Last night, news broke that President Donald J. Trump will nominate Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
This is yet another ill-considered appointment from Trump. The position, run under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, is charged with the task of promoting religious freedom worldwide. It will be difficult for Brownback to do this since his track record shows he doesn’t believe in religious freedom for all.
At Americans United, we believe there can be no true religious freedom without separation of church and state. A high and firm church-state wall protects religious freedom by ensuring that every citizen has the right to support only the religion of his or her choice – or support none at all. When the government has a preferred religion and takes it upon itself to impose that faith on people, fundamental rights are violated.
Gov. Sam Brownback is a poor ambassador for religious freedom.
Brownback, an unabashed opponent of separation of church and state, doesn’t grasp this. As governor of Kansas and before that as a member of the U.S. Senate, he worked to undermine the church-state wall and has fought to adopt particular religious viewpoints as law that applies to us all.
As governor of Kansas, Brownback’s record was in this area has been alarming. He openly vowed to use religion (read: fundamentalist forms of Christianity) as a tool to achieve government goals and backed various “faith-based” programs.
Angry over the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Brownback lashed out in July 2015 by signing an executive order designed to undermine the decision in his state. Brownback’s Executive Order 15-05 was described as an effort to protect groups that hold “the belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” As AU noted at the time, the order’s real purpose was to allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and others – even when those groups were receiving taxpayer funding.
The following year, Brownback signed legislation allowing religious clubs on college campuses that receive funding from student fees to discriminate against students who fail to meet the doctrinal beliefs of the club.
Under Brownback, extreme fundamentalist groups were given free rein at the state capitol, and some critics charged that the state was getting too close to a fundamentalist ministry run by a self-appointed statehouse chaplain named Dave DePue. DePue celebrated his access to legislators but blithely asserted that Muslims wouldn’t have the same rights.
Brownback’s view of religious freedom is stunted. His thinking reflects a common Religious Right view that turns religious freedom into an instrument for one group to harm others, take away their rights or treat them as second-class citizens. Thus, it’s not surprising that Brownback in 2012 signed legislation designed to ban Islamic law in Kansas. He did this even though Islamic law is not a threat in Kansas or any other state, and he ignored the fact that such measures simply stoke the flames of bigotry and discrimination.
Brownback seemed to have trouble with the parameters of his job and often took on a role more suited to a pastor. His first inauguration in January 2011 had the feel of a revival service, and he proclaimed Dec. 8, 2012, to be a “Day of Restoration,” calling on residents to “collectively repent of distancing ourselves from God and ask for His mercy on us.” The proclamation promoted ReignDown USA, a group that held an evangelistic event that day in Topeka.
In October 2015, Brownback was among the speakers at a gathering of the World Congress of Families (WCF) in Salt Lake City. WCF is quite extreme and supports not only an end to marriage equality but also a ban on no-fault divorce, abortion rights and contraception access. The group has accused the U.S. government of “aggressive state promotion of androgyny” and advocates policies that would discourage women being in the workforce.
Brownback’s hostility to the church-state wall is longstanding. In January 2005, he attacked church-state separation in a Wichita Eagle column. Parroting facile, easily debunked claims often raised by the Religious Right, he opined that courts have “profoundly misinterpreted” the separation of church and state. He said the principle has been taken too far and added, “The separation of church and state would not establish one religion, not a removal of religion from public life.” He fails to see that a vision of church-state relations that allows anything this side of an official church is a recipe for oppression.
Late in 2007, Brownback attempted to attach a measure to a veterans’ affairs bill that would have made it more difficult for Americans to defend separation of church and state in court by barring the recovery of reasonable costs and attorney fees in successful cases against the government. Brownback told a fundamentalist Christian website that he wanted to make it more difficult for groups to file lawsuits over displays of nativity scenes and Ten Commandments on government property. Such displays, when erected and paid for by the government, send a message of exclusion to people who don’t share the favored faith. Brownback wanted to make it harder for those people to stand up for their rights in court.
The previous ambassador at large for international religious freedom was Rabbi David Saperstein, a longtime ally of Americans United and a passionate, articulate defender of church-state separation and the individual right of conscience. Saperstein understood that religious freedom is a corollary of church-state separation. He also believed that religious freedom applies to everyone, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, non-believers or people of other minority faiths.
Brownback doesn’t get that – and the state of religious freedom around the world will be much poorer for his unfortunate lack of knowledge.