Brownback urges SBTS community to fight for religious freedom during McCall Lecture and Leadership Briefing
Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, encouraged students at Southern Seminary to participate in a “grassroots movement” to make religious freedom a priority in Louisville, Kentucky, and around the world. He argued this during the Duke K. McCall Leadership Lecture in Alumni Memorial Chapel, April 25.
“My main goal today is to encourage and even recruit some of you as advocates for religious freedom — an essential, God-given human right declaring that everyone, whatever their faith might be, has the freedom to live according to their own conscience.”
Religious freedom is “in our DNA” as Americans, said Brownback, but it should not be limited to the United States. Religious freedom is a “universal human right” for everyone, he said. That is why Brownback agreed to serve as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, a position created after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Brownback, who was a member of the Senate when the bill was passed more than 20 years ago, was confirmed as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in 2018. Brownback has also served on the House of Representatives and as governor of Kansas from 2011-2018.
Even as a former senator, governor and member of Congress, Brownback said being Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom is the most important role he has ever had in public service. He said his role has given him the opportunity to meet Christians and people of faith around the world and advocate for their freedom of religion.
Since his appointment, Brownback has met with religious groups all over the world to encourage and equip them to advocate for religious liberties.
Religious freedom under attack
As an idea, religious freedom is being threatened like never before, Brownback said. In recent days and years, there have been many examples of tragedies related to religious liberty. Over the previous weekend, more than 300 people were killed going to church on Easter in Sri Lanka. In France over the last year, there has been a 25 percent increase in church vandalism. In 2015, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded for their faith in Libya. This kind of religious persecution continues today all over the world, Brownback said.
“The lack of religious freedom anywhere is a threat to peace, prosperity, and stability everywhere,” he said. “In a world that gets smaller and smaller, that becomes more felt every day. The right to freedom of religion and the ability to live according to the dictates of your own soul is under attack around the world, and [the United States] is the lead nation to push back.”
As Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Brownback is especially concerned with the injustices being committed against people of faith in China, which he said is “at war with faith.” In the western part of the country, the majority Muslim population is being repressed as more than a million Muslim leaders have been detained. The repression system is high-tech, identifying people by their facial features or gait before taking them into custody.
This kind of technological oppression is common across the world, Brownback said, and is what religious discrimination and marginalization will increasingly look like in the future. This technology is not new. In China, buses have facial recognition technology that will not only identify commuters, but also charge their credit card accounts automatically. This technology could be used by the world’s governments for the purpose of religious discrimination, he argued.
The antidote to this religiously motivated violence and oppression is a robust political defense of religious freedom, Brownback said.
“Where religious freedom grows, violence and terrorism diminishes,” Brownback said, citing extensive academic data. But the benefits to society do not stop there, he said. “When you have more religious freedom, you often have a better economy, more diversity, and a more vibrant society too.”
To underscore his point about religious liberty, Brownback appealed to one of the core doctrines in Christian theology: the doctrine of the image of God. Christians throughout history have always believed that all human beings are made in God’s image and should be treated with dignity.
Consequently, every person should have the right to choose what they do with their own soul, regardless of their particular theological beliefs. Religious freedom is a basic and foundational human right, he said.
Said Brownback: “When you get religious freedom right, other human rights follow.”
A ‘noble cause,’ a growing movement
The United States Department of State has traditionally been hesitant to engage with other countries about matters relating to religion, Brownback said. Religious freedom, however, is not just a matter of religion; it is a matter of justice. Because of this, religious liberty should be a lead foreign policy issue.
This is true for three key reasons, Brownback noted: (1) It involves the dignity of individual human beings, (2) it is a key way to deal with the problem of terrorism throughout the world, and (3) people grow economically when they have more freedoms — especially more religious freedoms.
“When nations promote and defend religious freedom, there’s a sort of spiritual capital that’s released in a country, where people can practice their faith.”
Even though many nations have majority religions among their citizenry, it should not be the government’s job to takes sides in a religious war, Brownback said. Rather, it is the government’s responsibility to encourage religious diversity by protecting the individual right to choose one’s religion.
“Governments get into problems when they pick a winner or loser — even if the winner they’re picking is the majority faith in that nation.”
As of yet, this kind of restraint is not common among governments of the world. But Brownback is doing all he can to make it happen, he said.
“I pray for the day when the gates of religious freedom fly open around the world and the iron curtain of religious persecution comes down. And I believe it will happen. But as of now, our need is to be strong advocates and to stand — and to realize that by so doing we are advancing this [purpose].”
To that end, last year, the United States Department of State held its first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a gathering of foreign ministers from all over the world in Washington D.C. They have scheduled a second ministerial for this summer, July 16-18.
For religious freedom to thrive worldwide, this “grassroots movement” needs to continue to grow in communities and institutions around the world, Brownback said. That includes Southern Seminary.
“We need you. We need you to know about these issues and to advocate for others who do not share the benefits of freedom we have in this country,” Brownback said. “We need you to equip and to engage. We need you to love your neighbors, to protect them, and to respect them.”
The seminary has all the elements necessary to accomplish this task — especially the ability to defend religious liberty combined with a global reach, Brownback said.
“This is a most noble cause,” Brownback said. “This is place it needs to start, and I hope you do it.”
Immediately following his McCall Lecture, Brownback also spoke at the Leadership Briefing in Heritage Hall. In room full of pastors and Christian leaders, Brownback said they represented a foundational “theological underpinning” of the religious freedom movement as it spreads around the world.
Brownback also expanded upon his comments during the McCall Lecture regarding the threats to religious freedom. He said religious freedom is not just at risk abroad, but also in the United States itself because of competing ideas regarding how it should be applied. The freedom of religion and the freedom of worship are two different interpretations of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects freedom of religion (among other freedoms, such as freedom of speech and of the press).
Proponents of “freedom of worship” argue that personal religious liberty extends only to Americans’ time of corporate worship and not in other contexts, such as their place of employment. Defenders of “freedom of religion,” on the other hand, argue that it involves any part of their lives affected by religious belief. Brownback firmly defends the “freedom of religion” interpretation, he said.
Because of this and many other challenges, the work before defenders of religious liberty is hard. Advocates will need a high pain tolerance in order to do it, according to Brownback. The work is especially important in the United States, though, because this country guards the core values that make religious freedom possible, he said.
“All of us sense this is a key time for the nation. Which way do we keep going and what value system do we keep?” Brownback said. “We’re the core of these basic values. If we don’t stand for them, I don’t know who will.”
In a statement, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, called Brownback's visit a "historic" event, noting his appreciation for the ambassador's passion for matters of religious conviction.
"We were very thankful to have Ambassador Brownback with us today and his address at Southern Seminary was both historic and timely," said Mohler. "He is exactly the kind of leader we need defending religious freedom around the world and representing the United States of America in that task. Furthermore, I especially appreciate the fact that Ambassador Brownback has underlined a comprehensive affirmation of religious freedom - liberty that includes a freedom to convert and that extends from the place of worship into the world. It is very important that the United States defend a comprehensive and robust vision of religious liberty as grounded in the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. It is not only refreshing but tremendously encouraging to hear such an argument made by a U.S. ambassador with this responsibility."
You can watch the full Duke K. McCall Leadership Lecture here, and the Leadership Briefing will soon be available at Southern Equip. McCall, the leader whom the lecture honors, was Southern Seminary’s seventh and longest-serving president.