Gov. Sam Brownback is preparing to leave Kansas for a new job in the Trump administration, but his new title has many Kansans scratching their heads: What is the ambassador at-large for religious freedom?
This isn’t an overseas posting. The ambassadorship is based at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
Brownback will oversee a staff of about 25 as the head of an office responsible for publishing an annual report on religious freedom in virtually every country in the world, along with a list of the countries that are the world’s worst abusers.
Brownback also will be able to make policy suggestions and recommendations, such as sanctions against individuals or foreign governments accused of persecuting religious minorities.
Brownback told reporters at his first public appearance since the announcement that he was struck by the importance of the position when he attended mass at the Catholic church across the street from the Capitol in Topeka.
“I did something that is done by millions of Americans every day, but if other people do it in different parts of their world they risk their lives or could face death … I took communion. And people face death around the world for a simple act,” Brownback said Thursday, his voice cracking.
He’ll be expected to assist religious and human rights groups, testify before Congress on issues of religious freedom, and meet with foreign government officials to discuss persecution of religious minorities in their countries.
Brownback said he was approached by a man at mass from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who told him he hoped he would take up the issue in that country, telling him he had a friend killed for being of the wrong faith.
“The issue of religious freedom is incredibly important and this administration is committed to working on it and working on it aggressively,” he said.
The office has a budget of $6 million, according to congressional documents. He will report directly to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Brownback will be the first publicly elected official to hold the ambassadorship, said former Virginia congressman Frank Wolf, who introduced the bill that created the ambassadorship in 1998.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that he is glad the Trump administration shares his “commitment to defending religious freedom” and that he looks forward to considering Brownback’s nomination.
Brownback said he had not spoken to any members of the Senate and had no idea about the timeline for a confirmation vote.
Brownback said that arguably the state of religious liberty globally has gotten more dire in the two decades since the passage of that bill and that he would fight to make it part of the foreign policy discussion in Washington.
He recalled traveling to Darfur, Sudan, with Wolf during the genocide in the country.
“I remember vividly meeting with people that were forced into refugee camps by a government that was persecuting a group of people. Women and children scared to go out of the refugee camp even for firewood for their fires at night for fear they’d be raped by marauders,” said Brownback, who carried the Darfur genocide bill as a member of the Senate.
“If you can give the face a name, often you can stop them from being killed,” he said of the work he would do on behalf of religious minorities.
Previous ambassadors have been religious leaders or heads of nongovernmental organizations, said Wolf, who now serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian nonprofit in Washington.
The previous ambassador at-large for religious freedom was Rabbi David Saperstein, who held the post for about two years under President Barack Obama.
Before that, the post was vacant for a long time, said Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Hudson Institute, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom.
“It has not had a lot of influence, frankly, because it’s been demoted in a way from the original act in the sense that it did not have direct reporting” to the secretary of state, Shea said. “It became a subset of the human rights bureau.”
Brownback’s appointment could help boost the office’s influence, she said.
“To have someone with stature and political connections in Washington and respect and experience in government and Congress, with political stature in his home state, will bring it more heft,” Shea said.
Legislation passed in December and signed by Obama strengthened the clout of the office by bolstering staff levels and funding.
As a result, Wolf said, Brownback will be taking over an office with “a lot more power and funding and authority.”
Wolf rejected any suggestion that the ambassadorship could be a step down for the governor.
“Oh my goodness no. ... A lot of people wanted this job.”