Former Ambassador Sam Brownback Warns of Growing Threats to Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad

Brownback discussed the current state of faith-focused liberty at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit.

Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom,  speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington June 10, 2020.
Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington June 10, 2020. (photo: Andrew Harnik / AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Former Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback is a co-chairman of the International Religious Freedom Summit — and a driving force behind the annual event that aims to raise “public awareness and political strength for the international religious freedom movement.”

Brownback, a Catholic convert, sat down with the Register at the third annual summit Wednesday to discuss the state of religious freedom today, warning that threats to religious freedom were growing both at home and abroad.

The former governor of Kansas and founder of the National Committee for Religious Freedom is concerned about government targeting of Christians in places like Nicaragua and Nigeria. On the domestic front, he is alarmed by the continued church vandalism following the Dobbs decision and cases brought against Catholic hospitals and Christian pharmacists for following their beliefs on abortion and gender.

Brownback also discussed ways he thinks the faithful can get involved in response and how he draws inspiration from the strong Catholic tradition of standing up for victims of persecution.

What are some areas of particular concern for religious freedom that Catholics should be aware of?

Nicaragua is one that a lot of people don’t think about, but the Ortegas are taking priests and having gangs beat up on them, and my concern is that it’s going to spread to other authoritarians in Latin America.

Nigeria is one of the deadliest places to be a Christian on the Earth.

There’s a great place called Nagorno Karabakh. It’s a Christian enclave in the Muslim country of Azerbaijan. It’s about 120,000 people, and they’re getting strangled right now — the road into it. They’re letting a few supplies through, but not a lot. They’re really trying to force the inhabitants out, not kill them, but just force them to leave. Armenia, which they were part of, Armenia is the first country to openly declare itself Christian in the history of Christendom. So it’s tied into that Armenian situation.

Can’t forget China because the Chinese Communist Party is the big enabler of human-rights abuses around the world, and it’s the biggest user of technology to oppress people of faith. And that’s a really concerning thing to me because that’s the future: It’s not going to be as many people in prison, but it’s going to be a lot more people oppressed; and it’ll be the use of the technology doing it. They’re prototyping it and exporting it now.

India has gotten nastier, unfortunately.

And those are a few that I think people should be aware of; and, unfortunately, there really are a lot of places you could go around the world and discuss.

What religious-freedom concerns do you have on the domestic front?

They’re really growing, unfortunately. You see these cases. We’ve been winning them in court, but we need to win them in elections and in the culture: Catholic hospitals being threatened with their licensures or funding in some places if they won’t do sex-transition surgeries or abortions; pharmacists being challenged to prescribe the morning-after pill as an abortifacient when it’s against their dictates; colleges, public universities not allowing Christian organizations to use campus facilities.

The things like what happened to this little group I helped start: the National Committee for Religious Freedom, where we were de-banked after 40 days by Chase Bank, and they wouldn’t tell us why.

I’ve heard from a number of different church groups that had been de-banked. And they just went quietly and just said, “Okay, that happened to us,” and they found another bank. But you shouldn’t be persecuted and not allowed to participate in the commercial marketplace just based off of your faith. If that’s the case, and, again, we don’t know, but it has been happening to a number of religious-affiliated groups.

What are your thoughts on the Biden administration’s actions on religious freedom?

I want to see them get behind the international religious-freedom movement; and they’ve done quite a bit to support it, so I’ve really been pleased about that. I’d sure like to see them not single out groups negatively for being faith-affiliated, like not threaten school-lunch programs for Catholic schools if you won’t change your [teaching to conform with an] ideology.

We really want them not to persecute groups because they’re pro-life. I’m really concerned that we’re seeing churches attacked, and it looks like, off of the Dobbs decision, but that’s something we’ve largely avoided in this country until recently, and now we’re starting to see it. Last year, at this summit, a lady was here who documents the number of churches vandalized in Europe, and they were having two to three a week. Canada had a number of churches burned last year. These are very unhealthy trends.

What advice do you have for concerned Catholics and other Christians who want to help raise awareness about religious freedom and the importance of religious freedom?

Globally, if they’re interested in supporting or working with a community of believers that’s besieged in Nigeria or northern Iraq, there are ways to help there. They can raise local awareness of what’s going on globally, by inviting in some Nicaraguan Catholics to say, “Here is what is happening.” And you can do that over Zoom. It’s pretty simple to get done, and you’ve got priests there that can say, “This is what happened here.”

You can go local in your own local city council races and ask people [and say]: “Let’s be a community here that’s open and supportive of religious freedom.”

I think we’ve got to start getting a lot more involved in corporate governance. If people who own stocks in big companies would vote their values on the stock the way they vote their values for politicians, most of these companies would be big red states. We don’t even think about it, and yet these companies are often more significant with what they do than many countries because they’re so big and they’re impactful on people’s lives.

We ought to be voting our values in these stocks, and people can start and should start organizing. We should have a person on a number of these boards of directors that’s a faith-oriented person, that has a very active faith in their life, that’s on the corporate board. We don’t need to have a majority on the board, but you need somebody in the room asking questions.

How does your Catholic faith inform your perspective on religious freedom?

It informs a lot of it, and it also informs the breadth of it. Catholics over the years have been very inclusive, saying, “You may not share our faith, but if you’re being persecuted, we’re going to stand with you.”

I’ve done a civil-rights pilgrimage a couple of times in the past at the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama, and there are a number of pictures of Catholic priests there.

In my own family, I grew up in a small farming community; not 10 miles away was where the Potawatomi Indians were forcibly marched out of Indiana into Kansas in the Indian Removal Act. It was brutal, and a lot of people died; walking along with them was a Catholic priest.

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne did her work there and was later canonized. That priest lost his life not long after the march, but he was there, and he was helping. At that time, we didn’t even declare Native Americans as people; but here he was, and he’s standing with them.

You look at that legacy of caring and saying, “If somebody’s being wronged, I’m going to help and stand with them” that really has helped inform me.

Rebecca Shah (l) and Ambassador Sam Brownback

Ambassador Sam Brownback and Rebecca Shah (Season 4 — Ep. 5)

Our guests on this episode of Religious Freedom Matters are Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator and Kansas governor who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, and Rebecca Shah, principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP) and a senior fellow at the Archbridge Institute.