Sworn in on Feb. 1 as President Donald Trump's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback sees his job as taking the most important topic in the world and making it come to life.
Brownback has been on the job for just a month, but he is trying to make his mark by calling out violations of religious freedom when and where he sees them.
WATCH: VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren interviews former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Brownback spoke to VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren on Feb. 27 for the program "Plugged In With Greta Van Susteren."
Van Susteren: Ambassador, nice to see you, sir.
Brownback: Good to see you, Greta. It’s been a long time.
Van Susteren: It has. Welcome back to Washington.
Brownback: Thank you, thank you. I’m glad to be in this position. I’m not sure I’m glad to be back, because, I love The (Great) Plains. But, glad to be here.
Van Susteren: All right, so tell me, what is this job?
Brownback: It’s about religious freedom and it’s a about taking what I think is the most important topic in the world and activating it and making it come to life for people. Too many people live in a repressive religious regime where they can’t practice their faith the way they want to. We believe as Americans that this is a God-given right and you’re entitled to it wherever you are in the world and we’re activating that.
Van Susteren: So what do you do? How do you go about doing that?
Brownback: You know, it’s, it’s, kind of, there’s granular and there’s global. Really. Granular, we just got a guy out of prison that was a Vietnamese pastor. It’s global in that we’re pushing countries to open up their policies for religious freedom. And it’s kind of soup to nuts between that. But that’s really what the office does on as daily basis, those two things.
Van Susteren: Every faith? I mean the …
Brownback: Every faith, or no faith at all. The American Humanist Association comes to the roundtables that I have. And they’re saying ‘look, we want to be free to not believe anything.’ And you’re going, you know, that’s your God given right. That’s the way, in my estimation, that God created the world, you’re to be free. You’re free to do with your own soul or nothing at all.
Van Susteren: How do you reconcile with certain situations, like, take a country like Saudi Arabia, which, you got to be, got to be a Muslim, and, what if we don’t agree, the United States and we say ‘you got to have the freedom to choose, it just shouldn’t just be, you shouldn’t have religion imposed upon you.’ What do we do?
Brownback: Well, we put them on a special watch list, or we put them on a country of a particular concern, we highlight what policies they’re doing that pull away from that, we push them as hard as we possibly can. Now, there’s a natural pushback that takes place in the system because our embassy in Saudi Arabia and other places say ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. We got other equities that we’re interested in here.” But we push that you should provide for religious freedom in your country and that applies to friend and foe alike.
Van Susteren: But in the meantime, we also need their help in the world and we help them in the world, so we have a real conflict with a country, just generically, with their repression of religion or their intolerance of it. How do you sort of reconcile that with trying to, like, get things done in terms of religious freedom, yet we don’t want to step on toes because we need their help another way?
Brownback: Well, how do you do it with a friend? Your friends, you got friends and you say “But you really, I don’t like you doing this. But you’re my friend.” Well, you stay being their friend but you really focus him and say ‘Look, this is not right and here is why it’s not right” and I think you always - People and countries act in their own self-interest. So I think you have to go to the country and say ‘This is in your best interest to be religiously free. And we now have the studies that this will reduce terrorism in your nation if you allow religious freedom.’ It a common sense discussion as well. If I tell you I am not going to let you practice your faith. I’m not going to let you do it. I want to force you … What will you do? For a lot of people who are religiously motivated, they’re going to fight you. And they’re going to find some way to fight you; where as if I invite you into the society and say ‘bring your ideas to the public square’ they’re going to participate in the process. And so I think we take those sorts of ideas to people and countries like Saudi Arabia and say ‘this is for your good to do this.’
Van Susteren: Is there going to, is there going to… I know you’re new to the job, is there some sort of anticipated pushback, for instance, when we’re trying to tell another country that, you know, freedom of religion is very important. That it’s a basic human right. Is there some sort of pushback where they say, well, what about your country? You’ve got this, what’s been characterized as a Muslim travel ban. I mean, are you, do you expect to get pushback that we need to practice more of what we preach so to speak?
Brownback: Absolutely. I mean, that’s the natural debate that takes place every day. And say, OK, bring your ideas to me, let’s look at it, and here’s why we did this. Now tell me, why you don’t let people practice your/their faith, or why do you have them in jail, or why do you kill them, if they have an anti-conversion law. Is that right, and give me your rationale for doing that.
