Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will become the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom on January 31, 2018. For the Family Research Council (FRC) Brownback's appointment is a cause for celebration. For the forty-nine Senators who voted against Brownback's confirmation, it is a cause for deep concern. The FRC is encouraged by his stand against abortion. The Senators who voted against his confirmation, all Democrats, cited his record against GLBT rights. Jeff Sharlet offers a compelling, and for me, a disturbing portrait of Brownback in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Perennial, 2008, 260-72).
This ambassadorship, created in 1998, is far more important than its limited public visibility suggests. The U.S. State Department official document justifies the need for this position based on our national, "commitment to religious freedom, and to international covenants that guarantee it as the inalienable right of every human being." The duties assigned to the position are to:
1. Promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries;
2. Assist emerging democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience;
3. Assist religion and human rights NGOs in promoting religious freedom;
4. Identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors on the basis of religious beliefs.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, August 21, 2017, Judd Birdsall listed five challenges for the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, which I summarize here:
1. To emphasize early and often religious freedom as a universal principle.
2. To regularly reassure and defend vulnerable Muslims.
3. To communicate the value of religious liberty in language that reaches across ideological and theological lines, by promoting inclusion, advocating for minority rights, and protecting sacred sites.
4. To champion democracy and the full range of human rights.
5. To defend and work with the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs.
In this blog post, I am particularly interested in the third challenge--to promote inclusion, to advocate for minority rights, and to protect sacred sites. How can this be done with integrity when the United States systematically violates the rights of Indigenous Peoples and violates their sacred sites?
The fight of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Energy Transfer Partnership (ETP) received world-wide coverage in 2016. The ETP collaborated with state and federal law enforcement agencies and hired TigerSwan, a paramilitary private security force. The subsequent pictures of tear gas, attack dogs, and prison cages are seared into the global consciousness. They desecrated the sacred sites and burial grounds of the Standing Rock people. They arrested more than 300 people who still await trial.
In Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017), I discuss the history of Oak Flats, a sacred site of the San Carlos Apache Nation. The federal government acknowledged that Oak Flats is sacred land. Then, the Rio Tinto Company discovered a large deposit of copper buried 7,000 feet underground. The San Carlos Apache Nation successfully defended their sacred land in court for ten years. But in December 2014, Senator John McCain circumvented the courts and persuaded members of the Senate to approve a land swap that gave the company access to Oak Flats. When completed the Resolution Copper Mine will be one of the largest copper mines in the world, and Oak Flats will very likely be a toxic landfill.
The Trump administration's attack on Bears Ears National Monument and other sacred sites of Indigenous Peoples underscores the urgent need for a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom who will promote inclusion, advocate for minority rights, and protect sacred sites. And, we ought not to quibble over "international." The United States has 370 ratified treaties with sovereign Indian nations and communities. Moreover, the government cannot violate the rights of indigenous peoples here and then preach a different message to the rest of the world without being guilty of gross hypocrisy. The message loses its meaning when the messenger wears no clothes.
Will our new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom understand the pressing need for him to promote inclusion, defend minority rights, and protect sacred sites? Is Sam Brownback, who is known in Kansas for his proclivity to anoint himself "Pastor Sam," the person for this important job?
Now is the time for action. Now is the time to let him know that we are aware of the challenges he faces. We want him to succeed. We want him to start with work here in the United States. Contact the State Department or send a message to