Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Religious Liberty: A Conversation with United States Ambassador Samuel Brownback

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Samuel D. Brownback is the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He has served in that role since February 1, 2018. Previously he served as Governor of Kansas, from 2011 to 2018. Before that, he served in the United States Senate and as a member of the House of Representatives. While the member of Senate, he worked actively on the issue of religious freedom in multiple contexts and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. He also served as Kansas Secretary of Agricultural and was a White House Fellow in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Prior to public service, he was a private attorney in Kansas and taught agricultural law at Kansas State University. He earned his undergraduate degree from that institution, his law degree from the University of Kansas.

Ambassador Brownback, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Ambassador Brownback: Thanks, Al. It’s a pleasure to join you. It’s been a delight to be here with you on the campus. Beautiful place and what a global mission that you guys are involved in. It’s really been impressive to see. At the lecture I gave it looks like to me about a third of the audience was from overseas, some country overseas. That’s the sort of thing that’s happening so much around the world now is that the Christian word, the message, is going to so many different places and often persecuted when it gets there.

Albert Mohler: One of the most encouraging aspects, Ambassador, of being president of an institution like this is seeing the world come here and what a stewardship that is. Especially students from about 70 plus countries who are here. And you’re right, many of them are preparing to go into places where they’re going to face a great deal of opposition and in some cases minister to churches suffering persecution.

Ambassador Brownback: Heavy persecution. Often you go into these places you’ll see the pastor is the one that’s singled out first. He, or in some cases she, but most of the times he, is a person that when the terrorist or communal violence starts, they go after the pastor. He’s the leader, he’s the guy that put the church here, he’s the guy that organized the cell. You’re not only training them theologically, they have to be prepared mentally for the price they have to pay and that they’re willing to pay. To me it’s an incredible beauty to witness and to see people like that willing to go into that type of situation where we in the west would go, well, why would you go do that? But the fire in the belly that they have is so impressive to see.

Albert Mohler: I have been humbled by the faith and the faithfulness of so many Christians around the world. A few years ago I had the opportunity to fly to a country I won’t mention in order, actually, to teach pastors from another country, a Muslim dominated country that we could meet in a third country. What was so humbling to me was that there a young man, he was 18 and he was one of the pastors. I said to the one of the older men in the room, I said, “Well, he must be a remarkable young man.” They said, “Well, actually, he’s the last young man. He’s the last living Christian man in that village so he is the pastor.” That was very humbling and I taught for hours. With translation, it takes hours to teach, at least twice as long. Several hours later I was walking out with the older man and the younger man and I said something about how moved I was that he was here. I asked the 18-year-old, I said, “How can I pray for you?” I was astounded at his answer. I was completely unprepared for this. He said, “I wish you would pray that I would have a wife.” I thought, well, that’s a prayer an 18-year-old young man might very well ask. Yet, the older man looked at me said, “Any woman who marries him is at best going to become a widow and at worst will die with him.” I just walked out of that room and we were headed for dinner and I thought, how do I eat dinner? What kind of courage has ever been required of me?

Ambassador Brownback: Relative to that.

Albert Mohler: Relative to that.

Ambassador Brownback: That’s the way I am in this work that I’m in. You’re traveling all over the world, you’re seeing these people that are persecuted for their faith. The things that so trouble me and make my blood boil about it is these people, they’re not trying to overthrow a government, they’re not trying to cause trouble, all they’re trying to do is simply practice their faith in a quiet, peaceful way. Now, they’re often a minority faith in this area and so they’re different than the majority community. But all they’re trying to do is just practice in peace and yet they get persecuted, they get pursued, they get killed, they get jailed. I mean, all these things happen to them. You’re looking at it and you’re just going, that just shouldn’t happen in the world today. We’re in 2019, this should be a basic human right that people should be able to experience all over the world to be able to practice their faith or not have a faith or convert their faith, if they decide to do that. That’s really one of the powering things by this administration is that they’re willing to fight for this faith in other countries. We see it as a key human right, a key right that builds, that you can build on and one that’s been sadly neglected around many places around the world.

Albert Mohler: When you think about religious persecution and the challenges of today, I can’t help but rewind history. For instance, for a completely different purpose, last night I was reading about the Roman Emperor Trajan and was reminded of the ancient Governor Pliny the Younger writing to Trajan about how to handle the Christians. He was asking as this provincial governor, he was asking the question, “Are they subversive or not?”