Van Susteren: Is there, how’s the US doing? I mean, obviously, we don’t put people to death for their religion, but there is some mocking of religion. We’ve had the situation where recently the Vice President was mocked by a television show for his religion. We’ve got, I think, that the, I don’t think that the Mormon Church is pleased with The Book of Mormon, which mocks their religion. What about, what about here in the United States, how are we doing?
Brownback: And that’s something this office doesn’t deal with, intentionally. I helped write the bill, the law that created this office. And what we tried to do is get something that could have bipartisan support so that promotion in general for religious freedom internationally is something that both parties could agree with.
Van Susteren: So it doesn’t, so your influence is not going to be in this, in the United States.
Brownback: It’s not domestic. This office is intentionally, by law, not focused on domestic religious freedom issues, even though you could raise a hundred of them, and in my prior life, in former positions, I did. But this is about international religious freedom.
Van Susteren: What are you looking forward to doing in this job? What, sort of, as you, when you accepted the nomination, what did you think, like, this is something that I’d really like to do, what part of it?
Brownback: Saving lives. I used to do this work while when I was in the Senate, would advocate for people are in jail. And once in a while you could get somebody out of jail and out of country and literally save their life. And it was a great day. I would also on a global basis really like to see the gates fly open for religious freedom around the world. I just so fundamentally believe that this is one of those rights that brings forth a number of other human rights. And I do think we’re at a moment where we you could see that start to take place. You’ve got an administration interested in it, you’ve got now the studies that show this is the right way to go, you’ve got I think an alignment, and a lot of people in Congress interested in this, that you really could see this religion, religious freedom blossom around the world.
Van Susteren: What do we do about the situation, we’re at war with ISIS, and they persecute the Yazidis, and so what do we do? I mean, the Yazidis, we need to protect them from the persecution, but they’re displaced from their property, I mean, you have the intersection sort of, of the lofty goal of wanting to protect peoples’ life, liberty and practice religion, but then we have situations where we have war.
Brownback: It’s a tough one, and I plan to go there. I have a trip planned soon, to go into that region in Northern Iraq where the Yazidis and the Christians were persecuted, where there was a genocide against them that took place. And right now the focus is how do we rebuild the area and have it secure enough that the Yazidis and the Christians can move back in. The security is the first, and then rebuilding and de-mining the area is going to be a key part of it, but there’s quite a focus on that right now.
Van Susteren: You know it’s unbelievable, I was in that Iraqi area and saw what was being done to the Christians and the Yazidis near Mosul, and I mean, it’s just devastating. We have no concept here in the United States of how terrible it was for those people, or it is for them.
Brownback: I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie 12 Strong, it’s about the 12 first guys into Afghanistan. The lead guy was a Kansan, going into that and he has to ride horseback into battle and its Hollywood and he says his kids really think he’s cool now because he was played by Thor (actor Chris Hemsworth) in the movie, so you know, being cool to your kids. But there’s a scene in there about religious persecution, when you have a real fundamentalist, militantized view of the religion he was practicing, and killing the father for allowing the children to be educated, the girl, the female children to be educated. And you hear the stories from the Yazidis and the Christians and the selling of women as property and just going that’s, that’s just un… At your heart level, that’s just ringing to you wrong as you hear it and you see it.
Van Susteren: Well, you see it with Boko Haram in Africa, where the little girls were kidnapped, and this was about a couple years ago, there were over 200 and the world was scandalized, as they should be, and an effort to get them back, but then it, sort of just fades, people forget about it.
Brownback: I don’t know that they … I don’t know that they …
Van Susteren: There’s just been another recent kidnapping. But sometimes, we, even the media, we sometimes, forget things.
Brownback: I suppose, but I don’t think they do. Me taking this job, I left the governorship of Kansas last year to take this job, I had a number of Kansans say ‘I’m really happy you’re doing this.’ And they didn’t even know the office existed, some of them. But they had read in their church bulletins or things about what had happened at Boko Haram. They remember the people beheaded on the seashore by ISIS. They remember, that that image is burned in their head, and they’re going if the United States can do something against this and for religious freedom, I’m for it and I want us to do it.’
Van Susteren: What do we do about the situation, where you take the burka, where you can only see the woman’s eyes? And I think to myself, ‘Boy, I feel terrible for those women’ but what do we do if the women want to practice that religion?
Brownback: They’re free to do it.
Van Susteren: Free to do it?
Brownback: Free to do it.
Van Susteren: But how do we know the situation were, they can’t get educated in some parts of the world because of their religion.
Brownback: Well, to me there, we ought to and we do as a government push for just a basic right to be able to learn, and to be able to prosper yourself. Countries make their own decisions about things, but to me, freedom of religion is something that really will help to spawn the rest of these rights as well, coming out of it.
