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President Donald Trump has announced he will appoint Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The Wednesday evening statement caps weeks of hopeful speculation by advocates who said Brownback would bring unprecedented political muscle to the position.
In his first interview after the announcement, Brownback told WORLD he plans to use his new position to coordinate efforts across the U.S. government and then advance international religious freedom with key partners abroad.
“I don't think we've figured out yet the right way to pursue it internationally,” Brownback said. “Religious freedom is such a hallmark of a forward-thinking nation.”
Brownback, who spent 15 years in the U.S. Senate, helped pass the International Religious Freedom Act that created the ambassador-at-large position in 1998. He said not enough has happened since then: “The level of persecution continues to grow.”
Brownback said he wants to make international religious freedom into a key security, economic, and diplomatic concern to create “dynamic action in this field.”
Former Ambassador-at-Large David Saperstein, who held the post during President Barack Obama’s final two years in office, hailed Brownback as an effective advocate.
“He knows the issue very well,” Saperstein told me. “This is a very strong appointment, and I look forward to working with him in furthering the cause of religious freedom around the globe.”
After several years of atrophy, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom experienced a resurgence under Saperstein—in large part because he had direct access to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Brownback has a long history as an elected official—a first for someone in the ambassador-at-large position—and deep connections in the Republican Party.
“He's someone of real prominence who has a lot of professional experience in dealing with challenges that you would find at a place like the State Department,” said former Ambassador-at-Large John Hanford, who held the position from 2002 to 2009. “There's always the realization that he would have no hesitance picking up the phone and calling people at the White House or even on the Hill.”
The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer, echoed that sentiment: “He has the political stature to end State Department policy paralysis to use diplomacy to stand up for the religiously persecuted.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and a group of evangelical leaders released Wednesday night statements praising Brownback’s appointment.
Advocates had asked the Trump White House to fill the ambassador-at-large post within the administration’s first 100 days, but the nomination still came significantly sooner than those at the beginning of the George W. Bush or Obama presidencies (both waited 16 or more months).
Brownback said he first discussed the post with then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence shortly after the 2016 election.
It’s unclear how long Brownback could remain governor of Kansas, since the Senate confirmation process will likely stretch out for weeks. Barring a Senate deal to fast-track a group of nominees, it is highly unlikely Brownback would be confirmed until after senators return from the August recess.
Brownback would leave Kansas as one of the nation’s least popular governors, but he defended his conservative record—and his decision to take an administration post.
“I'm doing this job because of my interest and passion in the field,” Brownback said. “I am pleased with what I've gotten done as governor of this state.”