Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The nightmare of Sam Brownback

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback waves to guests before delivering his State of the State address to a joint session of the Kansas Legislature in Topeka on Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The nicest thing I can say about President Trump’s nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be our next religious freedom ambassador is that religious freedom’s loss would be Kansas’ gain.

Does that seem overly harsh?

It’s no job recommendation that as a young U.S. Senator Brownback was, in the words of the White House announcement, “a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.” That act, which established the ambassadorship, was initially a lousy piece of legislation cooked up by conservatives to embarrass the Clinton Administration.

Only when a group of young Senate staffers sat down with Administration officials and completely rewrote the bill did it achieve a measure of respectability. Once their work was done, it sailed through both houses of Congress without the sponsors having to lift a finger. (For an inside account at what happened, see here.)

In the years since, the ambassadorship has been held by a series of political appointees with widely varying degrees of international and diplomatic experience. All have found the job frustrating, to say the least.

Making headway requires exquisite political skills, for dealing with an entrenched State Department bureaucracy, both sides of the congressional aisle, and foreign governments that do not hear criticism of their treatment of religious minorities and dissidents gladly. And that’s in a presidential administration where foreign policy is functioning normally.

When it comes to political skills, Brownback is, as Winston Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, “a bull who carries a china shop with him.” The Republican governor of an overwhelmingly Republican state, he has managed to make himself the most unpopular governor in the country through pig-headed dedication to anti-tax policies. This year, the overwhelmingly Republican legislature rejected the policies over his veto.

He possesses a self-righteousness — or perhaps messianism — that’s encapsulated in his oft-repeated assertion that “what I hope to get the most right is to be a positive contributor to their soul.”

“This is the guy that’s going to stop religious persecution around the world?” asks a former State Department official.

The appointment of Barack Obama’s first religious freedom ambassador, Suzan Johnson Cook, was held up for a year when a Republican senator put a hold on her nomination. The best way for the U.S. to advance religious freedom around the world now would be for a Democratic senator to do the same for Brownback’s.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Plato advised that the priests should never be allowed to touch gold (earthly power).

  • If Brownie gets the job, it’s a big win for all Kansas. Toto is even wagging his tail.

    P.S. Is Toto still the state dog?

  • How can you put someone in a position the ambassador to religious freedom who believes Christianity is the only answer. Trump continues to use the “good ole boy” network that he has argued against.

  • Power, no. Destructive influence, yes. The Evangelical movement uses everything with the word “religion” on it to build the mythology that the US is an Evangelical country. Brownback, having bankrupted Kansas with his incompetence, will use the position as a government platform to establish Evangelical Christianity as the unofficial United States religion.

  • I have little doubt about what he will try to do, as he is the choice of Trump (and likely his Evangelical supporters. I just hope he can do no harm.

  • Political, legal or regulatory power? Nope, none of that stuff. Period.
    But sometimes power and influence isn’t measured by such things.

    Suppose you get a nationally experienced, caring, religious-freedom advocate. A person who has already got his OWN business straight with God first. Somebody who got down on his knees and prayed, “Okay, Lord, that’s it. I give up. It’s all yours. This life is yours, and you can do with it whatever you like.”
    Do you suppose there might be a little power & influence floating about in there, Jim?

    That doesn’t mean such a person is perfect. Trusting in Republican, Democrat or Libertarian economic policies is a genuine mistake for anybody, honestly. But that’s just the usual political stuff. International religious freedom, is another issue altogether.

    So there is NO “nightmare” here. Silk is wrong (again). Gov. Brownback is an outstanding a selection for IRF ambassador, as Neil Gorsuch is for the Supreme Court.

  • Sometimes I do wish it were that easy, Maine. Just vote the right guy into the White House, or appoint the right person to IRF ambassador, and all the rest of us Christians can go back to sleeping (at the wheel), like we’ve been doing for decades.

    Really sounds good. But things just don’t work that way.

    This backslidden, imperiled nation DOES need a major revival of evangelical Christianity, but no government official or political party has any magic wand to “establish it.”

