Sam Brownback at CPAC, February 28, 2015
Sam Brownback at CPAC, February 28, 2015
Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via @flickr.
Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Ambassador Sam Brownback on Human Rights and Religious Freedom

Wesley J. Smith
Sam Brownback
Audio File (49.7MB)

Wesley J. Smith talks with Senator Sam Brownback, who served as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and as governor of Kansas from 2011 to 2018. Religious freedom is a crucial aspect of human exceptionalism because it is a fundamental human rights issue. Smith and Brownback discuss COVID, free exercise versus the freedom to worship, issues in China, India, and Turkey, and much else.


Automatic transcription contains errors.

Welcome to Humanize from Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, where human rights meet human responsibilities. We speak with writers, thinkers, and newsmakers on the controversial issues of human life and human thriving that impact our daily lives. We are exceptional as creatures in the cosmos, as equal members of the human family, and as ethical beings. Humanize explores some of the fundamental questions. How do we thrive? How do we live well and care for what we’ve inherited? How do we act responsibly with one another and in the wider world, and how do we conserve the good things of this life for the future? We matter, our actions matter. Let’s get into it. I’m Wesley J. Smith, and this is Humanize.

Wesley J. Smith (00:00)

Welcome to Humanize from Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. I’m Wesley J. Smith, and pleased today to be joined by Ambassador Sam Brownback.

Sam Brownback served as ambassador at large for international religious freedom from February, 2018 until January, 2021. He also served as governor of Kansas from 2011 to 2018. Prior to that, he represented his home state in the United States Senate and in the house of representatives while a member of the Senate, he worked actively on religious freedom issues in multiple countries and was a key sponsor of the international religious freedom act of 1998. He and his wife, Mary have five children and six grandchildren, which I’m sure you are most proud of, of all of your many accomplishments. Welcome to humanize Mr. Ambassador. Thank you.

Wesley J. Smith (01:18)

Hey, thanks, Wesley. Really appreciate it. And I appreciate you. I appreciate it, our friendship over the years and and your, your depth of thought, no courage of presentation. Keep it up. Appreciate it all. Thanks. The 20 bucks is in the mail. So we’re

Sam Brownback (02:00)

Going to talk today about religious freedom, which I think is a very important aspect of human exceptionalism because it’s a fundamental human rights issue and human exceptionalism is about both our rights and our obligations and duties. What got you interested way back when, back in the nineties, before I think religious freedom became too much of an issue as it is today, what got you interested in pursuing that issue?

Wesley J. Smith (02:17)

Yeah, I, I think it was divine intervention, Wesley. I honestly do. I had this lady show up in my office when I’m a brand new Senator and she is working for this group that does religious freedom work. I think, “Oh, that sounds good.” I would be interested in that and she said, “Look, I can intern and work in your office and do this.” I said, great. And then she started bringing these cases to me, of people that were in jail and Uzbekistan and China, and saying, “Hey, we can write letters for these people. And sometimes we can get them out of jail. We can keep them alive, but sometimes we can get them out of country.” And I said, “Well, good, let’s help them out.” And I still remember, I’m at one of my daughter’s softball games and I get a call back from her. It’s a Friday night and she says, great news. This person just got out of jail we’d been advocating for and I was hooked. I thought, wow, if we can get somebody out of jail, that’s just peacefully practicing their faith by using the office that I’m in, sign me up. And I’ve been active in the field ever since.

Sam Brownback (02:42)

That’s really important. It’s also noteworthy that because we live in the United States and we have such a good history of religious freedom that perhaps you were taking that idea of religious Liberty for granted before you ended up with that kind of information.

Wesley J. Smith (03:58)

Oh, I did. I did completely. I just thought, well, this is what I’m used to. This is what I believe in. And surely the whole world has it. And then I’m rudely awakened to find out there are people that are killed for simply being a follower of Jesus. They believe in him and they’re peacefully practicing their faith and they get persecuted. They get communal violence. Some of them get thrown in jail. We just had a pastor — a priest in Indi — die of COVID locked up in an Indian jail peacefully practicing faith. Eighty-four years old. Gets, COVID. Asked for a … it out on bond, father Swami and dies of COVID in jail. You know, and, and those types of stories, they happen all the time. And I’m looking at a very influential country, we can use that to push for religious freedom and, and help people. And, and I think we need to, I think it’s our moral obligation. I do too. I mean, what if what’s going to be like when we get to heaven and we just, if we say we didn’t use the ability we had to save the souls and lives we could. And we knew about it.

