Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, seen here during a Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Kansas statehouse, is getting support to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom. File photo by John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, seen here during a Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Kansas statehouse, is getting support to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom. File photo by John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

Government & Politics

Will Trump pick Brownback for religious freedom role?

By Bryan Lowry

blowry@kcstar.com

May 19, 2017 07:00 AM

UPDATED May 19, 2017 11:34 AM

Gov. Sam Brownback’s name has been floated by religious leaders in recent weeks as a possible pick for an ambassadorship focused on promoting religious liberty worldwide.

Brownback’s office would not comment on whether the governor has discussed — or would be interested in — serving as President Donald Trump’s ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, a position based in Washington, D.C., saying that his focus remained in Kansas.

The position, which was established in 1998, is relatively obscure compared to some of the positions the two-term governor and former U.S. senator was rumored to be in the running for after Trump’s election, but religious organizations that have been pushing for a swift appointment say it’s critically important to the goal of world peace.

“It’s not on everybody’s lips: Who’s going to be the next ambassador for religious freedom?” said Tom Farr, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Institute. “But among that rarefied group that does talk about this, I’ve had people say, ‘I hear it’s going to be Gov. Brownback.’ 

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The White House would not comment on the possibility. This comes at a time when the governor is suffering low approval ratings and Kansas is still searching for a solution to a $900 million budget gap it will face over the next two years.

Farr spent 21 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and served as director of the Office of International Religious Freedom under the first two ambassadors. The Religious Freedom Institute, which he now heads, advocates for religious freedom as a human right. 

“I have heard his name. I’ve heard other names, too, though,” said Farr, who also serves as director of the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University. 

Several religious leaders have touted Brownback as a good fit for the position.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a group affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement that Brownback “would be an amazingly effective U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.”

“As a U.S. senator, Gov. Brownback was second-to-none in advocacy for persecuted religious minorities in places such as Sudan,” Moore said. “He has the experience and the ideas to get things done. A Brownback ambassadorship would make clear that the United States government takes seriously religious persecution around the world.”

Brownback championed the cause of refugees as a U.S. senator, but as a governor he withdrew Kansas from participation into the nation’s refugee program — a move that doesn’t stop refugees from being placed in Kansas but restricts state agencies from cooperating in that process.

He signed a bill in 2016 that restricts public universities in Kansas from enforcing any penalties against campus religious groups that refuse membership based on whether students adhere to the tenets of the faith.

Supporters say that policy protects campus groups’ religious freedom, but opponents say it enables discrimination and the state of California has cited it as the reason for restricting state-funded travel to Kansas.

Farr said that global religious freedom can reduce religious violence and facilitate economic growth and stability. That’s a case that the next ambassador will have to make both to foreign leaders and within the State Department.

The United States has appointed four ambassadors to the position since establishing the office in 1998, but Farr said that it “hasn’t become part of our foreign policy wallpaper.”

It took President George W. Bush roughly two years to fill the position during his first term and President Barack Obama about three years.

“This was as far below the radar as it could possibly have been,” Farr said.

Farr said the next ambassador needs “the capacity to sell this within the State Department,” and he believes that Brownback would have the gravitas to do that given his background as a U.S. senator.

“He’s not only been a U.S. senator and a governor, but when he opens his mouth on this issue, I think, people will understand that he knows what he’s talking about,” Farr said.

Religious advocacy groups pushed unsuccessfully for Trump to appoint an ambassador within the first 100 days.

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Hunter Woodall The Kansas City Star

Lou Ann Sabatier, spokeswoman for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a group with ties to the Southern Baptist movement that advocates for religious liberty worldwide, said the position “ties in so much to national security.” Her organization sent Trump a letter in February urging a swift appointment.

Sabatier would not comment on the possibility that Brownback would be the nominee, but said that “with what’s going on in Turkey and Syria and Iraq and China … you need a real diplomat. You need someone engaged full time on this.”

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

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he got a text about the possibility that Brownback could be up for the religious freedom job when he was in San Diego last weekend for the Republican National Committee meeting.

“I had to look up the position on Wikipedia to see if it was real. And it is,” Barker said of the position. “It kind of sounds like something he’d be interested in.”

Farr said there are “members of Congress who don’t know it exists. You can forgive people in Kansas for not knowing it exists.”

The Star’s Hunter Woodall, Lindsay Wise and Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3