Into the Deep Podcast: United for Religious Freedom (Sam Brownback)
07/06/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Jeff King interviews former United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to discuss the upcoming International Religious Freedom 2021 Summit. Regardless of religion, we should all fight for religious freedom as a human right according to Amb. Brownback. The Summit will be held in Washington D.C. and virtually from July 13-15. For more information, please visit: https://irfsummit.com/
Listen to more episodes here.
Jeff King: Welcome to Into the Deep. Today, we have a special guest, returning guest, Ambassador Sam Brownback. I’m a big fan of the Ambassador. When I started my career with International Christian Concern, and started going down to the Hill, the Ambassador was a Senator then, and he was a Congressman before that. And in the meantime, was a Governor, and has had an amazing career. Always, always caring about religious freedom. And he was one of the key champions when I first came to Washington. So I’m a big fan of this guy, and always excited to talk to him. We’re going to be talking today about the Summit. Ambassador, welcome. I’m looking forward to getting into it with you.
Sam Brownback: Hey, thank you. Appreciate that. And good to join you again as well, and I always appreciated what you guys did, and what you continue to do. I wish you were running out of work.
Jeff King: I know.
Sam Brownback: But you’re not.
Jeff King: No, no.
Sam Brownback: It just keeps getting bigger and deeper and more nuanced in some places, more brutal than others. And you’re just going, “Wow. This thing it’s not resolved.” So I just appreciate the work that you guys are doing, and continue to do.
Jeff King: Yeah. Well, as you know, unfortunately we’re in a growth industry, so we’re always trying to scale up to meet the demand. And it’s interesting. You already know. It’s like anything we can do, where all the organizations put together, it’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed. But it’s that old starfish story. The guy on the beach with, it’s littered with starfish, and he’s saving one at a time. And the person comes along and says, “You can’t save them all. What are you doing?” And he says, “Well, I can save this one.” And he throws it back. And that’s the story of what we do, right?
Sam Brownback: Well, it is. But I would contend you are having a bigger and broader impact. We’re seeing more governments now step up, and seriously say, “Okay, now there’s a problem here. We’ve got to do something.” We’re seeing more and more governments saying that the key long-term to peace, is to have this sort of religious freedom, where the governments guarantee the rights, not attack, because they’re just minorities. And so it’s slow, but I can really see the movement coming together, and starting to sense kind of a way forward. Whereas for a long time, it just seemed like people were… The various faith communities around the world were just getting picked off one by one by themselves. And separately, we can get picked off. It just not very hard to do, but together it’s a much different story.
Jeff King: Yeah. And I would contend, since we’re in a mutual admiration society here, I would contend that, the big movement I think really, was your time. You really put your mark on the religious freedom landscape out there with the Summit at the State Department. And I want you to start there. Talk about that, because we’re going to get into the Summit, but it was really birthed with what you did at the State Department. And that really put religious freedom on the map. And I’m going to let you talk about it, why we’re doing the Summit, but talk about what started at the State Department, and why you were doing that.
Sam Brownback: We did a Ministerial, that’s kind of the highest level meeting that you can do at State Department, where you invite other foreign ministers from around the world to come in on a topic. And we did it on religious freedom, which had never been done before. And I don’t even think it had ever been thought about before. People would just kind of… It was a Second or Third Chair issue at State Department. It wasn’t that it wasn’t significant, but it didn’t get to the level of military agreements or diplomatic issues. It was just kind of, “Yeah, it’s important. It’s human rights.” But it was kind of just a sidebar. And then Secretary Pompeo comes in, and we had the proposal in front of him to do a Ministerial on religious freedom. He’s a man of faith, he said, “Yes, let’s do that.”
And at the first one, everybody was kind of, “Well, what is this? How are you going to do it? We’re for all human rights, not just one.” And we’re saying, “If you get this one right, it’ll help all human rights.” And they were going, “Well, maybe, maybe not.” So that first one went off, went well, but then the second one was the one that really launched it. Then the religious community got in and said, “I see what you’re doing. And I agree with it. And I need it.” And it just packed the place out. It was the biggest human rights event that was ever done in State Department history. We had to close registration off nearly a month in advance, because we were fall. And that’s when you saw, “Okay, all right, there’s a movement here.”
