Brownback’s nomination as an “ambassador at large for international religious freedom” prompts several questions, beginning with: What does such an ambassador do? The Wichita Eagle reports that the ambassador “will make policy suggestions and recommendations regarding people and governments accused of persecuting religious minorities.”
That has a nice ring to it, but the governor’s nomination sparks a vision of something far more energetic. When it comes to religion and politics, Brownback – the first Catholic to serve in this ambassadorial post – is an expert at providing recipes for the mixing. Five years ago in July, for example, he was center stage at a Rally for Religious Freedom at the State Capitol. The event was to condemn presidential policy on birth control as a violation of citizens’ freedom of religion.
The governor’s target was a federal mandate, issued four months earlier, that directed entities offering employee health insurance to include coverage for contraceptives; the directive would include Roman Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies that insure themselves.
This was too much for Brownback. His Statehouse rally, sponsored by the Catholic Bishops of Kansas, featured a halfdozen other speakers, including Timothy Boyd, of the KS-NE
Convention of Southern Baptists, Karen Splichal, president of the Council of Catholic Women, State Rep. Jerry Henry, Atchison, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran.
“America has long been a safe haven for those of differing beliefs. Our founders recognized the importance of religious freedom and enshrined this right in the First Amendment.
Despite this, the Administration has forged ahead with health care policies that mandate a disregard for conscience and require the faithfully religious to violate their beliefs,”
“This cannot be allowed to stand!” the governor said. “This attack on religious freedom ‒ our First Amendment rights ‒ transcends the usual back and forth between political parties and interest groups.”
This foaming conflict over reproductive rights provides a lurid backdrop to any agenda that Brownback carries to his global pulpit. He has seethed for years with the urge to inject his religious faith into the politics of governing.
People engaged in the venue of politics and religion have been sympathetic, if not complimentary, of the Brownback appointment. Chris Seipkle, president emeritus at the Institute for Global Engagement, said Brownback is a man of “convicted compassion and courteous candor who … will work tirelessly for people of all faiths and none.”
Brownback, who will be 61 next month, entered the public arena in 1986 as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, and as an establishment Eisenhower-Dole Republican. He took a year’s leave in 1990 to become a White House Fellow, then returned to continue as Agriculture Secretary. He was a passable member of Congress, (rather harmless, if arrogant) until someone told him he should run for president – of the United States.
Brownback had left Presbyterianism for Roman Catholicism, charging hell-bent into the pro-life crusade as though he had been leading it all along. And with that came other political trappings of the far right, including trickle-down, supply-side Laffer economics and a wholehearted embrace of the Bibles and Bullets club: God in the classroom and guns for all.
Brownback rode the tide of hillbilly conservatism through the U.S. House (1995-96), into the Senate (‘96-2011) and back to Kansas, where he was elected governor in 2010, starting immediately on a crusade to dismantle state government as we had long known it. With Arthur Laffer at his side, a script written by ALEC and funding from the billionaire Koch brothers,
Brownback announced his Glide Path to Zero, a plan to abolish Kansas income taxes and restructure government finance with most funding from fees and sales taxes. “Consumables taxes,” he called it. (We know how that went, a state taken to the brink of bankruptcy.)
In 2012, with the help of fawning fringe-right Republicans, he purged the state senate of doubters in his own party.
Brownback then directed fontal assaults on public education, local government, social services and the courts. The courts were especially bothersome for Brownback, blocking his attempts to criminalize all abortion, to starve local schools and stymie city and county access to local taxes. The governor pressed on with plans to secure state aid to faith-based schools, and with occasional rallies to fight abortion and to bring politics to the pulpit and the pulpit into politics.
The governor’s religious credentials are well-established, but with a decided Christianity, the rigorous stamp of Catholicism.
America and Brownback should tread carefully when preaching against the discrimination or persecution of religious minorities. The governor, some will recall, has directed a state ban on Syrian (Muslim) refugees and has been an unwavering proponent of President Trump’s xenophobic and discriminatory policies on immigrants and immigration.
This could play poorly beyond the barn yards of Kansas and the sage deserts of the south and west. The governor’s history may follow him to a larger stage, to a world of compression and stress and war, a place of many languages, mysterious codes and strictures, terrain at the footings of Eastern civilization, its peoples rooted deeply in the practice of religions other than Christianity, countries not of the white man but of multi-lingual and multi-racial cultures, places that seethe with various faiths – even, sometimes, those of minority whites.
Brownback will be challenged by the world outside, one beyond the absolutist mentality and simplistic views of good and evil in America’s crude, cretinesque politics. The world beyond is not indifferent to the meaning or importance of words, even mindless tweets; the heated exaggerations and suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasies of faith-based
American politics are thin bleats against the surging prophesies and passions of cultures whose faith and devotion belong not to generations but to civilizations.
It will be the measure of Sam Brownback whether he promotes understanding and tolerance over the world’s complex and diverse religious landscapes, or whether he simply talks about it while looking away.