  • “International religious freedom, is another issue altogether..”

    If you believe that separation of church and state is a myth, then you don’t believe in religious freedom. Brownback believes in exclusive access to government for Evangelical Christians, and he believes that his own religious feelings should trump everyone else’s civil rights. Understanding that to be true, it’s not surprising that 81% of white Evangelicals supported a deranged fascist in the 2016 presidential election.

  • ‘This backslidden, imperiled nation DOES need a major revival of evangelical Christianity, but no government official or political party has any magic wand to “establish it.”‘

    A revival of Evangelical Christianity is fine, as long as they have the same rights as– and no more than– everyone else. But that isn’t the intent of the Evangelical movement, is it?

  • That’s an easy one. Jesus Christ IS the only answer. Period. If you’re putting your faith in anybody else, then your soul is getting ripped off right now, and one day it’s gonna STAY ripped off forever, unless you hook up with the one Person who cared enough to get you the right fixin’s (John 3:16, John 14:6).

    But suppose you disagree with what I just said. Well, that’s what religious freedom is for: so we can both openly state our positions out loud, without being jailed, shot, starved, or soldiers coming to get our womenfolk for revenge.

    And that’s what Gov. Sam Brownback is for. He will stand up for your religious freedom.

  • So, if I may ask, what “extra” rights are we evangelicals asking for ourselves? I don’t see any “extra’s” in there.

    If you’re thinking about marriage and sexuality stuff, that’s no problem. We evangelicals DO accept that everybody has the right to marry any opposite-sex partner of their choice, guaranteed.

    Of course, Male-Female-Gender-Complementarity inherently and irrevocably defines what a marriage is, all over the world (98 percent of the planet has **not** legalized gay marriage). The two amazing human genders, Men and Women, are simply NOT interchangeable, whether physically, spiritually, emotionally, or sexually. Marriage exists only in complementarian mode.

  • Is Toto still the state dog?

    The bill that would have made the Cairn Terrier (Toto’s breed) the Kansas state dog was killed in 2012.
    Sorry, Toto. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

  • And my religious freedom declares that you have not the eyes to see what is clearly in front of you. Tit for tat.

  • Even if incompetent, which is arguable, he could not have “bankrupted Kansas” on his own, there is a state legislature after all, equally active in the administration of the state. As the good people of Kansas chose to elect him Senator and Governor, I see no reason to question the judgment of the people of another sovereign state in their own internal governance, and unless you are also a Kansan, you would do well to consider that. As to his “destructive influence,” the ambassadorship lacks both power and influence. What other nation pays any attention to the religious views of any other? The influence, or lack thereof, of the UN on religious matters speaks volumes to that.

  • “I see no reason to question the judgment of the people of another sovereign state in their own internal governance, and unless you are also a Kansan, you would do well to consider that.”

    What philosophy informs your world view that you would say that another state, which has fashioned itself as a model of Republican libertarianism, should not be judged as a model of Republican libertarianism?

  • To defend religious freedom you have to respect and protect all of the views. Not just your own.

  • IN this instant my perspective is informed by an evaluation of legitimate jurisdiction on the part of the commentator as an injured party. Additionally, you cited no evidence whatsoever to buttress your claim.

  • The question is not “who is right and who is wrong.” Have that debate somewhere else. The question is whether we are going to live with the Constitution. The failed Kansas Governor seems the wrong choice.

  • “So, if I may ask, what “extra” rights are we evangelicals asking for ourselves? I don’t see any “extra’s” in there.”

    I wouldn’t expect you to see any extras, any more than I regularly notice the advantages I have as a white male. If you and I are puilled over by the police, we’re respectful, because we know the police are just doing their job, and we’re glad they are. If black people would just be as respectful, they wouldn’t have to blame the police for all their problems, would they?

    If the person responsible for approving your daughter’s student loan gives extra points to families who go to church every Sunday, why would that bother you? It only makes sense: church people are more humble and have better morality than everyone else.

