Is Kansas governor headed to key religious liberty post?
Advocates applaud speculation Sam Brownback will be the next ambassador-at-large for international religious liberty
WASHINGTON—Human rights advocates are heaping praise on Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as speculation grows that he will become the next ambassador-at-large 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,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He said Brownback would be “amazingly effective” in the job: “A Brownback ambassadorship would make clear that the United States government takes seriously religious persecution around the world.”
The 60-year-old Brownback, a conservative Catholic, served 14 years in the Senate before becoming governor of Kansas in 2011. He is two years into his second term, but also among the least popular governors in the country—with an approval rating below 30 percent. If nominated and confirmed, Brownback would vacate the governor’s mansion.
The State Department directed an inquiry to the White House, which did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. Brownback’s office would not directly address the potential appointment.
“Gov. Brownback is focused on his continued efforts to make Kansas the best state in America to raise a family and grow a business,” communications director Melika Willoughby said in an email.
The bipartisan praise for Brownback comes a day after House and Senate lawmakers introduced resolutions calling on the administration to make international religious freedom a centerpiece of its foreign policy agenda. The resolutions called for President Donald Trump to immediately name an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—a post vacant since January.
Some observers thought Vice President Mike Pence—a close Brownback friend—would make an announcement when he addressed The World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians on Thursday. He did not mention the post or Brownback, but he declared the issue a top concern: “Protecting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration.”
Several top religious freedom advocates declined to go on the record ahead of an official announcement, but some groups are already drafting press releases to rally around Brownback. They believe he would bring a high-profile presence to the office and could effectively leverage his deep contacts at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
“Sam Brownback would be a terrific choice,” said Kent Hill, executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute. “He’s highly competent, he’s passionate about religious freedom, he knows the government. He’s got all the credentials that would make him very successful.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, a former Democrat-appointed chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), called Brownback “a strong choice” who would “provide powerful, committed, and high profile leadership to the post.”
Congress created the ambassador position in the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. That legislation also created USCIRF and a religious freedom office within the State Department. Both offices compile annual reports about the state of religious freedom around the world, including highlighting countries of particular concern.
In December Congress passed legislation to update the 1998 law, including a provision that made the ambassador-at-large report directly to the secretary of state.
“Sam Brownback has the experience, talent, determination, and tenacity to effectively promote religious freedom around the world,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who wrote the recent bill former President Barack Obama signed into law. “He is a man of deep religious faith and will work tirelessly to combat religious persecution and extremism.”
Brownback would become only the fifth person to hold the position. Following a period of vacancies and decline, the office experienced a resurgence under Ambassador David Saperstein, who had the job during the last two years of the Obama presidency.
An appointment now would represent a vast improvement over the Bush and Obama presidencies: Both waited at least 16 months to nominate someone to the post.
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