TOPEKA — Some call him “Pastor Sam.”
He occasionally evokes a preacher’s tone while citing lengthy Bible passages to a crowd of worshippers.
And he openly embraces the Lord in the Capitol, praying with lawmakers, priests and ordinary Kansans.
Through his bold promotion of Christianity and faith-based programs, Gov. Sam Brownback has brought religion into the public sphere more than any governor in generations.
It has heartened some, while drawing criticism from others who see it as a threat to the separation of church and state.
“I think that Gov. Brownback represents the family values of a large percentage of Kansans,” said Donna Lippoldt of Wichita, state prayer leader for the Kansas Governors’ Prayer Team. “I’m a Christian. He’s a Christian. We have like values, so it’s a pleasure to see someone stand up for Christian values, principles and basically values in the governor’s house.”
Lippoldt said she believes Brownback is carrying out a key role as an advocate for Christians in politics.
“If having a Christian in politics is rare, it’s because some believe Christians should stay out of politics,” she said. “That’s something I totally disagree with, because I believe that’s exactly where we should be.”
“He was elected to serve as governor of our state, not our state pastor-in-chief,” said Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United. “These folks want government leaders to adopt their religious vision and impose it on us all. That’s fundamentally wrong.”
Her statement came after Brownback issued an official proclamation in early December for the “Day of Restoration,” urging people to “collectively repent of distancing ourselves from God.”
The proclamation created an official day that fit with Brownback’s promotion of the ReignDown USA event held under a big white tent in a public park about 200 yards from the front door of Cedar Crest, the official governor’s mansion.
Standing alone backstage behind the big screens under the tent, Brownback clutched a black binder containing his weathered Bible, held together by peeling book tape after years of political travels.
The crowd held their arms open to God, palms to the sky. Arizona prayer leader Shawn-Marie Cole told them Kansas has the leader to show them the way.
Brownback took the stage to powerful applause.
Wearing a leather jacket over a purple sweater and a pair of tan corduroys Brownback recalled one of Billy Graham’s daughters being asked after Sept. 11, 2001, where was God?
“And she said, ‘Well, you know, we ask him to get out of our schools, we ask him to get out of our public squares, we ask him out of all these things and you want me to ask where was God on 9/11?’ ”
Brownback said we’re asking God to be with us “and in the model of our land.”
"I stand before you today, a leader of Kansas, and a sinful man, remorseful of my sins and our sins,” Brownback said, as people affirmed him with shouts of amen. “Sins of fear and lust, selfish ambition and idolatry. Sins of omission and commission. Sins of greed, sins of gluttony and pride. I stand here repentant. Forgive me God and forgive us."
“Hallelujah!” someone shouted.
“I pray this as a child of God,” Brownback said, finishing his closing prayer. “I pray this as a sinful man, I pray this as somebody in the position of governor of the state of Kansas. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
The crowd roared.
Brownback’s unabashed promotion of Christianity can make people of other faiths or no faith feel like second-class citizens, said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“It’s certainly wildly inappropriate for a state official to suggest or encourage specific religious activity and use the governor’s office to promote that,” he said.
Brownback’s staff says he has hosted Jewish events at Cedar Crest, attended a Hindu event in Kansas City and accepted an invitation from a caller on a radio show to meet with atheists.
Ed Flentje, a government and political science professor at Wichita State University who has worked for Republican Govs. Robert Bennett and Mike Hayden, said he sees no problem with Brownback speaking at religious rallies, even if he does remind people of his position as governor.
It becomes a problem when religion enters the public square and blends with policy, he said.
Flentje noted Brownback’s support of an amendment banning same-sex marriage, abortion laws and a proposal to let churches endorse candidates.
But he said as governor Brownback has been less vocal than in the past.
“I think he’s toned it down a great deal from when he was in the U.S. Senate and when he was running for president,” he said. “He was trying to claim that political territory when he was positioning to run for president.”
One of Brownback’s most important moves came early in his administration when he appointed Rob Siedlecki as director of the state’s social services agency. Siedlecki, who had served as senior counsel with the U.S. Justice Department’s faith-based initiative task force under President George W. Bush, brought a deep knowledge of how to navigate the legalities of providing public funds for services with church-oriented providers.
He pitched a series of faith-based ideas, but many faced opposition or disintegrated over time.
The federal government declined to back the Brownback administration’s effort to pay for state marriage licenses for unwed parents who volunteer to get counseling at state-chosen faith-based institutions.
Brownback praised the concept and offered part of his office as a temporary location for a “capitol prayer and meditation room” in the statehouse after such a room was proposed in the 2012 legislative session by then-House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe. Six other states have such a space set aside for prayer.
Lawmakers decided to switch the name to “meditation room” to thwart criticism that it would be geared toward one type of spirituality over another. The bill passed 107-17 in the House, but did not move out of a Senate committee.
One of Brownback’s greatest faith-based successes appears to be matching prisoners with about 500 faith-based and secular mentors through the Mentoring 4 Success program. It aims to cut down on how many people return to prison.
The governor says he is following in the steps of other leaders who embrace faith and understand that America is a “nation under God.” Kansas abolitionists were “beautiful people of faith,” after all, and he said he’s following in the tradition of Presidents Washington and Lincoln who were “deeply engaged in faith.”
“It’s a pretty good crowd,” he said.
Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, whose book “Red State Religion” traces Kansas’ history of religion and politics, said many of the state’s governors have mixed religion and politics.
Kansas’ fourth governor, Nehemiah Green, was a Methodist clergyman who pushed for laws against bigamy and adultery.
Gov. Edward Hoch, an active Methodist layman, spoke to local and national church groups about the merits of prohibition in 1908.
Brownback, a devout Catholic who attends Mass several times a week, has pushed hard to restrict abortions. He’s promised to sign any bill limiting abortion.
“The administrations of George Docking, Robert Docking, John Carlin, Mike Hayden, Bill Graves, and Kathleen Sebelius included few overt efforts to promote religion from the governor’s office,” Wuthnow said. “Governor Brownback’s mingling of religion and politics is more reminiscent of the state’s earlier leaders than of his immediate predecessors.”
Backstage at the ReignDown event, Brownback hugged worshippers and took photos with families behind the big tent as the three-hour event continued.
One of Brownback’s fans handed him a card and said he’d like to contribute to his campaign. Another said he appreciated Brownback’s pro-life stance.
Ken Oldridge, a retired teacher who worked with juvenile offenders in Topeka, said he had drifted away from God for years but has now returned and his life has improved.
He applauds Brownback’s public faith and said there’s plenty of historical evidence of political leaders mixing faith into their work.
"He’s bold in his faith, and he’s unafraid to walk out there and let them know what it is he believes," Oldridge said.
During his speech, Brownback told the crowd his religion was reshaped in 1995 when he was diagnosed with cancer and was searching for something real he could hold on to.
He said he visited his family’s farm, but began to realize that even his family isn’t necessarily going to be there forever.
“I finally reached up and said ‘God, this life is yours,’ ” Brownback said.