TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback became emotional Thursday while talking about the challenge of facing down religious persecution and acknowledging his simple act of taking communion at noon in a Topeka church could be fatal to people elsewhere in the world.
Brownback, nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as ambassador at large for religious freedom, emphasized the gravity of violence against people trying to exercise their religion and said the issue of religious freedom is “incredibly important.”
“I took communion, and people face death around the world for a simple act,” Brownback said.
Brownback spoke to reporters about his nomination — announced Wednesday — to the role of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a U.S. State Department job. Brownback faces confirmation by the U.S. Senate for the role.
“I am honored to assume – if confirmed by the Senate – such an important role,” Brownback said.
The topic of religious freedom is one Brownback said he is passionate about, and he touted his work as a former U.S. senator on the topic, including a trip to Darfur and a related bill he worked on with former President and then-Sen. Barack Obama. He said, though, that he thought the state of religious freedom globally had worsened since he supported the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the ambassadorship.
“There’s more persecution, not less,” Brownback said.
Brownback was in the Senate when the law passed.
“So I look forward to helping with the implementation of that act,” Brownback said.
Brownback said he thought the biggest long-term challenge facing Kansas was the “decline of the family structure,” but he said the government was limited in what it could do to address that.
“The ones that we can address are often different than the biggest problems that the state faces,” Brownback said. “I think government is a limited-capacity entity.”
Civil liberties and pro-Muslim groups, however, have criticized Brownback’s stances on issues affecting members of the Muslim and LGBTQ communities. Brownback said he thought the Trump administration was interested in religious freedom, but did not address controversy over Trump’s ban on travel for some Middle Eastern countries.
“That’s been clearly communicated, and it’s for all faiths,” Brownback said. “It’s freedom of religion for all faiths.”
Brownback quoted Mother Theresa, saying he loves religions, but is in love with his own religion.
“The concept being that religion is a search for god. It’s where most people live their inner lives in faith,” Brownback said. “I love that. I’m in love with my own.”
Brownback said there was not yet a timeline for his Senate confirmation, and he would not say whether he would wait until he is confirmed to leave his post as governor. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer — a surgeon — is next in line for the governorship. He did not attend Thursday’s news conference. Brownback said he and Colyer had discussed how to handle Brownback’s impending departure, but that details remained thin without a timeline for the Senate confirmation.
The nomination comes about a month after the Legislature overrode Brownback’s veto in order to roll back his signature “pro-growth” income tax cut policy in favor of a $1.2 billion income tax increase, but he said that didn’t influence his decision to accept the federal job.
“I’ve been in discussions with the administration, and this is a topic that I care a great deal about,” Brownback said. “And I think it is a globally significant topic.”
Brownback said the state’s troubled budget was the result of lagging oil and wheat prices, though he said the part of his tax policy that allowed businesses to avoid paying state taxes on their pass-through income could have been handled more “artfully” by capping the benefit. He said the tax cut for small businesses led to record business formations, but testimony from the Tax Foundation says the carve-out led to tax avoidance rather than job creation.
Brownback said the biggest piece of his legacy would be the 19 anti-abortion bills he said he has signed during his tenure, and he touted work on various infrastructure projects, including work on roads, a soccer training center, the new American Royal venue and the Ogallala aquifer and work on child poverty, wind energy and job creation. He said he would soon announce expansion of some job creation projects. He would not say whether he thought the roll-back of his signature tax cut policy would cloud his legacy.
Reports that Brownback would be nominated for a federal job circulated around the Legislature during the spring session, but he would not say how long he had been in discussions with federal officials about various jobs.
Brownback joked that it was “the day you’ve all been waiting for.”
He also said he has appreciated his time in public service for Kansas.
“It’s just been a hoot,” Brownback said.