    And you and I have worked HARD. If other people worked as hard as we do, why no one would need public assistance. And even if a young couple with kids is working two jobs each and still need food stamps, that’s because of sin or something. You don’t know, but why should you care? The poor are always poor because of laziness or lack of discipline.

    And you certainly value life, don’t you. Full human rights for the fetus, you say, and if it means the kid is raised in poverty and his mother is trapped in a horrible life, that’s just god’s will. Even if the fetus can’t think or feel pain, or if it doesn’t even have a heartbeat yet, it’s important to err on the side of life, no matter how many actual people’s lives are ruined. And since YOU feel that life starts at conception, that’s all that matters. No facts, please. No having to make a scientific case. You’ve discovered genetics, so now unique DNA is what makes a person. Because you know right from wrong, because you’re a Bible-believing Christian. And by Sessions, your feelings matter more than evidence, facts, or the lives that are ruined. Serves the sluts right, doesn’t it? That’s what they get for not being Christian.

    The point is that you DESERVE those exclusive privileges because you’re a “good person.” Anyone who doesn’t understand that can just be dismissed as being demonic, or in rebellion against Jehovah, or maybe they’ve just been brainwashed by the liberal media.

    Thanks for explaining gay rights as you have, because it spares me pointing out your arrogance on that issue as well. Gays just want recognition of their perverse lifestyles, so they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Never mind the legal case, made by conservatives arguing before the supreme court, that equal treatment under the law requires that gays have the same protections as everyone else for their spouses and chidren. Equal protection under the law? Everyone is equally protected in their right to be Evangelical Christians, and that’s all that matters.

  • “IN this instant my perspective is informed by an evaluation of legitimate jurisdiction…”

    No, I’m afraid that’s not a legitimate argument. I’m not claiming to be aggrieved, and I’m not trying to change the law in Kansas. I’ll ask again: what philosophy has informed your world view that the rest of us are not permitted to question the judgement of an incompetent politician until he’s trying to make the same mistakes in federal government than he did when he was bankrupting his state?

  • Right you are. Why is it that Christians have such a hard time seeing this? They’re all about the “It’s my way or the highway” approach.

  • Sam Brownback is literally as bad as any politician can get. There is literally not one thing he’s correct on or has ever been correct on (to the best of my knowledge) in his entire political career. How someone like this ever got elected to anything in the first place can surely only be explained due to how incredibly proficient Republicans are at gerrymandering, voter suppression, and multitude of ways to cheat rather than anyone actually voting for him legitimately.

    If ever there’s been any politician who deserves to have an absolutely livid mob of torch and pitchfork-wielding constituents show up at his doorstep hauling a barrel full of hot tar and feathers and ready to run him out of town on a rail (preferably all the way to Mexico), it’s definitely Sam Brownback.

  • You have not supported your argument with any evidence that your assertion is true, let’s start with that. Secondarily, I’m not constrained by your assessment of what constitutes a legitimate argument. I will concede however, your right to question whether he is the best person available to represent the US in what is largely a symbolic position which essentially amounts to that of a spear carrier in a dramatic presentation.

  • Decidedly so, but the criticism is better informed when it comes with some measure of evidence to support that criticism. None has been provided in this case by Maine-Skeptic.

  • Granted. That doesn’t prevent me from assessing those views in the light of my own knowledge and experience. Naturally we are all deeply invested in what is true and accurate. Few of us are as cynical as Pilate, who declared with some derision, “What is Truth?”

  • Actually Brownbag is for forced Christianity like the rest of his “Family” of corrupt Washington insiders.

  • I have a lot of trouble visualizing that. Movements of religious fervor come and go but they are all sound and fury signifying nothing. this country’s a hell of a lot better than it was in the 1950s and still getting better. Imperiled? Yes, by deluded christofascists and their racist allies.

  • The governance of right-wing Republican rule in Kansas is assuredly not libertarian at all, it is christofascist.