And I think it was that second one that really launched the movement and people saying, “Okay, I get it. And I may not agree with everything you’re doing, but I get it. And it is important.” And the root of most genocides now in the world is the persecution of a religious minority. So if we want to stop genocides in the world, you got to stop this persecution of religious minorities. And that really started to gain some traction in the international community.
And then on top of it, a number of countries started to see that if they will open their society up to people of diverse space, their economies can grow, and their own societies can have more freedom. And they started to buy into that concept. And those things together, I think really started to turn the tide some on this topic.
Jeff King: Yeah. So massive event, really, as you said, it really turned the tide. And then unfortunately, this isn’t a political statement, but unfortunately there was a change of administration, and your work was cut short there. And to your credit, you said, “Look, this is so important. We have laid so much groundwork.” Why the transition from Ministerial to Summit? Talk about that. What are you trying to do?
Sam Brownback: Well, this is moving from the government hosting it to civil society groups hosting it. So it’s really kind of the same concept, it’s just getting the international religious freedom community together. And it’s of all fades; so we’ll have at this summit, well, of course we’ll have Christians, but we’ll have Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus, and we’ll have Weekers as an ethnic group, and we’ll have a number of minor religious space that’ll be at the event. And it’ll be everybody coming together to stand for each other’s religious freedom, which is really the strength of it. It’s a Christian standing up for a Muslim’s religious freedom right, and a Muslim standing up for a Jew, and a Jew standing up for a Hindu or Buddhist. And it’s everybody standing for each other, that then has the strength to really change government’s attitude around the world. And they will all be at this one. And it’ll really be… The effort is focused on relationship building of the various communities of interest, so that going forward, it’s a really vitalized and synergized movement, pulling people together and pushing out together.
Jeff King: You know, it’s a very normal thing, in for us, as religious freedom professionals in Washington DC, to think this isn’t out-of-the-box at all for us to say, “Well, yeah, I need to sit down with this Jewish guy and this Muslim guy and a Hindu.” And we’re not saying we agree or disagree with either each other’s faith. It’s that religious freedom is important, and we have to stand together or sink separately, which you already alluded to. But oftentimes, I think it can be, outside of Washington, it’s a little bit of a foreign concept. Like I have to buy into somebody else’s theology. It’s like, “That’s not it at all. We’re just buying into the concept that religious freedom is so core to democracy. It encompasses so many rights.” And again, we join together we’re much more potent force. Is that well said? Or what would you add to that?
Sam Brownback: Yeah, absolutely. And I say often, “We’re not about establishing a common theology, because we don’t agree. And we don’t talk about that. We talk about a common human right, that you have the dignity as an individual, to choose what to do with your own soul.” And no government has the right to interfere with that, nor does communal violence have the right to interfere. Government’s role is to protect this common human right. And if we look at it that way, then you have this great band of agreement between all these religious adherences that disagree strongly about theology, and you know… “Who is Jesus?” Well, we won’t ask that question at the Summit, because there are a lot of different answers to that. But what we will ask, that people will stand for each other’s human rights, and the dignity to be able to choose what to do with your own soul, and to choose to determine who you think Jesus is.
Jeff King: Amen. Now, let’s kind of draw back, and look out on the world there, and talk about where are the hot spots? I have a couple in mind, but I want to hear from you. Where do you think we should be paying special attention to?
Sam Brownback: I start this one always with China, and not because it’s the worst situation in the world as far as individuals on the ground, but because it represents a challenge to our system.
Jeff King: That’s right.
Sam Brownback: The want the world system that’s modeled after theirs; it’s authoritarian. It’s at war with faith. Communism always has had trouble with people of faith. It’s an atheist system, and so they don’t want anybody to have any allegiance to a higher authority. And unfortunately, China is spreading, and they’re very aggressive on this different ideology. And then they’re also really developing the system of use of new technologies to oppress people. And that to me, is really that deeply concerning piece; because once these systems can get developed, they’re easily replicable. They’re not particularly expensive to implement; it’s mostly a data gathering and inputting. And then you’ve got this virtual police state. One final point on this, is that if the Chinese are able to digitize their currency, which means there’d be no more physical currency, it’ll all be on your phone, they will be able to track every single transaction, everyone. Everyone’s transaction. And they’ll be able to declare, “You don’t have money, and you can’t use it any more with the push of a button. And it’s going to be extremely difficult for people of faith in a system like that.
Jeff King: Seems to me, I’ve read somewhere about something like that happening in the future. I don’t know what it is, but that’s frightening.