Van Susteren: This law is relatively new, you helped pass it back in the 90s, so it’s relatively new, now, to me. Why? What provoked it?
Brownback: We didn’t think the State Department was doing anything dealing with religion.
Van Susteren: Uh-oh, and… and here you are.
Brownback: Yeah, here I am. In the belly of the beast. But we didn’t… and at the time, I remember Madeleine Albright coming to meet me afterwards, when I was in the Senate, saying ‘Why are you so interested in these things?’ And I said to her it’s kinda like Paul says: “Woe to me if I don’t” do something when you have the ability and you see these problems existing all over the world. And the problems of religious persecution haven’t gone down since 98. They’ve gone up. And they’ve even gotten more violent since that period of time as you get more and more interaction of faith communities and minority faith communities in countries and people wanting to be free. So it’s like the Congress really had, was the early warning system. The State Department, who just didn’t want to deal with religion, saying that just gets in the way of good policy, religion does, to where now they’re recognizing, this drives policy, because it drives cultures. Cultures determine policy. And so you really want to drive this issue of being free because it will drive a whole bunch of better policies in places.
Van Susteren: Well, you actually see that, I think, in the Myanmar situation, the Rohingya. Here you’ve got the Buddhists, and the Myanmar military who have done ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, pushed about 680-thousand of them out of there into Bangladesh …
Brownback: And it’s religious cleansing too.
Van Susteren: But it’s religious, but it’s, it’s religious and ethnic.
Brownback: It is.
Van Susteren: And so, what do, sort of, do we go back to imposing sanctions on Myanmar? How do we stop that?
Brownback: Well, I mean it’s hard. But you have to start by calling it what it is. I mean this is religious cleansing. It would not be happening were these people not Muslim. If they were Buddhists, in all likelihood, this would not be happening today. And I think you start by calling it out for what it is. And then they say ‘Well, it’s not really’ and ‘they don’t deserve to be here’ or this or that. I say come on guys, seriously? Would you be doing this to them if they were Buddhist? Would you? And if they can’t answer that one straight, then I think you start working, obviously, with education, with calling it out around the world, you move forward with the sanctions on people, and you put pressure on and say: We’re not going to stand for this and we don’t care what religion it is. We’re not going to stand for it and we’re going to call it out and we’re going to speak about it and we’re going to take actions.
Van Susteren: Do you see the administration interested in this Rohingya crisis? I mean, it’s so far across the world. Secretary Tillerson was one of the first to say ethnic cleansing, and I know Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has likewise done that. Is the US likely to impose sanctions on Myanmar, do you hear any discussion of that?
Brownback: I think you’re likely to see a lot of actions. It’s a tough one in the sense that …
Van Susteren: Let me interrupt. It’s also bipartisan, in that Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, is very interested in this topic.
Brownback: Yeah, and a senator from Oregon very interested in this topic. A number of people are. But I think you’re going to see actions taking place on this one and but I think the world is also, the United States, it’s a complex tug of back and forth because you’ve had this military junta in the place, but then you have Aung San Suu Kyi who moves in and is this breath of fresh air, but then you have this move. And you’re going wait a minute, we don’t want to hurt her and the move away from a military dictatorship, but you can’t do this. This is religious cleansing. So I think that gets to be the tension of what you end up doing, but this is such a clear case.
Van Susteren: You know, it’s interesting is, that this country’s not perfect. No country’s perfect. But I don’t know if people realize, when it comes to things like freedom of religion, how much luckier Americans are, people visiting our country, than some of these other places, whether it’s China or Myanmar or parts of the Middle East, they have no idea.
Brownback: The public announcement came out of, uh, me getting this position, I was at mass and took communion at noon and I was going to the press conference. And a man from Congo stopped me as I was leaving and he was an asyulee in the United States from Congo and found his way to Kansas. Don’t ask me how, but he’s a nice young man. And he said ‘I’m really glad you’re doing this.’ He had a friend of his who was in one of the boats trying to get across the Mediterranean, as they were finishing up the trip, they, uh, they were asking if he was a Christian and he said ‘yeah’ and they threw him out of the boat because the dominant religion in that boat was not Christian, and he died. These examples happen all the time. And they’re deadly. And that’s why it’s just … I’m just honored to be in the job and I hope I can help save some lives.
Van Susteren: Ambassador, nice to see you sir, thank you.
Brownback: Nice to see you again, Greta.
WATCH: "Plugged In With Greta Van Susteren"