  • the funny thing is in Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” he detailed how Brownie started out as a MODERATE Republican in upscale Johnson County and then decided to become an adherent of the extreme right because the caucus that believes the nonsense they espouse so he could ride that into power.
    The first time he ran for the Senate, his opponent was Jill Docking. The week before the election people started getting robocalls asking, “Did you know Jill Docking is a Jew?” That’s consistent with the type of man he is.

  • This only reinforces my original argument that he was not able to create this situation solely as chief executive of the state which was the original claim by the individual with whom I have been dialoging. He was accused of acting unilaterally, and the basis for his actions were attributed or linked to his religious faith, at least by implication when one reads the argument carefully. How does this compare to the present financial condition of the state of Illinois and its present risk of default? Has the Governor of that state been impugned for his state’s economic throes, and has he been targeted based on his religious perspective? And what of the Federal government and our national 18-20 trillion dollar debt? If the banks that hold the debt of the US in their hands called that debt in, the entire nation would be sunk underneath the weight of their claims. There is no sound basis for assailing Brownback in the manner in which he has been targeted when measured against the precarious state of the bulk of the financial statuses’ of many states in this union. The lack of critical and objective thinking by a number of contributors’ on this forum is astonishing except when we consider that many frame their thinking based on a particular bias, whether religious or anti-religious.

  • You know why Silk and other liberals are complaining about Gov. Brownback’s appointment?

    Simply because it means that the Guv is going to land on his feet after all, and even hold on to a reasonable portion of his national voice for years to come.

    The libbies wanted to see Brownback sent into permanent shame and exile, all humiliated with his tail between his legs. That’s clearly NOT going to happen now. That’s why the liberals are angry.

  • Certainly an interesting reply. Let’s skim one item for fun.

    “If black people would be just as respectful, they wouldn’t have to blame the police for all their problems, would they?”

    Actually, your statement there, although meant as sarcasm, is 100 percent correct. Michael Brown would still be alive if he hadn’t acted like a street-gang foolio with zero home-training (and zero dog-lick common-sense to boot.)

    By the way, I’m black; you post seemed to assume otherwise. People, please respect the white, black, brown, asian, male and female police officers. Do’t hate on them. If you have a social juatce need, please choose the NAACP or other non-violent, non-Kool-Aid organizations. Ditch the BLM.

  • “…By the way, I’m black; you post seemed to assume otherwise….”

    The color of your skin, even if you’re being truthful, does not change your BS into facts. My point was that I *do* respect police officers, and while I think the different treatment that black people are handed is prejudicial, I also think it’s largely unintentional. The officer who shot Philando Castile panicked because a black man told him he had a (legally licensed concealed) handgun. There was nothing Castile could have done differently to avoid getting shot.

    And I guarantee you that the percentage of white people who disrespect the police is MUCH higher in these situations. Castile’s girlfriend was respectful and polite to the very officer who had just killed her partner. Unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was murdered for “standing his ground,” but his murderer was made an Evangelical and conservative hero. Why? Because the police found it easier to believe that an unarmed teenager was a credible threat than a man twice his size with a gun who wasn’t black.

    Feel free to skim other items for fun. You rely on the exclusive privilege you have as a (probably) white Christian. Lame responses like the one you just posted are more evidence of that.

  • The GOP is pivoting toward libertarianism, and Brownback is right on board with the economic aspect of that. Trickle-down economics is, at its core, libertarian. So is deregulating industry and finance. Brownback is ALSO an Evangelical, which means he’s a complete hypocrite. He supports gutting consumer protections, but he’d willingly regulate sex, birth control, and church attendance if he could.

  • “…He (Brownback) was accused of acting unilaterally…”

    Not even by implication. He was the leader of the GOP in Kansas when they nearly crippled the state economy, but I never said or implied that he did it without help The fact that he’s incompetent doesn’t diminish the incompetence of the other GOP members who supported him, just as President 45’s corruption doesn’t diminish the corruption of Senator McConnell and the House and Senate GOP leadership.