Sam Brownback (04:17)

In our standing in the world as the United States, you know, we are supposedly the avatar for human rights, and this is one of the most fundamental. I’m really worried that too many of us are beginning to lose sight of the importance of religious freedom. I want to talk about this issue from three different angles, and I’d like your opinion on them. It seems to me, freedom of religion comes in three forms. The first would be freedom of belief, meaning, and you’ve already alluded to this believing what you want in terms of your faith. The second is freedom of worship that is being able to engage your God or gods, or your approach to let’s say, Buddhist practice, as you see fit. And the third, which is I think an innovation in many ways of the United States, the free exercise of religion. I found an interesting quote from Supreme court justice Frank Murphy. Here’s what he said: “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect, freedom of thought and freedom of action. What do you think of my three approaches and what the late Supreme court justice Frank Murphy had to say?

Wesley J. Smith (05:34)

I think it’s a good bifurcation of it. You know, the fight in the United States now is between this sort of idea of freedom of worship and freedom of faith or free exercise of the faith. And some people want to limit it to, okay: You can only believe that or say that when you’re in your house of worship, it’s where the rubs coming right now on traditional moral views. And some religious practices and groups are saying, look, this is what we believe. And others are saying, well, that’s fine. You can believe that in your house of worship, but you can’t take it into the public square, this free exercise of it. And the United States has always been for the free exercise of faith, as long as you do it peacefully. Now, if you’re going to go blow up a building and you’re doing that because this is how you’re worshiping God, no, we’re not doing that. And we’re not allowing that, but if you’re peacefully practicing your faith, this is a peaceful belief of yours. Then you’re free to practice that that’s been a hallmark of the United States and it’s the basis of it. And yet it really is under attack and deep scrutiny today.

Sam Brownback (06:52)

It sure is. And, and I think some people may not know that the idea of free exercise of religion is so fundamental in this country, that religious pacifists say during world war two, when there was a draft, were actually excused from fighting and participating in the war because of their free exercise of religion. That’s how seriously the United States, when we were at mortal threat, that’s how seriously the United States has taken religious freedom. And as you said, I’m worried that we’re not taking it as much anymore. And many people do want to shrivel it to just freedom of worship, which allows a Catholic to believe that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ and the Baptist to believe that it’s symbolic, but that it doesn’t actually have an impact in the way one lives in the public sphere. And of course, I don’t believe that. And you just said that you don’t think that is how it was originally created.

Wesley J. Smith (08:08)

Well, when you look at the fundamental practice of faiths, if you separate this out and if you limit it, then you, yourself are only going to be able to practice your faith on that time, when you’re meeting with other co-religionists and the rest of the time, you can’t take your faith with you. You don’t have a unity of life yourself. I remember as a young politician thinking, “You know, I’m a man of faith, but I don’t think you can practice your faith and be in politics, this isn’t bean bag.” You just can’t take it with you and how torn I was as a person saying, well, I mean, I feel good on Sunday and bad the rest of the week.

Sam Brownback (09:06):

And then I just said nuts. I follow Jesus. I believe in his teachings. I’m a flawed man. I’m a sinful man, but I’m going to do whatever I can to live this way every day of the week and every moment of my life. And then you’re no longer this torn person back and forth. Well, I can do this in the house of worship, but I can’t somewhere else. And that’s what it means to be able to have your fundamental freedom of religion and free exercise. Well, now that’s limited by, well, if you’re a pharmacist, some places are saying you’re going to have to have to sell abortion pills. If you’re going to practice pharmacy here and you’re going, oh, wait a minute. That’s not who I am. I don’t agree with that. And somebody else may say, well, you, you have to, well, then I don’t have free exercise of my faith and of my religion.

