*UPDATE*: Sam Brownback as Religious Freedom Ambassador? His Distinguished Predecessor Hopes for the Best

[Editor’s note: a clarification/correction to the author’s reporting of his interview with Rabbi Saperstein was added to this piece on 8/4/17.]

Full disclosure: Rabbi David Saperstein is a friend and colleague of many years. I came to know him during his long and very fruitful tenure as director of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center in Washington.

I asked David to comment on Trump’s appointment of Kansas governor Sam Brownback to the position that he himself held for two years as Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, working under President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

What Rabbi Saperstein told me was measured and wise. He is never less than consistent in that regard.

He rejected my supposition that Gov. Brownback will be a culture warrior on the international stage solely in behalf of beleagured minority Christians. He believes that Brownback could be well matched to the position, provided that he gains the full support of Secretary Tillerson. He commended Brownback’s early good work on South Sudan’s liberation struggle and on the ongoing plague of human trafficking.

Rabbi Saperstein’s insight about the particular situation of global Christians struck me as especially valuable.

Based on his experience, he doubts that the persecution of minority Christians in multiple countries is necessarily the most severe case of religious suppression. But he observed to me that: “the huge success of Christianity at the global level means that Christians are very often a religious minority. And because many of these minority Christians are compelled to proselytize, they automatically become a threat to authoritarian leaders. This reactivity is amplified in an era when any form of ‘extremism’ is suspect and can even be conflated with terrorism.”

In a realpolitik moment, Saperstein observed that what any religious freedom ambassador can expect to accomplish often depends on other moving parts within government. For example, the prospect of participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal provided the leverage for Vietnam to draft a sweeping comprehensive religious freedom law.

But Saperstein is no cynic about these leveraged achievements: “We should remember that there are millions of people who are truly suffering and that the United States still plays a critical role in hewing to the idea that universal human rights are a real thing and not merely a ‘Western imposition’ that can easily be dismissed.”

As to Brownback, Rabbi Saperstein asked me to keep his private views of the governor’s leadership in Kansas strictly private. My own reading of Brownback’s gubernatorial performance appear below.

What he did say is that he hopes senators will give Gov. Brownback the same fair treatment that he received when his own name came up for confirmation. Namely, while many conservative senators, including then-presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, could easily have made an issue of David’s well-publicized positions in support of abortion and gay rights, they and other senators chose to focus only on his capabilities for the ambassadorial position.

I came away even more admiring of Rabbi Saperstein as a model of fairness and generosity in his own person. May his tribe increase.


As to my assessment of Gov. Brownback:

It was thought by many that #45 might skip appointing an ambassador at large for religious freedom, especially as Rex Tillerson is apparently trying to cut down on such special portfolios at the Dept. of State. Plus Trump’s only recorded “thought” regarding international religious freedom has been his pandering notion that good Christians everywhere are having a hard time of it, mainly due to the dark forces of Islamofascism.

Alas, that crude notion appears to be the reason he’s giving the ambassador job to Sam Brownback, the deeply unpopular governor of economically-floundering Kansas.

As the Marxists say, it can be no coincidence that this new shout-out to Christian conservatives within Trump’s base comes during the same week that the Orange Prez decided to slam trans people by declaring them unfit for any form of military service.

Surely these moves have nothing at all to do with the fact that this same Orange Prez is also trying to remove Jeff Sessions, another Christian conservative who is almost as beloved as Mike Pence among evangelicals and fundamentalists and right-wing Catholics.

Art of the deal, indeed.

Brownback himself is a hardcore Catholic who goes to mass several times a week. But I doubt that his kind of Catholicism would be recognized by, say, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Most of America’s nuns are cool with religious diversity and women’s empowerment, whereas Brownback’s agenda is mainly about defending Christians. And he’s no friend of independent women (see below).

Brownback’s own views on abortion and LGBTQ rights are notorious. On becoming governor, he said that he would sign any anti-abortion measure that came across his desk. Under Brownback, Kansas became the first state in the nation to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a common type of abortion during the second trimester. That punitive and misogynistic law remains subject to court injunction and cannot currently be enforced.

Shockingly, in his State of the State address in January 2014, Brownback said that Kansas had been “called to be a national leader on moral issues,” citing the 1991 and and 2001 “Summer of Mercy” anti-abortion protests that ultimately led to the murder⎯in a church, no less⎯of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

It’s no surprise Brownback has repeatedly clashed with Equality Kansas, which condemned his appointment to the ambassadorship. Two years ago he removed civil rights protections for LGBTQ state workers. Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, offered this pungent comment on Brownback’s commitment to religious freedom:

“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.”

Oh, and let’s see. What else has ​Gov. ​Brownback​ ​accomplished for the ​good people of the Sunflower State?

This Rollling Stone overview from a few years back chronicles the multiple catastrophes suffered by Kansans during the freaky-deaky Brownback era.

Like Wisconsin’s Scotty Walker, Brownback viciously stripped public employees of their union rights (no freedoms for mere workers!). At the behest of Charles and David Koch, he engineered a series of tax cuts so as to reduce the state tax liability of Wichita-based Koch Industries to zero. Using Koch money, he crushed moderate opposition in the legislature. Never mind that he bankrupted the state in the process, to the point that the Republican legislature finally had enough and started pushing back against the carnage.

Brownback also privatized the state’s Medicaid system and enacted the nation’s strictest work requirements for welfare recipients.

Best friend to the plutocrat and ruthless scourge to the poorest​ among us: that’s Sam Brownback’s ​actual idea of “national moral leadership.”

​But I do hope that Rabbi Saperstein is right in respect to the guy’s qualifications for his new job.

And at the very least, it will be a great day for Kansas and Kansans when Sam Brownback departs Topeka.



Author’s Note: Correction

My reporting of the above interview with Rabbi David Saperstein contained several inadvertent misrepresentations of Rabbi Saperstein’s carefully-framed comments to me.

Most seriously, I wrote that Rabbi Saperstein “doubts that the persecution of minority Christians in multiple countries is necessarily the most severe case of religious suppression.” Those are my words, not the ambassador’s, and they do not reflect his views.

I also conflated several separate and distinct points made by Rabbi Saperstein:

  1. The global success of Christianity means that Christians constitute notable minorities in more countries than any other religion; thus in non-Christian countries where all religions face government repression or social hostility, Christians will always be affected.
  2. Religious groups that exercise their religious freedom right to proselytize may create tensions among other religious groups.
  3. Authoritarian governments that mistrust groups that organize peoples’ lives around principles and ideas that those governments do not control will often seek to impose more control over religion.
  4. When faced with terrorism carried on in the name of religion, governments – and authoritarian governments in particular – react by cracking down on religion generally and may single out minority religions that they associate with foreign influences.