    “….There is no sound basis for assailing Brownback in the manner in which he has been targeted when measured against the precarious state of the bulk of the financial statuses’ of many states in this union….”

    Don’t worry. When the president appoints to federal positions the other governors whose political philosophy bankrupted their states, we can get around to them. Starting with Maine.

  • “…even if you”re being truthful”?

    I have no resign to lie about it, and it is a bit difficult to hide, I’ve noticed. Even the Band-Aids are the wrong color.

    Of course you didn’t address the situation of the black police officers who have only a split second to choose between possibly getting killed in the street versus possibly setting off BLM protests and media lynching.

  • Their extra rights are easy to explain. They want to turn the country into a theocracy based on their twisted, heretical, blasphemous, sacrilegious, idol worshiping version of Christianity based on a “literal” or “inspired” version of the KJV of the Bible.

  • Let’s not forget the “right to lifers” oppose abortion, but war, capital punishment, torture to the point of death are just fine with them.

  • No, it’s because we actually believe in religious liberty, not the freedom to follow your religion or his.

  • Jesus Christ is the only answer.

    There you have the exact reason why Brownback is wrong. 2/3 of the world disagrees.

  • The right to discriminate on the basis of religious belief anywhere you like. The right to impose your ideas about what constitutes a marriage on individuals, churches,m inisters, entire denominations that don’t share them. The right to have silly statements like the two genders are not interchangeable when no one is claiming that they are, and have it be a “right” imposed by law.

  • “..war, capital punishment, torture to the point of death are just fine with them…”

    Actually, it’s not only just fine with RTL folks, it turns them ON. Except for when the president is black, it makes them like a president more when he kills someone or sends the troops into harms way.

  • “Of course you didn’t address the situation of the black police officers who have only a split second to choose between possibly getting killed in the street versus possibly setting off BLM protests and media lynching.”

    This will shock you, but black people can be biased too: and against other black people. BLM is about systemic bias and the fact that our culture devalues black lives. It doesn’t mean black lives should matter more than the lives of white people or the police. It doesn’t mean all problems are blamed on white people or on the police.

    I’ve noticed that you keep cherry-picking points trying to get the last word, even though you’re not reading most of what I’ve said. I’m not into wasting my breath on these things, though. Is there any common ground upon which to continue?

  • Agreed, but with caveats. Somebody around the Nixon Administration referred to conservatism as “a three-legged stool” in which the three legs are economic conservatism or libertarianism if you will, strong defense/military/nationalism, and social conservatism. Arguments are made from time to time that severing one leg or another causes the stool to fall. Usually the one somebody argues getting rid of is social conservatism – after all, the plutocrats laugh at it and their morals and ethics in sexual things reveal them to be in Paul Fussell’s phrase, “clever and immoral people.” Trump it seems is standard GOP here, but occasionally tosses them a bone like appointing Brownback to some useless patronage job and targeting transgender members of the military. They’d Like to jettison both the Religious Right and the nativists but have yet to find an opportunity to do so.

  • Apples and Oranges. Raunier is in trouble too, but he’s not a religious nut like Brownback. National Debt is a good thing, to be managed surely,

    Brownback and his allies screwed up the economy with trickle down economics. They made LLCs tax free on the promise they’d generate revenue. They didn’t. Businesses seeking expansions into the Kansas City area, if they make sound decisions, establish a beachhead east of State Line Road, on the Missouri side, because the situation is so much better there.

  • Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Boy, that Jesus guy sure was narrow minded.

  • His belief won’t make a difference in the execution of his duties. Be tolerant for goodness sake.

  • I realize how cynical it sounds to question that, but when someone tries to use it as a trump (pun intended) card, I have to wonder. For the record, I’ve been assumed to be black (and out of work) before by people online, so I recognize the irony.

  • Re: “If you’re putting your faith in anybody else, then your soul is getting ripped off right now, and one day it’s gonna STAY ripped off forever …”.

    What “soul”? I don’t have any “soul,” nor do you, nor does anyone else. They don’t exist. If you want me to think otherwise, you’ll have to convince me I have one … using compelling, objective, and verifiable evidence.