Sam Brownback (09:52)

Religious liberty is so essential to human thriving. I remember you and I had lunch once. And you told me that the work you were doing as the ambassador was the most important of your life. And I would like you to expand on that a bit.

Wesley J. Smith (10:41)

Well, the United States is the preeminent country in the world that stands for religious freedom. There’s nobody anywhere close to it. So to be the ambassador for international religious freedom for a country that stands for it during that administration that was emphasized in, it affects billions of people around the world that simply want to peacefully practice their faith. Most of the world lives in a religiously restrictive environment. 80% of the world does. And that’s kind of hard for Americans to believe, but you just go quickly to China and they’re at war with faith. You go at India and you’ve got this Hindu nationalism. That’s really coming up. You go to the Muslim world and if you’re not as Sunni or Shia Muslim, you’re out in most of it, that’s changing in some places. And I thought, this is the key thing that if we can get this right, as the United States, we can help the lives of billions of people.

Sam Brownback (10:54)

And remember, Wesley, most of the world organizes their life by their faith beliefs United States in the west, maybe a little less. So, but the rest of the world, the way they live, their daily lives is what they, what they hear from the pulpit, or they, they get from the mosque. This is how they organize their life. So the peaceful expression of that is about them being a real person, a dignified person that they that they are, this is to me, essential about human dignity in the world. We’re in today. And then finally this is going too long, but I think this was the, one of the really key decisions God made. When he created us, he gave us religious freedom. He gave us the right to walk away from him or to choose him whichever it was. And he, and knowing that we would maybe do wrong and had my view, he’d have to send his son to clean it up at a extremely high cost. He still gives us the freedom, knowing he’s going to have to pay this extraordinary cost to pick it up. This must be an incredibly valuable, right?

Sam Brownback (11:52)

It strikes me how Christian you are. But I know from following your career at the state department, which I did pretty closely, and I wrote about it, that you were not restricting your activities to protecting Christians. You traveled the world protecting people of all faiths. Give me and the audience a little bit of a taste of what your work was as the ambassador of religious freedom.

Wesley J. Smith (13:06)

Well, my first overseas trip I went to Turkey for Andrew Brunson, but then I went to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh advocating for the mostly Muslims that are being driven out by a Buddhist military and Myanmar Burma. I advocated a great deal in China and still do for the Weger population. That’s mostly a Muslim population in Western China. That’s in a genocide now and is in concentration camps, a million people in concentration camps today in the world today, 2021 and a country China. That’s one of the most powerful nations on earth. I traveled to Nigeria advocating for both Muslims and Christians, but there it’s mostly Christians that are being persecuted and killed for their faith that traveled to India and saw the Dalai Lama and was advocating for their ability to freely and peacefully exercise their faith in China or other places around the world.

Sam Brownback (13:34)

The key thing about religious freedom is: it is for everybody. It doesn’t matter your faith. And it only works if we all stand for each others opportunity to freely exercise our faith. And it’s most powerful if a Christian is standing up for Muslims and Muslims are standing up for Christians and Jews and Jews are standing up for Hindus and Buddhists, and sir astrons and atheist their right to not practice a faith. This sin only really works. If everybody stands up for each other’s fundamental human rights, it’s not about a common theology. It is about a common human, right? And it’s not

Sam Brownback (14:35)

About imposing your faith on someone else. It’s about allowing people to pursue truth with a capital T, which is probably the most important human endeavor

Wesley J. Smith (15:18)

It is. And that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? I mean, and, and that the dignity of what humans are about is the chance to pursue our creator. As we see that creator and pursue the route without limitations from other humans or from government, right? I mean, in my view, this is a God-given right, and no government has the right to block that pursuit. As

Sam Brownback (15:29)

You said, you know, for the secular rest or the atheist, it is just as important for them to be able to pursue their philosophical approaches or their materialism beliefs as it is for you to pursue Christianity or me to pursue Christianity, because that is seeking that as the individual human being, that exceptional species seeking truth with a capital T

Wesley J. Smith (15:52)

Absolutely I’ve fought for atheists in Nigeria that were being jailed because they didn’t have a faith. You can be persecuted in some countries for not having a faith. Well, you have the right to say, no, I don’t. I don’t believe there is a God. I may not agree with you, but that’s your right as a human individual to pursue that truth that you believe to,