Ambassador Brownback: Really?

Albert Mohler: Yes, it’s a fascinating correspondence and quite modern when you think about. He’s asking, are they subversive or not? He said, “I decided that they are not subversive if they merely pray and sing. But they are subversive in the sense they will not worship the Emperor. They will not bend the knee to the Emperor.” I thought, that’s exactly where we are today. Is Christianity subversive? Well, only in the sense that we cannot worship a regime. And, so, as religious liberty’s threatened around the world, you’re right, what most believers want to do is just live peaceably.

Ambassador Brownback: They do. And they want to pray for their leaders, by and large they do. But yet, you just get around leaders around the world that they don’t trust this because they won’t bend the knee to the Emperor. A lot of times, too, Christians, when you get a hold of this concept of the inherent dignity of the human person, every person created in the image of God, then that person has these incredible rights. If the state comes down on those rights, it’s like, no, you can’t do that. The state can’t do this because you’re a dignified human individual. Your soul lasts forever. That, then, becomes subversive to governments or that they see that as a subversive issue. That’s one where we run into it as much as anywhere is that the government’s not necessarily directly opposed to Christianity, but they’re to the product, the fruit of it, which is this human dignity that often spills out of it, that spills out of it.

Albert Mohler: Well, that leads to a very important question I want to ask you because one of my main projects is trying to analyze what people are talking about when they talk about human rights and human dignity. And I think that’s one of the major problems right now in the secular west, or increasingly secular west, especially amongst the elites. Let me just ask you, you said that human dignity is grounded in the fact that our soul’s going to live forever. Well, that’s a pretty theological definition of human dignity. I guess the big question we’re having to ask is whether or not human dignity can be defined and defended in the terms of the western secular elites merely in secular terms. I’m finding that very difficult to conceive.

Ambassador Brownback: It’s a debate probably above my head to be able to do. I know for myself it becomes pretty simple to do in that when you consider that individual created in the image God, well then it’s not hard for me to say, well, of course you’re dignified. Even if you’ve committed heinous crimes and done horrible things, you remain a dignified human individual that remains and retains that dignity as a human individual. Then, that informs as a policy maker, which I was, it informs what you’re willing to do and to not do. If you don’t have that theological basis to it, then I guess, really, you have to look at it from a standpoint of well, I still believe that we as we have evolved to this state are an incredible thing. and we have individual rights.Now I may, I guess, define those rights more broadly or differently but … Ours, though, comes from the Declaration of Independence. It comes from the very founding documents where you said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their government.” No, no, wait a minute, it’s not endowed by their government, “Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It’s like when you break that away from it, that becomes, then, really a different terrain it would seem to me.

Albert Mohler: Well, I’m writing an article right now on the distinction between the secular European conception of human rights, and the Chinese Communist Party’s conception of human rights. Because even though this would offend western secularist, they don’t have a very different argument, they just come out in a different place. Because if you take many of the European theorists or even take the debates in the European Union, they are denying any ontological basis for human rights and human dignity. They’re simply asserting them because that’s what it means to be human. But I’m going to argue they can only do that because they’ve inherited a Christian understanding of the person, and they’re just trying to graft on a secular viewpoint. But the Chinese Communist Party’s conception of human rights is that they are the creation of the state, that the party has the ability … and of course this was classical Marxist theory, the party basically invents these rights and then disposes of them as it sees fit in the name of the people. I’m afraid that the secular west is going to find itself having an extremely weak argument against that. Well, time will tell. But the way you expressed and grounded human rights and human dignity is, I think, exactly right. As you say, in the nation’s founding documents we’re endowed by their Creator. That’s an astoundingly important claim.

Ambassador Brownback: It is. I think we walk away from it at our great peril because so much of it is attached to that human dignity and where does that human dignity arrive from. I don’t think people thin. often enough about the very feature and the very thing that you’re talking about. Well, then, what does ground those things? That was one of things I loved about Justice Scalia was that he would ground things in basic truths and then you had a basis to go from. But he would also note if you don’t ground them in these basic truths, then you’re kind of adrift of what is the basis and why doesn’t that basis change if it’s not defined in something that’s an eternal truth?

