Now that Sam Brownback has left the office of governor of Kansas and become U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, I want to return to the subject supposedly at the heart of his new job.
I could give you a cookie-cutter answer that says religious liberty is a cherished value of Americans and they want to make sure others around the world enjoy this foundational human right. And there would be a lot of truth in that.
But, of course, things are more complicated than that. And though many Americans seem ignorant of it, our own history is more complicated than that, too.
Gene Zubovich, a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, has written this helpful piece describing his views of what lies behind the interest Americans express in religious liberty around the globe.
"This," he writes, "is not the first time Americans have disagreed about the meaning of religious freedom. The United States has, in fact, been promoting religious liberty abroad since its founding, but there has always been disagreement on what exactly it is."
He then offers an interesting rundown of how we Americans have viewed this subject over the years, noting that sometimes our concern about religious freedom seems inordinately tied up with political and global power matters.
Early in our history, he writes, "America’s record of promoting religious liberty abroad was also spotty. Religious liberty largely meant the rights of missionaries to go out and convert 'heathens' to Protestant Christianity."
What all this comes down to for Brownback is whether he sees his role as a voice for the religiously persecuted around the globe -- and there are millions of people who fall into that category -- or whether he sees it as a chance to promote the narrow interests of Americans in harmony with Brownback's own religious views, which even he would describe as conservative and evangelical. In the latter case he'd be out promoting marriage as only between a man and a woman and he'd be a strident voice against abortion.
Let's watch what he does and praise him when he does the former and call him out when he does the latter.
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WHAT WOULD GOV. JESUS DO?
I wrote about civil religion recently here. The question a Catholic Christian raises in this piece is when Christians are obliged to pay attention to our civil religion and when they are obliged to work against what some politicians propose. I think she pretty much gets it right when she writes this: "It is when our political leaders do not speak and act as Jesus did that we are no longer bound to obey. We must act like Peter and the other apostles and follow the example of Jesus. We should resist the commands of leaders that speak against Jesus’ message of love. And we should do it in whatever way we can."