Sam Brownback (16:17)

Right. It’s essential to, to the essence of our nature as human beings and something else that, that I’ve noticed. And I know I’m, I’m sure you have is that, you know, there are all kinds of persecution, but religious persecution seems to be the most angry, the most vicious of the prosecutions. I think of the Coptic martyrs on the Libyan beach who’s had their heads cut off because they were Christian. And because they wouldn’t accept a very distorted view of Islam. I think about, as you mentioned previously in China, the weakers who are under tremendous assault, not only the genocide, you, you referenced, but forced labor camps, they’re women forced to have abortions or be sterilized. You think of the Falun gong practitioners who are, are being live organ harvested in China, or the Chinese cultural genocide of Tibetan Buddhism, these, and then you can go to the Soviet oppression of the Eastern Orthodox church where hundreds of thousands of Orthodox priests were murdered or sent a gulags precisely because they had faith. And there was an attempt to impose atheism. Why do you think that when we get to persecution, and again, there are kinds, there are all kinds of persecution, but that religious persecution seems to be the most vicious and the most emotionally driven.

Wesley J. Smith (16:41)

Hmm. Good question. You know, though, but you, I got to tell you this one story. I was in Albania meeting with one of the heads of the Catholic church. There. He was a man who celebrated a mass in memory of JFK when he was assassinated, did this in Albania. They threw him in jail for, for having mass because JFK was assassinated for 25 years, 25 years for doing a mass and, you know, come out of jail and I’ve seen him and he wasn’t better, but you go on 25 years for a mass celebration. Yeah. The brutality of it is extraordinary. And the manipulation is extraordinary as well. I don’t know why other than it is so foundational to who we are as people that it gets that sort of dark response, because it is so powerful. Communist governments have historically, they just have trouble with religion of any type, because it’s a higher moral authority and they don’t believe in another moral authority than themselves. So communism, you kind of understand because of the atheistic, but a lot of other places it’s simply because the dominant religion doesn’t like the minority religions and they won’t stand up for them. That’s the thing we’ve got to change is we’ve got to get religionists around the world to stand up for each other. And that’s the key piece right now?

Sam Brownback (18:07)

Yes. And of course the the worst persecution historically has been antisemitism. I mean, Jews, because they’re Jews have been subjected to pogroms, they’ve been subjected to the Holocaust. They’ve been kicked out of countries and that’s going back thousands of years. So, so that really tells us something about the nature of discrimination based on religion and, and for, for, for Jewish people. I think they’re the Canary in the coal mine, when Jews start getting persecuted, I think things are starting to go in the wrong direction.

Wesley J. Smith (19:42)

They have been historically that Canary in the coal mine. I think, you know, unfortunately today, a lot of it’s the Christians, a lot of the Jewish people have left many countries. And so it’s the Christian community. That’s more diverse and diffuse. And, and you’re seeing the level of persecution there. You know, Wesley, if you track most genocides in the last hundred years of human existence, it is a genocide of a religious minorities is, was taking place at cost. We all know the, and they were Jewish people or religious minority Wiggers or a Muslim, a religious minority in Northern Iraq. We had the Christians and Yazidi’s these eighties, a very small religious community, but horrifically treated by ISIS and a genocide there the Armenian genocide that the Turkish and Ottoman late autumn and empire did was a brutal time period. And unfortunately, that’s just, that’s what we have seen as people is most genocides or of religious minorities.

Sam Brownback (20:18)

I’m very concerned today because civil libertarians used to understand that problem and that issue, but many today in the west on I’m talking about, because some we have an increased secularization, some seem to think, well, I don’t have any skin in that game anymore. So religious freedom is going to take a back seat and we can see that playing out in the collapse of the you know, bipartisan and by ideological, if I can use that term support for religious Liberty after the PA after the Smith case in Oregon and for the listeners, the Smith case in Oregon involved, the two native Americans who took some payoti during a native American religious ceremony. And later on, they had a drug test and they were denied unemployment benefits because they tested positive for drugs. And they brought a lawsuit saying, wait a second, this punishes us for our free exercise of religion.

