Sam Brownback is now the United States Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. Because of Brownback’s extreme views on religion and civil rights, his confirmation took six months, resulted in a 49-49 tie broken by Vice President Mike Pence, and has alarmed women’s and LGBT activists.
But what can Brownback really do in his new post? Actually, more than you might think. Dr. Shaun Casey, who served as director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA), told the Daily Beast that Brownback weaponizing the State Department against Muslims, women, LGBT people, and human rights activists is “a real possibility here and a terrifying prospect.”
Here are three ways that could happen.
First, he can redefine what the U.S. government means by the term “religious freedom.” The primary responsibility of the office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) is the production of an annual report detailing the status of religious freedom in every country in the world. It’s a valuable resource that makes the protection of religious freedom a real priority, rather than just empty words.
Historically, “religious freedom” meant the freedom to believe and practice one’s religion without governmental interference. This was especially important for religious minorities: Jews in Russia, Christians in Egypt, Muslims in the United States, Yazidis in Iraq. Brownback, however, has been at the vanguard of the movement that has redefined “religious freedom” to include the right of religious people to discriminate against others.
The well-publicized case of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is an easy example: to the cake baker, the government is forcing him to do something he objects to—to the gay couple he refused service, however, the government is protecting their equal rights.
More pernicious and impactful examples are hate speech (incitement to violence or religious freedom?), marriage non-recognition by companies and government officials (separate-but-equal or religious freedom?), and gag rules on family planning by relief agencies funded by the government (censorship or religious freedom?).
The long-held view of religious freedom was that government should not abridge areligious practice as long as the practice didn’t hurt anyone else. In the new “religious freedom,” the third party’s rights are simply ignored. It’s as if the only people who matter are the baker and government—not the couple who are told “no gays allowed.”
It’s easy to promulgate this internationally. Countries that forbid companies from discriminating against women or LGBT people might now be censured for violating “religious freedom.” Crackdowns on incitements to violence could be censured for the same reason. And state imposition of religious values, such as in Putin’s Russia, would be cited with approval.
For example, when the fringe American pastor Scott Lively went to Uganda in 2009, he spread vicious lies about gay people and inspired that country’s “Kill the Gays” law. At the time, he was condemned by the Obama administration. But under Ambassador Brownback, it’s likely that Lively’s incitements to violence would be considered the exercise of his religious freedom, and any governmental opposition to him would be considered an affront.
Casey’s office, which thanks to Tillerson’s cutbacks has now been folded into IRF, had the mandate to engage with diverse religious populations. But now, Casey said, “the only religious voices this administration listens to is this fake Christian evangelical advisory board,” he said. “They’re not calling for protecting LGBT people, or protecting vulnerable Muslims around the world—they’re egging this administration on. I’m not particularly sanguine about the trajectory this office is on.”
Once again, these wouldn’t just be words on paper. They translate into agenda items of United States foreign policy. In exchange for American support and assistance, these are the kinds of items that now need to be addressed: protecting the rights of those who wish to restrict the rights of others.
Second, it’s already quite clear that, while past State Departments worked to protect all religious minorities, the current one protects Christians first and foremost, and has no interest in protecting Muslims.
“My deep fear is they become pro-Evangelical Christian and anti-Muslim throughout the world,” said Casey. “One test is: is he going to go to Myanmar? Or to Bangladesh? Will he say that the ethnic cleansing of 650,000 Muslims in Rakhine state [in Myanmar] is unacceptable? If he refuses to do that, we know he’s not going to be working on complex religious dynamics or protecting human rights.”
On the contrary, said Casey, “he may just continue to double-down on the Islamophobia of this administration.”
The one exception may be Saudi Arabia, the much-needed U.S. ally and serial human rights abuser, particularly of the country’s Shiite Muslim minority. “When the president goes to Riyadh and says ‘I’m not going to tell you Saudis how to run your country,’ that ridiculously undermines the United States policy of religious freedom for all,” Casey said. “It makes very difficult for the ambassador for international religious freedom to go back and say that we are deeply concerned about your treatment of religious minorities.”
Third, Brownback is now in a position to help the U.S.-based evangelicals who have been exporting anti-women and anti-LGBT ideologies worldwide.
On his own, he has a pulpit from which to preach his interpretation of American policy, influenced as it is by the Dominionist philosophy he has embraced, which holds that conservative Christianity must hold dominions over all the “mountains” of society, including government and culture.
He will likely speak at the United Nations, supporting the alliance of Russian conservatives and American Christian right conservatives, and their joint effort to define the “family” in narrow, heterosexual, patriarchal terms, which define women’s rights and LGBT rights as antithetical to the family.
Brownback also will have money. Casey said that relief money for aiding the displaced Yazidi minority in Iraq has already been redirected from UN agencies to Christian organizations. In addition to the usual 20 percent to 25 percent “overhead” fees such organizations receive, there are questions about whether all minorities will be treated equally. “Will these organizations really protect Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as much as Christians?” Casey asked.
IRF’s budget includes millions of dollars in grants; Casey warned that they, too, might be redirected to international Christian organizations. “We have to pay attention and keep them accountable,” he said.
But even without the cash, the “Trump Effect” has already had a severe impact on LGBT people and other vulnerable populations worldwide. As soon as Trump was elected, religious conservatives around the world began pressing for new concessions from their governments, often at the expense of women and LGBT people, and those who have tortured LGBT people in Kenya, or murdered them in Cameroon, or imprisoned them in Chechnya and Russia have acted with impunity, knowing full well that this ‘America First’ government will not intervene to save them.
Casey did have one piece of good news for progressives: that once again, the administration’s incompetence might save us from its malevolence. “Governor Brownback was really poorly served by the White House,” Casey said of the close vote. “It puts him in a bad starting position… politically, he’s damaged goods. So he starts from a position of weakness.”
Moreover, Casey noted, the combined offices have fewer staff and less money than before, yet the same missions. “Good luck with that,” Casey said.
“Add to that Tillerson’s complete incompetence and inability to grasp what diplomacy is about,” he continued, “and it’s quite possible that Brownback will just aimlessly wander around the world giving abstract lectures about how much we love religious freedom.”
One can only hope.