador. Here's what that means.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., June 7 (AP Photo/John Hanna).Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., June 7 (AP Photo/John Hanna).

President Trump has picked Gov. Sam Brownback, a social conservative from Kansas, as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He would be the first Catholic to fill the post. The role was created in 1998 and is charged with helping the U.S. government promote global religious freedom by highlighting abuses and making policy recommendations to lawmakers and the president.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Brownback will oversee the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which according to the State Department’s website, exists to “monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.”


The religious freedom position was created with bipartisan support when President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Part of the ambassador’s responsibilities include issuing an annual report ranking how religious freedom fares in other countries.

The ambassador is also a non-voting member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan committee, which also tracks abuses against religious freedom.

That group's 2017 report, released in April, begins by noting, “The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations.” It lists 16 countries “of particular concern” for religious freedom violations, including Russia, Pakistan and the Central African Republic.

Several prominent Catholics have served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission was recently chaired by Thomas Reese, S.J., a former editor-in-chief of America.

In the final weeks of his presidency, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the law, which is meant to enhance the protection of religious minorities and includes new language that protects “the right not to profess or practice any religion.” It also includes a provision to track how religious freedom faces threat from non-state actors such as terrorist organizations.

The 2016 law, supported by members of both parties, directs the president to sanction foreign leaders who violate religious freedom, enhances training for State Department employees and makes the ambassador for religious freedom report directly to the Secretary of State.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, head of the U.S. bishops committee on international justice and peace, expressed support for the law in a 2016 letter to lawmakers, highlighting religious freedom abuses in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The Trump administration has said that international religious freedom is a priority, with Vice President Mike Pence pointing specifically to violence against Christians.

High-profile cases of international religious freedom issues have become common in recent years, especially with continued fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. According to the Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of the world’s population lives “with high or very high restrictions or hostilities.”

The Trump administration has said that international religious freedom is a priority, with Vice President Mike Pence pointing specifically to violence against Christians.

Addressing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast last month, Mr. Pence said, “Christianity faces unprecedented threats in the land where it was given birth and an exodus unrivaled since the days of Moses.

“Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of this administration,” the vice president said, tying the issue to what he called “the cancer of terrorism,” which he promised the Trump administration would “drive from the face of the earth.”

If confirmed, Mr. Brownback will be the fifth person to serve as religious freedom ambassador. As a Senator, Mr. Brownback focused on religious freedom issues and he helped craft the 1998 law that created the ambassador post he is set to fill.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty praised Mr. Brownback’s appointment, saying in a statement, “His robust experience defending religious freedom for people of all faiths makes him uniquely qualified to lead America’s international defense of this most sacred and fundamental of human rights, religious freedom.” The governor, known as a vocal critic of abortion and same-sex marriage, converted to Catholicism in 2002 and he served on a Catholic advisory panel to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

Rabbi David Saperstein was the first non-Christian to fill the post, a role he held from 2014 until earlier this year.

The religious freedom post is not the only ambassador role charged with overseeing specific policy concerns. Other areas include human trafficking, H.I.V./AIDS, war crimes and women’s issues. Those posts are all currently vacant, according to The Washington Post.

The AP reports that Kansas officials expect Mr. Brownback to step down as governor when he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Brownback’s fellow Republicans called the job a good fit for him, and some conservative religious groups had pushed for the appointment.

There may be many in Kansas happy to learn of Mr. Brownback’s new appointment. In 2012, he made Kansas a laboratory in trickle-down economics by aggressively cutting taxes. The experiment has ended badly with the state’s economy and budget considerably damaged.

The Kansas Legislature repudiated Mr. Brownback’s program in June, rolling back most of those past tax cuts. The state legislature overrode his veto.

This story includes reporting from the Associated Press.

Correction, July 28, 2017, 4:50 p.m. An earlier version of this article said the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is chaired by Thomas Reese, S.J. He completed his term as chair in June. Additionally, the article has been updated to note that the ambassador at large for international religious freedom is an ex officio member of the commission, an independent and bipartisan group and corrected a conflation of the U.S.C.I.R.F. with the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

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