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.