Sam Brownback: I’m afraid I have, too.
Jeff King: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. And I think part of the reason why China should be such a focus too, is that for the last two, three decades, we’ve been going in the right direction. If you plotted the graph, it’d be going up and down, but I’d say the general direction was heading, until Xi, it was heading in the right direction. And then this… Let’s just talk about this administration, and what they’re doing on the ground, and just, yeah.
Sam Brownback: You know, Xi Jinping’s system, he’s a true communist. He’s a Maoist. It’s about control. I’m like you; up until Xi, this system was opening up, was liberalizing; economically it was liberalizing, they were traveling, the Chinese people were traveling a great deal, and they were being more received in the international system. It seemed like it was liberalized and at home, and boom, he comes in, and it’s shutting it down. And then it’s the massive use of this technology: facial recognition systems, social credit system, to where if you’re a person of faith, you get downgraded on your social credit score. You can’t travel, you can’t get educational opportunities; just the system continues to shrink of your opportunities in the world around you. And then they want to export this ideology, this authoritarian mercantilism, I guess, is what you would call it, maybe more than communism. And they want to, and they’re saying to the world, “We have a superior… We have at least an equal, if not a superior system to democracy. And we think you should model after us, and not after the American model of democracy.”
Jeff King: Yeah. And just to unpack a little bit about what you said, in case some missed it. So their system is, they have millions, millions of closed circuit cameras all over the country. And there’s facial recognition, and all kinds of monitoring apart from the spying on each other. But it goes into a massive database. And if you were doing the wrong things, if you’re going to church, if you’re whatever, there was a system in the society of rewards you get. So the more you adhere to the communist system, the more you lift them up, the more rewards you get. If you diverge, if you’re religious, again, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.”
And this system, as you said, they’ve developed it to a degree that no one else has in the world, and to their detriment, they’re spreading this. As you said, they’re aggressive evangelists, and they’re spreading this, and equipping countries to do the same thing. And you know, democracy is a fragile thing, I’d say. It doesn’t exist naturally; it comes with a lot of effort. We’re used to it, because we’ve been in this period. But this is really frightening, when you look into the future, and to say who these guys are and what they’re exporting. And frankly, for the dictator, or despite, it’s right up their alley. And there’s too many that will take it on.
Sam Brownback: They will. I just got back from the Sudan. I’ve been working for over 20 years to change the Sudanese government. They had an authoritarian, Islamist, Bashir as president for 30 years; ruled the place with an iron fist, had two genocides, just everything. Well, now they’re trying to move to democracy, and democracy is messy at best, and you don’t have the strong man sitting on top of the place saying, “Do this. You’re going there. I’m running the system.”You got, everybody is supposed to participate in it. And they’re kind of going, “Well, we haven’t been doing that for 30 years. And now the economy is having difficulty. We’ve got hyperinflation taking place. Well, bring the strong man back.” And you go, “No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not the way. You need to fight through it yourself.”
But they’re not used to that. They think, “Well, at least it was better when you had one guy in charge, and he was running the economy.” I said, “Yeah, and he stifled everything else you could do.” So it isn’t a natural system, democracy. It’s amazing what our founders came up with. And it’s amazing on top of it, that the first multiple generations of Americans were willing to stay with it, and not go back to a king, or not have a dictator come in, and praise God for George Washington, that he didn’t just say, “Okay, I’m going to run this place.” Because he could have. But it’s tough. And I’d chart countries usually that they’ll start democracy, and then they’ll have a fall back; and then they’ll kind of get to pick back up again, and it’ll fall. I think it’s just an uneven process towards it. And you never get it right. You never get it completely right. Look how much we struggle after nearly 250 years, how much we still struggle with it.
Jeff King: Do we struggle? Joke. Sorry. Hey, looking around the world, another country, Turkey, talk about Erdogan and Turkey what’s going on there.
Sam Brownback: Yeah. Turkey has been a real disappointment. They really had this sort of… A number of Islamic countries have this model where you have a strong military that kind of backs the movement towards a better democracy. And so when it sets back, the military steps in, says, “Okay, well you’ve gone too wild here. Let’s get the group back together.” Pakistan has done this for a number of years. A number of different countries have, Egypt.