Wesley J. Smith (21:21)

That was a free exercise case. And I’m afraid that justice Scalia made the worst decision of his career in my opinion. And I think he’s was a wonderful justice, but he said, well, this was a law of general applicability. And so the previous standard of strict scrutiny on, on interference with individual free exercise of religion, we’re going to throw that aside. And so long as the laws of general applicability and not tailored to go after a particular religion, we’re going to say it passes religious muster. Well, that led to a incredible bi-partisan coalition, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and they pass the religious freedom restoration act. And the point of that law and where you in the Senate at that time?

Wesley J. Smith (22:19)

No, that was just before I came into the Senate. We were in the house. Yeah. Yeah. So you voted for that bill I’m sure. Yeah. Yeah, I did. And that

Sam Brownback (23:09)

Bill was intended to restore both at the state and federal level, the kind of scrutiny by a statute that used to be applied via constitutional application present. I think it was almost unanimous in the house and, and, you know, more than 90 votes in the Senate, president Clinton readily signed it. There was a, a, a great coalition and, and that was proof of the American to religious freedom. Then a subsequent court case killed part of that law, not the federal aspect, but the state aspect. And so that old coalition was brought back together to try to redo the law, to protect religious freedom at the state level, from state laws and state regulations. And it collapsed, and it collapsed over the gay rights issue because people on the left began to look at religious freedom as an excuse or a cover for discrimination. And that’s when that, that incredible very strong, powerful coalition dissipated. And we began to have a real tension over that issue of religious freedom, particularly around gay LGBT issues and so forth. Do you see any way that supporters of religious freedom can assure people who are of LGBT community and their supporters and so forth that religious freedom is not intended as to justify discrimination, but to protect the individual right. Of each person, including people in the gay and lesbian community and the transgender community

Wesley J. Smith (23:18)

Ambassador Sam Brownback (25:02):
Hope so. You know, one of my one bill that I worked on when I was in the Senate was with a young New York, new New York Senator named Chuck Schumer where we were fighting for the right of seeks to wear their ceremonial knife coming in to work. They have a little three and ceremonial knife, and there’s a lot of places where you can’t have that here. It’s a knife, and we’re not gonna allow that in here. And we’re saying, this is, this is part of their religious free exercise. And but that bipartisanship is, is gone. I, I do see the possibility because factually, factually the countries in the world that are best on LGBT rights are also best on religious freedom. And it just kind of, we did a survey of this and we looked around and surveyed a bunch of the countries on this.

And it was just amazingly how many were, and it goes to act to that fundamental human dignity to choose that people in religious freedom and country, they value this because your right to choose. And if you want to choose an LGBT lifestyle, that’s your right to choose. People may not agree with you about it. They may not, they may agree. They may disagree with you about it. So my hope is, is that people will start to see that this is about fundamental human dignity and the right of that choice to you to make of your, of what you do with your own soul, what you do with your own life. That’s my hope. Certainly

Sam Brownback (25:56)

If you’re a civil libertarian, it seems to me that should be your position. A lot of people, when they think about this issue, you think about the Colorado cake baker case cases since he keeps being assaulted legally because he refuses to design a cake for various LGBT kinds of activities or events, but you alluded to this earlier. I think the bigger issue isn’t cake baking or flower arrangement. There was a case that was just refused tertiary at the Supreme court on that issue, but, but medical conscience where doctors are in danger, I believe of being forced to participate in human life, taking actions such as abortion and such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. Even if they have a strong religious objection to it, to be forced to participate in transgender transition procedures, including blocking puberty of minors and perhaps even surgeries on minors based on an allegation that if they refuse to do so, it’s discrimination.

Wesley J. Smith (26:35)

I can tell you, as you know, I write about this quite a lot in Ontario, Canada right now where euthanasia lethal injection euthanasia is legal. A judge has ruled a court of appeals has ruled that doctors let’s say who are Catholic and think that homicide, because that’s what euthanasia is. It’s a form of homicide. It’s not murder because it’s legal, but it is homicide a human being, taking another human life. That doctors there must either. If they’re asked by a legally qualified patient to be killed, they must either do the deed, or they must refer to someone else and have them do the deed that’s called an effective referral. And then there’s a very important case in California called dignity health. Dignity health is a Catholic hospital. And several years ago, dignity health had a hysterectomy scheduled and the patient called and said, well, this is a transition, a transgender transition surgery and dignity health canceled the surgery.

