Opinion

Kansas is once again confronted with the passion of Sam Brownback

February 7, 2021 3:39 am

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback gives a speech at the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 24, 2018. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

There was chill in the air recently when reports surfaced that Sam Brownback had returned to Kansas and, between riding a motorcycle and wielding a chainsaw on his patch of woods outside Topeka, was thinking about how he could promote racial reconciliation.

The idea that Citizen Brownback might get anywhere near influencing public policy in the state again should create a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, make your palms sweat and trigger a full-blown fight-or-flight response. It is one of the few times when the term “Orwellian” actually applies.

Listen carefully and you can hear the clocks strike 13.

You might remember that during Brownback’s seven years as governor, his “Kansas experiment” — partly based on the widely discredited but somehow still influential trickle down economic policies of old Arthur Laffer — left the state budget a burning wreck. It had gotten so bad in Kansas that national news outlets covered the disaster as if it were a calamity in a third-world country.

Kansas, with some justification, was mockingly called “Brownbackistan.” The term was so widely recognized that it made it into the Urban Dictionary as “a pseudo-Christian fascist state where the arts are not public funded, women’s reproductive rights are relentlessly attacked, public school funding is drastically cut, voter suppression laws make it nearly impossible for new voters to register to vote, and social services are turned over to ‘Christian’ evangelical groups, all done with the backing of the Koch brothers.”

The Brownback experiment with government was essentially allowing fanatical libertarian billionaires to set the agenda, one that emphasized tax cuts, government deregulation, denying Medicaid expansion and removing the safety nets for thousands upon thousands of Kansans. It was only through a revolt of the Legislature that this cruel experiment was decisively ended, and by the time Brownback finally handed the reins to his lieutenant governor, Jeff Colyer, he had logged the worst approval rating of any governor.

But Brownback did not let that deter him from further public service, because the ultimate beneficiary of decades of libertarian and anti-government sentiment — the grifter Donald Trump — had already tapped him to be U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Brownback had gotten word back in the summer of 2017 that he was favored by the orange one, but it took until February 2018 to finally get him confirmed in a contentious Senate vote in which Mike Pence had to break the tie.

That Brownback would be appointed as an international ambassador for religious freedom seemed a fittingly hypocritical end to his tenure as Kansas governor. In Kansas, it was clear that your religious freedom mattered to Brownback only if you were on the right team: that is, those who believed and more importantly voted that God was anti-abortion and anti-gay. Brownback rescinded a previous executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and signed laws designed to make it harder for women to obtain abortions. His agenda for the state was cultural as well as economic, appealing not only to libertarians but to their natural opposite: religious zealots who would deny others the freedom to choose and the opportunities to act on those choices.

Brownback’s stint as America’s celebrity global faith freedom ambassador ended last month. In the recent interviews, he mused about his future as a suddenly private citizen and how he might use his time to help fix our race problem.

And while he did not mention any ambition for future political office, he could not hide ambition’s handprint. He’s only 64, after all, which might seem old to most folks but is young in politician years. The interviews were clearly a trial balloon to see if Brownback’s political reputation could be rehabilitated in a post-Trump era. Where better than in his home state, where the Legislature is still deep red and where most of us were brought up to defer to expressions of religiosity?

Now, I don’t know Brownback’s religious beliefs.

All we know is what a person says, not what is in their heart. Brownback may be entirely sincere, but then I don’t understand conventional religion. It seems to me that all religion is just somebody else’s silly superstition. Some of it seems harmless enough — the weird Wheat Jesus billboard on Interstate 70 out near Colby comes to mind — but there’s a long history of religion being turned to political ends and six million reasons to know that turns out badly.

As religious ambassador, Brownback advocated not just for Christians, but for persecuted Muslims and those of other faiths as well. Good for him. But here’s the question that bothers me about the ambassadorship: It assumes that people properly should have faith. What about people who are agnostics, those who have no faith, or those who have rather offbeat beliefs? Don’t those people need protection as well? What if instead of “Wheat Jesus” there was a billboard on the side of Interstate 70 showing “Wheat Yoda”? It makes about as much sense.

The firewall between religion and government is a foundation of American democracy, yet there are increasing signs of it weakening. Protection of religion is built into the First Amendment, yet we have forgotten that it also is a protection from religion. The Constitution spells out that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” but in contemporary politics we have, de facto, a religious test. No professed atheist or an agnostic is likely to be elected president — or dog catcher, for that matter.

That fact that a career politician was chosen for the ambassadorship should have caused some alarm, because in the past this post was appropriately filled by religious leaders or the heads of non-governmental organizations. Choosing Brownback — a divisive figure who was a former U.S. senator, Kansas governor and onetime presidential candidate — made the office as partisan as the rest of the unsupervised Catherine Wheel that was the Trump administration. Yes, groups like the Uyghurs — a Muslim minority in China that has been put into forced labor camps — need human rights protection, but it didn’t take a faith ambassador to do the right thing. Last year, the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act passed both houses of Congress with near-unanimous bipartisan support.

Brownback’s own religious belief has been loudly professed — and been the subject of scrutiny — for decades. Raised as a Methodist in Parker, Kansas, he and his family attended an evangelical Christian church in Topeka, and then Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002. As governor, Brownback said he was not an advocate for theocracy. But, how could you tell?

Recently, when asked about his work as ambassador, he seemed positively immodest.

“The thought really hit me there, that I’m one of the answers to all these people’s prayers around the world that are being persecuted,” he said. “I mean, they’re praying up a storm, the Lord help us.”

Wheat Jesus.

What about all the people you left behind in Kansas? I know many gay and lesbian couples who also are regular church-goers and take their beliefs sincerely. Didn’t they need protection? Why were you silent when Trump targeted Muslims for travel bans? And while the nation watched the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, with some of the rioters clutching Bibles and others hanging a “Jesus Saves” sign near a gallows outside, weren’t you moved to denounce such acts in His name? What stilled your tongue? Truly, shouldn’t a person of faith have recognized the mob for what it was and done whatever was in his power to protect the public servants inside, some of whom are Muslim and were in justifiable fear of their life from this white, pseudo Christian, fascist crowd?

Don’t tell me it wasn’t your place to comment. I read somewhere that you can’t serve two masters, and you have obviously chosen yours. And now you want to tackle racial reconciliation? if you’re determined to do this, please consider a couple of things. First, don’t start any fires you can’t put out. And second, think about this:

Somewhere in Kansas there is a boy or a girl on their knees, perhaps having found a quiet closet, and they are sincerely asking their concept of higher good for a break. Not a big break, not winning the lottery, but some small thing that means the world to themselves and their families. A bit of a raise for her mother, who works cleaning other people’s houses during the day and labors at the meatpacking plant at night, but who still can’t pay the electric bill. A bit of good news for his father, jailed in one of the state prisons and who tested positive for the coronavirus and is now having trouble breathing. Or perhaps a bit of joy for themselves — enough to eat tomorrow, some shoes without hole, a lack of fear when approached by an authority figure.

Any attempt at racial reconciliation must include an acknowledgment of the part you’ve played in creating the greatest political division in American history since the Civil War. You supported, and ultimately were a part of, an administration that promised to build a wall to keep people of color out, separated (perhaps permanently) immigrant children from their parents, and encouraged neo-Nazis and domestic terrorists. To do any less would be to sell whatever integrity you have left for thirty pieces of political ambition.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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