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Culture Q&A

Sam Brownback

Willing to fight

Making religious freedom abroad a high priority in Washington

Willing to fight

Sam Brownback (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Oct. 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act. The act made religious freedom abroad a priority for America’s diplomacy and gave the United States some bite by requiring sanctions for countries that violated religious liberty. In 1998, then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., voted to pass the IRF Act. Two decades later he is the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position the IRF Act created.

Brownback told me about the landscape of religious freedom abroad, including positives he sees under the Trump administration, and constant threats that require watchfulness and action. Here are some edited excerpts of our conversation.

What motivated you in 1998, and what did you hope would change? We didn’t think the foreign policy establishment was addressing the issues of religious freedom sufficiently. There were all these cases around the world—a number of us working to get people out of prison in various countries, or people of minority faiths being persecuted. We felt [the act] was something we needed in the State Department. It’s taken a while to get established in the human rights world, but it’s coming along now.

What strides have been made over the past 20 years, and what threats are looming? Unfortunately, there are more threats than expansion over the last 20 years. Eighty percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive atmosphere. There was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom after the fall of communism. Now, a lot of people are more religiously restrictive, to favor the domestic majority religion, or to hold down a minority. They don’t trust religion because they can’t control it. As if you could control God.

There was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom after the fall of communism. Now, a lot of people are more religiously restrictive, to favor the domestic majority religion, or to hold down a minority. 

Where you think that constriction comes from? A lot of countries look at religion as something that they want to try to control—even though virtually every country in the world signed the UN Declaration on Human Rights that included religious freedom. But then nobody was really pushing countries: “Look, you signed the agreement to stand for religious freedom and you’re not doing it. Why not?” It’s U.S. leadership that now is stepping up much more aggressively to push this right.

At the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this July, countries talked about their intentions regarding religious freedom. Talks, speeches, and signing declarations are great, but what action have you seen since the ministerial? We’ve seen several countries appoint ambassadors for religious freedom to be focal points for pushing religious freedom internationally. We’re working with nine different countries to host regional religious freedom events.

We’re going to do the ministerial again next year. It’s the only forum in the world where religious freedom advocates can get to key government leaders about issues in their country. And then specific cases—Pastor Andrew Brunson’s being freed. The president put sanctions on Turkey for holding him, which has never been done before.

What’s different between the official description of your position and the reality? I’ve been impressed with how doable things are—but you can’t do it in the “name and shame” way. You’ve got to make it in that country’s best interest. Either let Pastor Andrew Brunson free—or your currency’s going to stay down. You’ve got to say to other countries, “If you want to really grow your economy, you need to open up to religious freedom. If you want less terrorism, you need more religious freedom because somebody that you restrict will fight you.”

Are countries starting to understand it’s in their best interest to foster religious freedom? I think they’re just starting to see: Government’s role is to protect the right to religious freedom. It’s not to say, “We favor this group, we don’t favor that. We like this religion, we don’t like that, we don’t like any religion.” It’s to say, “You as a dignified human individual have a God-given right to choose to do with your own soul what you choose.” That’s a right that no government has a right to interfere with.

What if we fail to urge our allies to move in a forward direction? I think it says to the world—we believe it’s a key issue, but we’re willing to trade it. I don’t think we should be willing to trade it. It’s an important message to send to the world that we don’t look at allies differently than people that are not allies on religious freedom.

What shifted so we don’t trade religious freedom for “national security”? Just, look, you ought to do what’s right. President Trump’s been fantastic about that whereas others in the past, it was “Do we really want to fight with the Turks? Do we really want to have this big dispute?” Most would have said no, or the foreign policy establishment would have talked him out of it saying, “Look, we don’t want to get in a big fight with Turkey over one pastor that’s sitting in jail.” This president is willing to get in a fight about it.

What are your priorities for 2019? China and Iran are both big ones on the list. This administration has been willing to confront them for pursuing an agenda counter to human rights. And I want to get more players on the field pursuing religious freedom. 

I really want us cracking into the Middle East. It’s moving toward a homogenized religion—just one brand of Islam—and driving everybody else out. In Northern Iraq we said we’re going to rebuild the Christian and the Yazidi areas and push the local governments to provide security for minority faith communities so they can stay. 

When is aid more effective, and when are sanctions more effective? You’re always looking for whatever tool to make something happen. Sometimes it’s both, where you’re trying to encourage one set of behaviors and discourage another set. I hope in the future more countries would just come to the conclusion this is in their own best interest, rather than requiring all these sticks and carrots.

USCIRF has consistently called Saudi Arabia one of the worst abusers of human rights, yet we’ve continued to issue waivers. Have we turned a blind eye for too long? I think people are starting to recognize if you have a bad actor, whether they’re an ally or not, they’re not going to improve unless there are consequences to bad actions, unfortunately. So, you’re seeing us take clearer actions.

Do you think more action is forthcoming? I do. You’ve now seen us do it with two allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Before, we’ve shielded them generally. But that shielding hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We have to see the relationship can sustain sanctions in one category if they’re not performing according to international obligations.

You’ve got terrible situations, like the Uighurs in Western China, with people in detention camps. All over the world you start getting these systems in place where you’ve got an active faith community and now they’re all being watched. The United States needs to be aggressive in speaking out. Because if we don’t, it will spread.