This new group says people of faith are under attack. Here’s how it plans to help them

The National Committee for Religious Freedom is hoping to reduce faith-related conflict

After years spent combating religious persecution overseas as part of the Trump administration, former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is setting his sights on related conflict playing out much closer to home.

This week, Brownback, with the support of faith leaders from across the religious spectrum, launched the National Committee for Religious Freedom, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting the right of religious expression by, among other things, naming and shaming politicians who disregard the concerns of people of faith.

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The group, which is modeled after the National Right to Life Committee, plans to have a presence in all 50 states. Representatives will assess political candidates’ faith-related record, distribute voter guides and generally raise awareness of the “importance and beauty” of religious liberty, according to Brownback, a former U.S. senator who most recently served as ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.

“A big part of what we’ll be about is educating people about the necessity of this right,” he said.

In the past, the idea of having to provide such an education was practically unthinkable, since supporting religious expression was about as American as apple pie, Brownback noted.

But, in recent years, both cultural and political support for people of faith has declined, as church membership has grown less common and elected officials have turned their attention to other, at times competing, issues, including the expansion of LGBTQ rights.

“When I first came into Congress, religious freedom was ... one of the things that brought the left and right together. But it’s increasingly becoming a divisive issue,” Brownback said.

At a virtual press conference Tuesday announcing the new committee, religious and political leaders outlined some of the conflicts that both stem from and contribute to growing faith-related tensions.

Speakers bemoaned the fact that Americans no longer agree on whether it’s appropriate for a football coach to offer a prayer after a game or for a religiously affiliated foster care agency to promote Catholic teachings about marriage.

“Cultural and political elites ... defame as bigots and haters those with whom they disagree on matters of religion and public policy and public morality,” said Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., during Tuesday’s event.

Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedom during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah, on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. | Qiling Wang, Deseret News

What the mostly conservative group of speakers did not address is that many of today’s most pressing religious liberty debates are only partly caused by a lack of respect for or understanding of religious freedom and religious people.

In other words, concerns about the postgame prayer or Catholic foster care agency don’t necessarily stem from anti-religious bias; some people are more worried about protecting impressionable young football players or gay couples hoping to foster or adopt than protecting the people of faith who interact with them.

Brownback acknowledged that some of the problems the National Committee on Religious Freedom is hoping to solve have simpler solutions than others. It’s not his intention to make it seem as if one must choose between championing religious liberty and championing other human rights, he said.

“One of the things I don’t think people realize at all is that the countries in the world that are best on LGBTQ rights are also best on religious freedom,” he noted.

It’s also not his intention to paint religious liberty as a primarily conservative or Republican cause. Although some faith-related issues are highly polarized, many, including efforts to prevent violent attacks on houses of worship, are not, Brownback said.

“My hope is that you’ll have a number of Democrats who will rally to the cause,” he said.

However, Brownback added that the committee won’t pull punches in hopes of winning broad support. Human rights advocates must be willing to face pushback and work through it, he said.

“It creates tension when you stand up for a right like religious freedom. But the country is dependent upon people standing up for fundamental rights,” he said.