And they did so for two reasons that are key to Catholic moral teaching. One is you cannot remove a healthy organ that will change the function of the body. Abs you certainly can’t do it absent a pathology that was not aimed at any particular group of people. That’s a general moral teaching of Catholic health. The second was the surgery would have sterilized the patient and under Catholic moral teaching, you cannot sterilize a woman who had come to the hospital for a hysterectomy for purposes of sterilization would have been just as refused as was the transgender patient for the very same reason yet, because there’s a law called the Andrew act in California that says you cannot discriminate based on sexual identity or sexual orientation. A lawsuit was filed, even though the hospital actually helped the patient find a different hospital. And the court of appeals in California and the Supreme court of California have allowed that case to go forward to a jury. And if there are, is huge damages, awarded are huge damages awarded by that jury to the patient. It’s going to be Katy bar the door on Catholic hospitals. And since that law, the unruly applies generally not specifically, and because California does not have religious freedom restoration act, you can see the real danger for Catholic hospitals remaining Catholic. They may have to choose to stay in business or go out of business.

Wesley J. Smith (28:48)

Absolutely. And that’s why I think Wesley, we’ve got to start getting more organized in this country on religious freedom. We need to a national committee on religious freedom in the United States at the grassroots level. And then we also need to do a lot more talking and education about what religious freedom really is. It’s not this right to discriminate, it’s this right to practice your faith, your most deeply held convictions peacefully. It’s so foundational to an operational democracy. People need to be able to bring to the public square who they are and they need to be able to bring their faith into the public square as well, to have that free exercise. Or if you don’t have that, you’re going to have persecution of religious minorities taking place.

Sam Brownback (30:21)

You’re not going to have a functioning open society at all. Now you may think, well, I don’t agree with these guys. I wish they weren’t in the public square, but then that unravels, because you can say that argument to anybody, you might not agree with on some topic. And then everybody is excluded from the public square. This is really a dangerous trend line that we’re on. We’ve got to start fighting just like the national right to life started in the mid sixties, started educating and telling people about the fundamental nature of life. We need to talk to people about the fundamental nature of religious freedom, right?

Sam Brownback (31:15)

And, and that it’s authoritarian to try to squelch it just as it would be authoritarian to try to force an atheist, to have a religious philosophy or religious belief or go to church. The only way we can have comedy and respect for each other and true equality is with these kinds of Liberty issues, because otherwise it becomes an issue of power who has the power to determine what is the predominant view. And if you’re in the minority of that, eventually you’re going to be on the wrong end of the stick, which is why civil liberties requires religious freedom requires freedom of speech and the other liberties that we hold. So precious. Well, Sam, I really appreciate your being on the show. It’s been a very interesting conversation and and I look forward to the, your continued work. What are your plans as we close going forward, now that you’re out of the state department and back in the private sector,

Wesley J. Smith (31:56)

I’m going to continue to work on international religious freedom issues with various people from around the world. I recently was in Sudan. I helped co-chair and international religious freedom summit. And I hope to continue to work on these issues because I just think they’re so foundational. I want to start pushing more domestically on religious freedom issues in the United States. I’ve last several years work primarily internationally, but I think we’ve got to work more on them in the United States, because any ground that’s lost in the United States on religious freedom is magnified around the world. Cause everybody’s tracking what we’re doing it, cause this is the lead country on it. So I want to start working more on religious freedom issues in the United States.

Sam Brownback (32:52)

I’m really happy to hear that because as Lincoln said we are the last best hope of earth. Sam Brownback, thank you for your service and thank you for being on humanize.

Wesley J. Smith (33:34)

My pleasure, Wesley, God bless you and your listeners. Thanks for listening

Sam Brownback (33:43)

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Wesley J. Smith (33:48)