The United States once again has an ambassador at large for religious freedom but only by the slimmest of margins.
The Senate confirmed Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to the post Jan. 24 by virtue of Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote. As the presiding officer of the chamber, Pence cast the deciding vote to snap a 49-49 tie along party lines.
All the votes against confirmation came from Democrats, even though Brownback was a colleague to some of them during his 14 years in the Senate. Two Republicans – Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona – were absent, resulting in the opportunity for a tie-breaker by Pence.
Religious liberty advocates hailed Brownback’s confirmation.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, described Brownback as “an outstanding choice” and said, “I am delighted to see the Senate confirm him to serve in this critical post.”
“This ambassadorship is a key piece in our nation’s responsibility to act on behalf of the persecuted around the world, one that requires a seasoned, respected leader who brings conviction and gravity to the work of this crucial post,” Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “Governor Brownback is exactly this kind of leader. He will be an exceptional ambassador.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said, “[T]he basic human right of religious freedom is under attack all around the world, and religious minorities are being oppressed and killed.
“The United States must not become numb to these violations of a fundamental human right. Instead, we must act,” Lankford said in written remarks, adding Brownback’s confirmation “sends a message to the world that religious freedom is a priority of the United States government.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – its nine members appointed by both Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress, as well as the president – welcomed the Senate action.
Brownback’s confirmation “could not have come soon enough,” said USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark in a written statement. “We are witnessing immense challenges to religious freedom around the globe. We need to utilize every resource available to confront these challenges, including the office of the ambassador-at-large.”
Gay and transgender rights organizations appeared to lead the opposition to Brownback. They criticized him for his record on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) rights, especially as Kansas’ governor.
In one action, Brownback rescinded in 2015 an executive order providing state government employees with job protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. At the time, Brownback said, “Any such expansion of ‘protected classes’ should be done by the legislature and not through [executive order].”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said Brownback’s “extremist, anti-LGBTQ actions should disqualify him from representing the people of the United States.”
HRC is the country’s largest political organization for LGBTQ rights.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay member of the Senate, tweeted, “America has always been about freedom, fairness and opportunity for all. That should be our message to the rest of the world but Sam Brownback won’t deliver it and advance the cause of #LGBTQ equality.”
The Democrats’ unanimous opposition to Brownback stood in contrast to the divided response by GOP members to David Saperstein, the previous ambassador at large for religious freedom under President Barack Obama. In 2014, 11 Republicans joined Democrats to confirm Saperstein in a 62-35 vote.
Saperstein had been a long-time advocate for religious freedom, serving as an original USCIRF commissioner. But he also promoted abortion and gay rights as director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than three decades. Religious liberty advocates praised his two years of service as ambassador.
When President Donald Trump nominated Brownback in July, Saperstein called it “a very strong appointment.” Brownback “knows the issue very well,” he said.
Brownback advocated strongly for religious freedom during his time in the Senate and two years in the House of Representatives.
Trump renominated Brownback Jan. 8 after the Senate failed to act on the nomination last year.
The ambassador at large oversees the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious liberty conditions overseas, proposes policies in different regions or countries and establishes programs to further freedom of belief.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)