Well, Erdogan sees this play coming. And the military goes to step in, and he cuts their head off, arrest a bunch of people. And he has really significant Islamist tendencies. And he wants to bring back the old Ottoman Empire, and that’s his political base in the country. So he uses it as a religious nationalism in his nation. And then he exports it around in the old Ottoman region as a way of expressing his influence, and having greater influence in the region. And this is a real dangerous model, particularly for religious freedom; but it’s dangerous for democracies, it’s dangerous for human rights. And I really think we ought to be… confront him consistently on this. We have some, but he’s shown his colors, and which way he wants to go, and it’s not towards a democracy.
Jeff King: Yeah. And not only that, is just as you said, that he is an Islamist. He’s a radical Islamist, and now in control of the state, and he’s expansionist. And he looks back to the Ottoman Empire, and he uses the nationalism of that to rally people to him, and to say, “We’re going to regain our glory.” And he sees himself as a man of history, like so many of these dangerous characters do. And you really want… I swear, I just look at this guy and I’m like, “This is the kind of guy that starts a world war, because his ego is so fragile and so inflated. And he sees himself as a man of destiny, but quite willing to crush anybody who gets his way, and targeting Christians. So it’s just, dangerous character.”
Sam Brownback: It is. And then it’s difficult for us to determine how to react to him.
Jeff King: Yeah.
Sam Brownback: He’s a NATO ally.
Jeff King: Yeah.
Sam Brownback: And he’s been valuable on some things, and bad on a lot of other things. And you’re going, “How much of this do you take?” How much do you just say, “We’re done.” And we start moving our military bases. And we start saying, “We just need to find a more reliable spot to be in.” And he knows that. And then he plays us, and he plays our… Our biggest confrontation in the world today is China. Well, he knows that too. And he says, “Well, I’m better than the Chinese, and I’ll confront the Chinese once in a while, as I continue to prod you.” And these guys are-
Jeff King: Master manipulator.
Sam Brownback: Quite good at manipulating. They’re very good at manipulating the system. And we need to be smart enough and tactical enough to do it ourselves.
Jeff King: Absolutely. And, okay, so we’ve laid out two, three concerns out there. What do you hope from the Summit? What do you hope would come out, even in regards to those countries? What would we like to see happen to?
Sam Brownback: To me, what I want to see is relationships built. I just, I really want to see people, and not networks, relationships. There’s a difference. Networks use each other; relationships support each other. And so I want to see a series of relationships come forward. Because think about it; if you could get the religious communities of the world to come together and say, “I’m going to respect you. In our faith, we’re called to love you, whether you’re our neighbor, our enemy, we’re called to love you. I’m going to love you. And I’m going to support what you’re doing for religious freedom.”
And if we could get that to take root amongst various faith communities, we can win this fight. If you just had the religions of the world come together and say, “We’re going to stand for each other’s religious freedom.” Game’s over.
Jeff King: That’s right.
Sam Brownback: 80% of the world has a faith. And for most of that 80%, the faith is, they’re guiding how they live their life, is by this set of religious principles. And if you’d just have those communities saying, “Look, we’re going to stand for each other’s right to exist, and to practice our faith peacefully.” Game’s over. So that’s where I’m really after, is building these relationships of trust and respect, even love for each other, to the point where we would stand up for each other’s human right.
Jeff King: Amen. Yeah. And it’s interesting, because we can look at the really bad cases out there: the China, the Turkeys, et cetera, but let’s take a minute to look at the Western democracies, and the state of religious freedom, and the trajectory. And I’m specifically thinking of a number of cases, but I’ll start with one. I interviewed the MP of Finland, Pavis, are you familiar with her?
Sam Brownback: Yes. Yes.
Jeff King: Any comment on the case, or what is going on? This is Finland, core democracy. What’s going on there?
Sam Brownback: I think you have this sort of radical militant secularism that’s grabbing in a number of places that’s willing to stomp on fundamental human rights. And this is the battle in the court system in the United States, is really this boundary between, “You’ve got religious freedom, and it is a human right.” And it’s in the Bill of Rights. It’s in the first one. “You’ll make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or the limitation thereof.” And then people say, “Well, okay, I’m good with that. But I want to force you to not live your traditional moral faith in the public square. You can, whatever you want to think in private, whatever you want to do in private, fine, but I want to limit you in the public square.” And you go, “Wait a minute. The right doesn’t say it’s a public or a private right in the First Amendment, it just says I have that right.”
