Sam Brownback has had a log and quite complicated political career and now it has taken another turn. On Capitol Hill, he has served in the House and the Senate, then he returned to Kansas as governor, where his stay was stormy, to say the least. He briefly ran for president in 2008.
On the religious side of things, he made headlines by converting from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. He would make any observer's list of the top 20 or so cultural conservatives in American politics.
That's the kind of career that earns someone a long list of enemies, as well as friends.
All of that came into play when Brownback was nominated by the Donald Trump administration to be the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom. That brings us to the top of this Associated Press report (as circulated by Religion News Service):
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Republican-led Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved Sam Brownback’s bid to be U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, setting the stage for him to resign the governorship in Kansas after seven contentious years in office.
With two Republican senators absent, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Capitol Hill to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Brownback, a favorite of Christian conservatives for his views on same-sex marriage and abortion. The vote was along party lines, 50-49, underscoring the narrow margin Republicans hold. Pence’s vote also was needed earlier in the day to get Brownback’s nomination over a procedural hurdle.
Now, it's obvious -- with that cliffhanger vote -- that Brownback's enemies came loaded for bear. You can also see, in the AP wording, that the battle over this nomination was fought along culture-wars lines. Note this: He is a "favorite of Christian conservatives for his views on same-sex marriage and abortion."
Noted. Thus, it is going to be crucial, in this story, to cover the reasons that the cultural and religious left opposed him so strongly. That's part of the story.
However, it would also be crucial to note why Brownback was nominated for this particular post in the first place. What actions did he take, what causes did he support, during his long career that caused his supporters to support this nomination? I would add: Were all of his supporters on the right?
Anyone want to guess which side of this equation AP all but ignored?
First, on the left, there is this:
During his confirmation hearing last year, Brownback declined to unequivocally declare there is no situation that would allow a country to cite religious freedom as the basis for criminally prosecuting LGBT people.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Wednesday that he was concerned Brownback would focus solely on protecting Christian minorities. ...
The advocacy group GLAAD said in a statement that Brownback’s “distortion of ‘religious freedom’ threatens LGBTQ people both at home and abroad.”
Like I said, this is essential material in a story on this nomination. The question, of course, is whether the United States has the power to tell foreign nations how to handle issues linked to gay rights -- especially nations with legal systems linked to Islam and sharia law. What does it mean to say the U.S. officials will not "allow" a country to enforce its own laws?
Obviously, the U.S. -- along with a wide spectrum of religious groups -- have opposed attacks on LGBT people in settings such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uganda. However, many people disagree on whether the U.S. (and nonprofit groups) should cut off all aid to nations that have laws linked to sexuality, marriage and abortion that Americans find offensive and dangerous. At some point, as Pope Francis has repeatedly said, Western attempts to link aid to demands for cultural changes abroad can turn into "ideological colonization."
Combine this crucial issue with the Menendez charge that Brownback would only defend oppressed Christian minorities and you have some questions that simply have to be addressed, quoting appropriate voices on both sides.
So what did the AP offer on the other side of the equation?
Brownback was an early advocate of U.S. action to stop genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, and visited Congo and Rwanda to decry humanitarian crises and call for better coordination in foreign aid programs.
That's true, but there was more to Brownback's work in Africa than that.
It would be essential, at the very least, to mention his role in projects -- during the George W. Bush era -- linked to AIDS and other relief projects.
In conservative media, a report at Baptist Press included this interesting material:
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 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 Trump nominated Brownback in July, Saperstein called it "a very strong appointment." Brownback "knows the issue very well," he said.
Yes, it would be interesting to find out more about Saperstein's view of the Brownback nomination, including his knowledge of the nominee's boots-on-the-ground work on religious liberty issues abroad.
It goes without saying that AP needed to include some material from conservatives that play active roles in human-rights causes around the world. They would have folders of information on what Brownback has done, or not done.
Let me end with one other hint at the complexity of this story and the need for reporters to take seriously the views of experts on the left and the right. Consider, if you will, this New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof from 2004: "When the Right Is Right." Here is the overture:
One of thef most conservative, religious, fascinating -- and, in many ways, admirable -- politicians in America today is Sam Brownback, the senator from Kansas who is a leader of the Christian right.
Sure, Mr. Brownback is to the right of Attila the Hun, and I disagree with him on just about every major issue. But 'tis the season for brotherly love, so let me point to reasons for hope. Members of the Christian right, exemplified by Mr. Brownback, are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad -- thus creating opportunities for common ground between left and right on issues we all care about.
So Democrats should clamber down from the window ledges, roll up their sleeves and get to work on some of these issues. Because I'm embarrassed to say that Democrats have been so suspicious of Republicans that they haven't contributed much on those human rights issues where the Christian right has already staked out its ground.
Take sex trafficking.
Read on. Yes, there may be more to Brownback's work on religious freedom than the one-sided report offered by the Associated Press.