The day after being nominated as ambassador for international religious freedom, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback quoted Mother Teresa saying she loved all religions – but was in love with her own.
“The concept being that religion is a search for God, it’s where most people live their inner lives in faith,” Brownback said at a news conference. “I love that. I’m in love with my own.”
Brownback has never been shy about how his conservative Christian faith affects his public and political life.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he will become the first Catholic to be ambassador for international religious freedom. In that role, he will make policy suggestions and recommendations regarding people and governments accused of persecuting religious minorities.
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“He is a man of convicted compassion and courteous candor who — as a function of his own deeply held Christian beliefs — will work tirelessly for people of all faiths and none,” Chris Seiple, president emeritus at the Institute for Global Engagement, told Christianity Today.
Brownback’s faith has been preparing him for the position, said Dave DePue, a close friend and spiritual adviser to Brownback.
“He’s already done the work,” DePue said.
Yet Brownback’s history with religion and politics is mixed. Some religious leaders have lauded his nomination, saying he has a record of backing human rights and opposing persecution. Others have said his record as governor is one that prioritizes conservative Christians over other religious groups.
“I don’t believe in a theocracy, but at the same time I don’t think you should drive faith out of the public square,” Brownback said in a 2008 talk with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. “I think faith brings a lot to the public debate.”
Brownback’s faith has repeatedly shown itself in his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Raised a Methodist and later a member of Topeka Bible Church, Brownback became a Catholic in 2002.
He told the Washington Post that he "just felt a real deep calling” to Catholicism.
He became a Catholic in a ceremony performed by the Rev. John McCloskey, a member of the conservative Opus Dei sect. Brownback told the Washington Post in 2006 that he was not himself a member of Opus Dei, an institution that emphasizes drawing close to Christ through work and ordinary life and is known for being negatively portrayed in “The Da Vinci Code.”
As governor, Brownback said he would sign an “pro-life” legislation that came to his desk. Under his watch, Kansas enacted a prohibition on some abortion procedures and earlier this year signed into law a bill setting font and type size requirements for information given to women considering an abortion.
In a February letter, he urged Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, saying life begins at conception.
“A prerequisite for all other human rights, life is a gift endowed by our Creator. But this unalienable right is not equally protected for all our citizens; the youngest, smallest and most vulnerable among us are suffering,” Brownback wrote.
In 2009, as a senator, he signed a fundraising letter for a conservative Catholic group that was fighting the Freedom of Choice Act, which said every woman had the right to an abortion. The letter named five Catholic senators who had co-sponsored the act.
“Even if you are not Catholic – but share a respect for the sanctity of human life – we all reap the consequences of the votes cast by these radical, pro-abortion Catholics,” the letter read. “You can’t be both Catholic and Pro-Abortion!”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, Brownback has been mostly silent on the issue. But he was an outspoken opponent in the years before that.
At a 2014 rally in Wichita at Summit Church organized by the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative Christian organization, he touted that 70 percent of Kansas voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 2005 banning same-sex marriage.
“We need to push forward our candidates that stand for this country, that stand for faith, that stand for family, that stand for freedom,” he said. “This faith, family, freedom, that’s the name of the bus,” Brownback said, motioning toward a decorated bus. “It’s also the name of the basic American philosophy, guys. The motto of the nation remains, ‘In God we trust.’”
After the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Brownback issued an executive order preventing state government from discriminating against clergy and religious organizations that deny services to couples based on religious beliefs. At the time, he said religious liberty is at the “heart of who we are as Kansans and Americans.”
Tom Witt, director of the LGBT-rights group Equality Kansas, said Brownback is ill-suited to represent American values, at home or abroad.
“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. He has caused enough damage here in Kansas. We do not wish him upon the world,” Witt said.
“The foreigner amongst you”
In the 2008 talk at the Berkley Center, Brownback also pointed to his faith as a reason to help the poor, oppressed and “the foreigner amongst you.”
“The last piece people often forget about,” he said, adding that he began to focus on those issues because God was interested in them.
But although Brownback championed refugees during his time in the U.S. Senate, he moved last year to curtail Kansas efforts to help refugees.
In spring 2016, Brownback withdrew Kansas from a federal program that assists refugees in relocation. He said he made the move over concerns about the vetting of refugees.
At the time, President Barack Obama had said the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war.
About a year later, the Kansas Catholic bishops responded to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban by issuing a joint statement urging generosity and compassion in welcoming refugees. Included among the bishops was Joseph Naumann, archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, which includes parishes in Topeka.
The archbishop was not available to comment Thursday on Brownback’s nomination as ambassador. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Several religious leaders have pointed to Brownback’s 15 years in the U.S. Senate as examples of his support for religious and other minorities.
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said on Twitter that Brownback was “heroic” in dealing with the Darfur/Sudan crises, AIDS in Africa and persecuted religious minorities. “No one knows better issues of international human rights and persecution,” he tweeted.
In 2008 the Pew Forum reported that Brownback would attend Mass on Sundays, then join his family, who did not convert, at Topeka Bible Church. The Associated Press reported in 2011 that Brownback was a member of Christ the King Parish in Topeka.
In 1998, Brownback sponsored the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the position of ambassador-at-large.
In 2009, he introduced a resolution condemning Iran for state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities such as the Baha’i.
Moussa Elbayoumy, board chair of the Council of American Islamic Relations Kansas Chapter, said that Brownback’s more recent actions show a “narrow interpretation of what religious freedom means.”
“Sam Brownback as a governor has not shown the attitude that embodies inclusion and tolerance and respect for all faiths,” Elbayoumy said.
One example is when Brownback signed a bill aimed at keeping state courts and agencies from using Islamic or other non-U.S. laws, Elbayoumy said.
Critics said the law targeted Sharia, Islamic legal code.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, compared Sharia to Jewish Halachah, which governs what Jews can eat, how they should be married and divorced and how certain civil cases should be handled.
Brownback’s law “was an Islamophobic law based on fear and victimization of a minority population,” Rieber said. “You’re taking this person who has shown a lot of disrespect for religious minorities locally and putting him in charge of protecting religious minorities abroad.”
In September 2016, Brownback was tapped for Trump’s Catholic advisory group.
Ashley McGuire, senior fellow at The Catholic Association, said it was exciting to see a Catholic in the role of ambassador.
“But his role will be to advocate for people of all faiths,” McGuire said. “The Church has long stood for freedom of religion for people of all faiths, so I suspect he’ll draw on his Catholic faith. ... He’s qualified and is considered an expert on the issue and somebody who used his time in office to really advocate in a meaningful way for people persecuted on the basis of their faith.”