While others are saying, “Well, but it’s trampling on my feelings, or discriminating against me.” And therein gets the rub that the court now is getting engaged. And we had a great victory in that Philadelphia case in the US, 9-0, where the Catholic community doesn’t have to do same-sex adoptions. Because, people look, you can go somewhere else. And this is against the moral teachings of the Catholic church. So that’s what you’re seeing in the Western democracies, is this really a militarized effort to limit these sorts of First Amendment rights. And you see it more in Europe even than you do in the United States. But what tends to move forward in Europe comes here. So it’s the sort of thing we’re going to have to fight for our religious freedom rights here at home.
Jeff King: Yeah. And that is a good word. And I think it’s tough that the word is fight. And I think it’s tough for Christians, because we hold up meekness as a value, and humility, and most religions don’t, most cultures don’t; some do, but we really hold that. And yet, we have to understand what’s going on, because the despite and the dictator overseas, they do the same thing. They say, “Well, yes, we have religious freedom, but only in your home. Get out of the public square.”
This is so against the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, so against what the founders designed. And you imagine the secular militant atheist, we would never say, “You have no right to have your point of view.” But that’s what they’re saying to us. “You don’t have a right to your point of view, and to be said in public.” It’s so against democracy, it’s so arrogant, and it needs to be opposed, and opposed loudly, and fought. And I think Christians, we need to wake up, and it’s like, “I know this doesn’t feel good, but you got to fight. You’ve got to speak up and say, ‘This is so out of bounds.'”
Sam Brownback: That is the rub point. Meekness is, I’ve heard it described as “power under control.” Everything has to be done in love. I’m not saying these things of religious freedom because of dogma, although I think it is an absolute human right. I’m saying it because this protects the society and culture. You start losing ground on this, it’s just not that far before there’s heavy persecution that comes with it as well. And plus I think too, we’ve just got to be out there educating the public, “Well, what is religious freedom?” Because it starting to get defined as, “That’s just the right to be opposed to the LGBT community.”
Jeff King: That’s right.
Sam Brownback: Well, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not that at all. This is the right of you to do with your own soul what you choose to do. And if somebody wants to practice an LGBT lifestyle, that’s their choice.
Jeff King: That’s right.
Sam Brownback: That is the personal choice. As long as it’s done peacefully, that’s the personal choice of what an individual has. And consequently, the countries in the world that are best on religious freedom tend to be best on LGBT rights as well. Because it’s about the dignity of your individual choice. You are created in the image of God to make your choices as you see fit. I may agree or disagree with them, but you’ve got that right. And I think we’ve got to back up and teach what religious freedom really is, because when you get it to its basics, people go, “Well, I agree with that.” And because it’s just a foundational piece to being a human, at the end of the day. And we’re saying governments have to protect that right of you to be a dignified human, which we all would agree with.
Jeff King: Yes. Absolutely. Well said. Well, last words on the Summit, any call to people out there? Where do you see things going with religious freedom? I’m just going to leave the last comment with you.
Sam Brownback: Well, it’s July 13th to 15th. People can go on the website. IRF Summit 2021. If you want to come, register, sign up, show up. It’s at the Omni Shore ham in Washington, DC on those days. It’ll be one of the first big meetings in DC since the COVID crisis. And it’s going to be exciting. It’ll be the largest religious freedom gathering of the year, in the world. And it’s going to be an important meeting, because this has to move into a grassroots movement. The whole thing can’t be done at the elite or the country level, it’s got to be done at the grassroots level. And our effort really is to get the groups together, to relationship build, and to move out as a movement. And I hope we can mirror the human trafficking movement that’s really gone grassroots for this one, because that’s what it’s going to take to stand up for this right everywhere around the world, for everybody, all the time. So you’re welcome to come, and please come, and if you can’t, please pray for it.
Jeff King: All right. And there’s an online version too. They don’t have to show up in person, I think, right? Yeah.
Sam Brownback: That’s right there. They can tune into it online. And then the last day of the summit, there’ll be actually a virtual Religious Freedom Summit that will be online that people can go to that’ll have a lot of the summary of the overall event. So yeah, people can tune in, and I hope they do. I anticipate really, honestly, we’ll have thousands tuned in to the online piece of it. But we hope people come in person for that relationship building.
Jeff King: Well Congressmen, Senator, Governor, Ambassador, thank you for your amazing career, your service to this issue. I’ve seen it over the decades, and just really appreciate what you’re doing. So God bless, and thank you again.
Sam Brownback: God bless you, and the group, and I look forward to seeing you there.