Trump Taps Brownback, One of the Least-Liked Governors, for Religious Freedom Ambassador

by | July 27, 2017

By Bryan Lowry and Lindsay Wise

President Donald Trump has appointed Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to an ambassadorship, a little more than a month after the Kansas governor saw his signature tax policy dismantled by the state's Legislature.

Trump announced Brownback's appointment as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Wednesday evening. Brownback had long been expected to be named to the post.

"Religious Freedom is the first freedom," the governor said on Twitter Wednesday evening. "The choice of what you do with your own soul. I am honored to serve such an important cause."

Brownback was first elected governor in 2010 after a failed presidential run and 15 years in the U.S. Senate, overseeing Kansas' transformation into one of the leading laboratories for conservative policies.

He ushered into law new abortion restrictions, controversial welfare reforms and an aggressive tax-cutting strategy. He entered office with more than 60 percent of the vote, but he'll leave office as one of the least popular governors in the nation.

Brownback will be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon who played a key role in Brownback's decision to privatize the state's Medicaid system during his first term.

The ambassador serves as the United States' main spokesman for oppressed religious minorities around the globe. Brownback had been a top choice for religious leaders because of his advocacy on the issue during his tenure in the U.S. Senate.

The position requires Senate confirmation.

"Senator Brownback will, I sincerely hope, see this position as contributing to the national security of the United States," said Tom Farr, the president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Advancing religious freedom in our foreign policy will help Christians and other religious minorities around the world who are suffering persecution," said Farr, who served under two of the previous ambassadors. "It will at the same time undermine religion-based extremism and terrorism. He has an extraordinary opportunity, at low cost, to advance the fundamental national security interests of our nation."

The last person to hold the position was David Saperstein, a rabbi and attorney who held the post from January 2015 to January 2017.

Brownback's selection was criticized by Equality Kansas, the state's leading LGBT rights group that has repeatedly clashed with Brownback on the issue of religious freedom.

"Governor Brownback is unsuited to represent American values of freedom, liberty and justice, whether at home or abroad," said Tom Witt, the group's executive director. "His use of religion is little different than that of a bully wielding a club. His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens."

Former Virginia congressman Frank Wolf drafted the bill that created the ambassadorship for religious freedom in 1998. He now serves as a distinguished senior fellow for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

Wolf said Brownback's appointment will raise the profile of the post and bring more attention to religious freedom concerns.

"I think it's a great appointment," Wolf said in an interview on Wednesday. "Sam is such a good guy. This job is really made for Sam. On all these issues he's been there before almost anybody else."

Wolf said he and Brownback were the first two members of Congress to go to Darfur, Sudan, during the genocide there, and when they came back they pushed to have the U.S. recognize the violence there as a genocide.

His appointment "ought to send a message around the world that America cares very very deeply" about religious freedom, Wolf said.

Brownback's own faith will play a big role in his new position, Wolf said.

A bill passed by Congress in December strengthened the office of religious freedom that Brownback will lead, Wolf said.

The legislation "gives the office a lot more power and funding and authority," he said.

"It's a pretty big office _ probably has 20-25 maybe even 30 plus the new law that was passed in December really enhances the office ... This office now reports directly to the secretary (of State) so Sam will be Tillerson's right hand on these issues, and I think Sam will complement Tillerson very well."

Wolf said Brownback should have little trouble getting Senate confirmation because "Sam was well liked and well thought of by members on both sides of the aisle."

He said Brownback will be the first publicly elected official to hold the ambassadorship, which previously has been held by heads of non-governmental organizations and religious leaders.

Having a former governor and member of Congress in the role "will raise the profile," Wolf said.

Wolf rejected that the ambassadorship could be seen by some as a step down for the governor.

"Oh my goodness no ... .I understand maybe somebody in Kansas hasn't heard of it, but it is an important job ... 70 some percent of the people are living in a religiously oppressed environment."

Brian Hart, a former deputy chief of staff for Brownback in Washington, said accepting the appointment was a difficult decision for the governor "but when the president of the United States asks, it's hard not to answer the call to serve."

Hart said Brownback is the best person for this job, and in many ways, the position was created with someone like him in mind.

"Sam is a man of deep integrity, strong faith, and knows how to get things done," he said. "He was the singular champion for advancing religious freedom and human dignity while in the U.S. Senate where he was the chairman of the Helsinki Commission and authored the North Korea Human Rights Act, which is now law."

(Wise is a reporter for the McClatchy Washington Bureau.)

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)