    And once you’ve substantiated that I have a “soul” whose future I need to be concerned with, you’d need to demonstrate (again, using compelling, objective, verifiable evidence) that your Jesus ever existed, that if he did, he had anything to say about “souls,” and that what he did say is demonstrably true.

    Good luck with all of that.

  • Oh yeahhhhhh….I’m too sexy for my 44 magnum, too sexy for my 44 magnum, too sexy…
    You actually believe what you wrote? If so I have some cheap swamp land in FL I will sell you – cheap.

  • Well, it’s certainly not about trying to answer every single paragraph or point that you put on the table. It’s okay to just briefly reply to one item if one feels like it.

    (Make no mistake, your giving BLM a free pass on their intense & injurious hatred and bigotry against police — of ALL races — could be challenged with a mile-long post. Then you would do a mile-long reply.)

    So it’s not about last-words, cherry-picks, or even “common ground.” One simply posts honestly, and then lets the chips fall.
    (“Common ground”, by the way, can thereby emerge at any time.)

  • It’s ok. We all have been reading each other’s posts for a long time. If Floydlee’s really white, he’s been playing a really long con for no discernible reason, including deep inside-baseball knowledge about the Black church.

  • ” …respect and protect all of the views. Not just your own. ”

    Yes…in other words, that’s called ‘following after the things that make for peace’…….NT

    And from the 12 Scout Laws that represent good works and deeds (faith without good works doesn’t amount to much…..NT) —

    12. A good and mature person is REVERENT. He is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.

  • >>”So, if I may ask, what ‘extra’ rights are we evangelicals asking for ourselves? I don’t see any ‘extra’s’ in there.”

    I’m not surprised that you wouldn’t see you don’t already enjoy extra rights that are denied to others. This is typically the case when oppressors have long ruled over those they oppress.

    So let’s see… for starters, you want the right to be able to openly discriminate against LGBT people in things like housing, and banking, and marriage, and hospital visitation, and schools (e.g., both for adults, and in accepting children of same-sex parents), and employment, and banking, etc., etc.

    And then there’s how you want your churches to both be tax-exempt AND be allowed to preach politics from the pulpit.

    And then there’s how you want your churches (i.e., Houses of Hatred) to be allowed to preach hatred of others (e.g., LGBT people) AND be tax-exempt as well.

    And then there’s how you want it to be legal to torture children (e.g. in gay conversion “therapy”).

    And then there’s how you want to be able to treat LGBT people however you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. You might know these as “RFRA laws” or Religious Freedom Restoration Act nonsense… aka the alleged belief that religious people have had their rights taken away from them and need to have them restored. For example, if you’re a paramedic and get a life-or-death call and when you arrive you discover that it’s a L/G/B/T person, and you want the right to be able to refuse to treat them because they offend you somehow or because you think they’re “sinners” or whatever… anything really… You want the right to be able to legally refuse to treat them without legal repercussions.
    Or say you have a job as a marriage license clerk and your salary is paid by the public, and a same-sex couple applies for a marriage license and this “offends” you because you happen to be an ignorant backwards uneducated hick. You want the right to be able to legally refuse to give them a marriage license, even though that’s your job.

    If we were a more civilized country, like Canada, we’d have hate speech laws, and your churches (Houses of Hatred) would be subject to laws preventing you from demonizing LGBT people with your lies and slanderous statements about them. Violators would face jail time and fines.
    But worry not on this point though… Since we’re not anywhere near as civilized nor as moral as Canada is, you need not worry about having to increase your level of morality, or even of behaving like a normal, decent, intelligent, educated, non-hateful human being if you don’t want to.

    As for this RFRA rubbish, if we were Canada it would be summarily ridiculed and laughed off as it should be. But since this is America and we’re as equality-minded or as forward-thinking as Canada, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens…

  • This man works for the US government, not a Christian church, or his Catholic church. That means he must respect all religions.