Sam Brownback’s two steps for tackling religious persecution
The former religious freedom ambassador no longer has a government job, but he hasn’t stopped fighting for vulnerable people of faith
This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.
Sam Brownback, who served as international religious freedom ambassador under President Donald Trump, left his post when President Joe Biden took office. But that doesn’t mean he’s done defending people of faith.
This spring, he’s been busy speaking and tweeting about religious violence and efforts to address it. In July, he’ll help host the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.
I checked in with Brownback last week to discuss the State Department’s new report on religious persecution and what he feels are the best strategies to use to build a more peaceful world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the key threats facing international religious freedom right now?
There are a lot of threats and a lot of bad places in the world. But the one that makes my skin crawl is the use of technology to oppress religious minorities.
In China, there’s a virtual police state and the government is able to track if you go into a mosque or talk to a member of Falun Gong. With artificial intelligence, they can know where you are at any and all times. You become a suspect and the government can freeze you out of school or jobs.
China is saying it has a legitimate system for the rest of the world to emulate. We’re seeing pieces of the technology pop up in different places.
How can America more effectively combat religious persecution?
I think your approach needs to involve two things.
Number one, you have to show the benefits of guaranteeing everybody’s religious freedom. Show that it’s good for the economy and for your security.
Countries like the UAE, Uzbekistan and Sudan are opening up because they’re realizing it’s unwise to force everybody to believe the same thing.
The second thing is to build alliances and be willing to stand with them against the oppressors of religious freedom. That’s why we formed the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance that includes about 40 nations now. Previously, we didn’t have these sort of alliances around a human right, just security or economic alliances.
How would you describe the goal of this summer’s International Religious Freedom Summit?
As groups that work in this space start to find each other, they become more effective. Around the world, you are starting to see international religious freedom advocacy take the form of a global grassroots movement.
My hope is that it becomes like the human trafficking movement, which has been very successful at the grassroots level. Everyone works together to advocate, push for change, show what’s happening and push back if needed. It’s really helped with human trafficking and we need that for religious freedom.
A movement is starting to take shape around religious freedom. I think with the help of summits like this summer’s, it’s going to grow rapidly.
Why does this work call to you?
As you just said, it’s a calling. It’s just really touched my heart.
There’s just so much of this persecution and I think we’re really on the cusp of starting to turn the tide. The issue needs continued U.S. leadership and support, and I’m in the position of helping to organize the effort and I’m so honored to be part of it.
You meet with people who have been persecuted for their faith and you realize they’re good people. They don’t want to hurt the government. They don’t want to kill anybody. They just want to follow their soul’s conviction and they sometimes get the death penalty for it.
That’s terrible. How is that right?
When I was in Taiwan a couple of years ago, the thought hit me that I’ve been given this chance to be God’s hands and feet on a cause that he’s got millions of people praying to him around the world about. I get to be part of the answer to their prayers.
Did you consider staying on in your ambassador role in the Biden administration?
I did consider staying on, but I think I’m too much of a conservative for them. On religious freedom it would have been a good fit, but, outside of that, in so many other areas, like abortion rights, I wouldn’t have been a good fit.
The summit does have a Democratic co-chairwoman, Katrina Lantos Swett. Her dad was a great human rights leader. She knows the topic well.
OK, we’ve made it to my favorite question: If you had to recommend a book, TV show, podcast or movie to someone who likes religion news, what would you recommend?
The most encouraging book I’ve read, outside the Bible, is “Imagine Heaven.” It talks about near-death experiences all over the world and in all different cultures. It’s eyewitness accounts of the other side, and it is a glorious book.
Fresh off the press
Six years ago, the state of Indiana passed new religious freedom protections and lots of people freaked out. Sports leagues threatened to stop holding tournaments in the state and leaders of other states announced they’d no longer pay for nonessential trips to Indiana. This year, both South Dakota and Montana passed similar laws and faced very little national backlash. In my latest article, I try to explain how that’s possible.
Terms of the week: Eid al-Fitr and Eid Mubarak
Eid al-Fitr, which is Arabic for the festival of breaking fast, is the holiday that comes at the end of Ramadan. Muslims celebrate by dressing up, exchanging gifts and spending time with loved ones. Eid Mubarak, on the other hand, is the greeting that Muslims typically exchange (and non-Muslims share with the Muslim community) during Eid al-Fitr. This year, Eid al-Fitr began the evening of May 12.
As the holy month of Ramadan comes to an end, Jill and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Eid. May you be well throughout the year. Eid Mubarak. pic.twitter.com/LqXDIAOwHc— President Biden (@POTUS) May 13, 2021
What I’m reading ...
Something that often comes up in my coverage of religious freedom and gay rights is faith groups’ regret over how their leaders and members treated the LGBTQ community in the recent past. Prominent pastors attacked gay Americans, painting them as disordered and disgusting. In a piece for Christianity Today, scholar Matthew Lee Anderson argues that the Christian community’s failure to atone for this behavior helps explain why many liberals are uninterested in boosting religious freedom protections today. “We now find ourselves in a position where progressive LGBT activists must decide whether to treat (conservative evangelicals) better than we once treated them by extending recognition through protections that they were once denied,” he wrote.
On a related note, a new analysis from the Survey Center on American Life argues that public support for transgender rights is likely to surge over the next decade or so, just as support for gay rights rose dramatically in recent years. The key factor driving both the predicted shift and the shift that has already occurred is the share of Americans who personally know someone who is gay or transgender.
I keep stumbling on stories about death. More specifically, stories about why it’s good to think about your own mortality. Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Catholic nun who advocates for this practice, says thinking about your death helps you lead a more fulfilling and more joyful life. “We try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it because we think that’s where we’ll find happiness,” she recently told The New York Times. “But it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.”
Odds and ends
In case you missed it, I recently recorded a video with attorney Lori Windham from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on the most significant religion case in front of the Supreme Court this term.
I’m taking part in a religion and foreign policy conference this week, so follow me on Twitter to see highlights from the panel discussions. Speakers will cover topics like migration, COVID-19 and religious nationalism.