Albert Mohler: Of course, Justice Scalia, who was famously the most influential textualist in the history of the Supreme Court, that was his preferred term. He was also grounded in natural law theory and classical Christian constructions of thought that have been developed over hundreds of years and indeed well over a millennium. One of the things he mentions even in his latest book published posthumously just this week, he mentions that it’s very difficult to have a debate with a secularist on these issues because you’re starting with a different definition of person.

Ambassador Brownback: You are. You are. Plus, you used the term natural law. Well, where does natural law come from? If you’re in the mindset that God doesn’t exist, didn’t create these, well, then, how do you ground that? How did stuff come forward? Yet, the basis when you’re a person of faith and believe and you believe in those things, then you can see how other faiths and other place can find truth. Because anybody can find truth in the natural law and it’s a very basic piece of it.

Albert Mohler: When you are looking at human rights and you’re using that language in an international sphere, how much common understanding do you really count upon as the United States Ambassador? When you say human rights, human dignity, how much shared vocabulary do you think you have?

Ambassador Brownback: You’d be amazed, it resonates immediately as true. I don’t think people often will get into the theological debate of this but when you say that everybody has inherent rights as a dignified human being created in the image of God. We were at a Vietnamese bilateral negotiations, Vietnam’s got a communist government, and I pointed out that religious freedom is something that comes from God and no government has the right to interfere with it. You would kind of think, okay, Vietnam, communist government, atheist government, they’re going to push back on that. Yet, it was just kind of the silence in the room about I just heard truth. There was no argument back that we don’t agree with this or how you can you found this, it was more of a … Truth, when presented, most people it resonates in their heart with them immediately. They recognize that even if they mentally want to argue back. But most of the time the initial reaction was of course. Even there’s this sort of discovery moment where people think, wow that really is what people are like, isn’t it? They really are amazingly beautiful and dignified and that must come from somewhere.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Ambassador Brownback: But they recognized the truth of the word even if it catches them off guard for a minute and then they got to go back to thinking well, wait a minute, wait a minute, I can’t agree with that because that leads down this trail and I can’t go down that trail.

Albert Mohler: I think that’s exactly right. I want to think about world history for just a moment. Because an interesting question is when did something become possible when it was unimaginable before? When you think about religious liberty and even the absence of an established religion, as is the American experiment, it’s an interesting question, when did that emerge? One historian has recently argued that religious toleration was first exercised by the least likely person you would imagine and that was Genghis Khan.

Ambassador Brownback: I thought you might be going there, and I’ve started a book on that topic.

Albert Mohler: That’s what I’m talking about; The same book.

Ambassador Brownback: Well, the Mongolian Foreign Minister gave me this book and he was saying, “Well, this comes from Genghis Khan.” I’m kind of going, you’re going to develop that one for me because I’m not-

Albert Mohler: It’s interesting.

Ambassador Brownback: Yeah. He was saying that Thomas Jefferson was reading a French author who was doing history on the Khan and that he was putting this forward and Genghis Khan did this because he conquered all these various lands and he didn’t want to have to go back in and reconquer them, he really just wanted the tribute in them. But you go ahead and practice whatever faith you want to, you just got to pay me the money every year. I was going, okay, I want to research that some more, but all right, I hear you and I’ll look at it.

Albert Mohler: It is in a situation, I imagine. in diplomacy where you’re sometimes glad it have agreement even if you don’t know the reason why. I’ve been in denominational meetings sometimes it works the same way. But when you think about Genghis Khan, the interesting thing is that when you read the book and you look at the theory, it basically comes down not to religious liberty but mere toleration. It was in the interest of the Khan that he not have unnecessary energies expended into trying to force everyone into the same worldview. I just want to say, that’s not what the founding fathers of the United States were honoring. It’s not mere religious toleration.

Ambassador Brownback: No, it wasn’t. But I saw it as almost a real politic that he was dealing with. This is look, I don’t want to have to go back in and fight these guys over religion, which I got my thoughts, you got yours. I’m not interested in that. If I don’t have to fight you on that, I shouldn’t. Which really maybe should be an argument for us with other governments where we continually try to push them on religious and tell them about the inherent rights of the dignified person and all and they’re just really at it, look, I’m just trying to keep things under control here and not lose power myself. Maybe you go then to the Genghis Khan argument of saying, well, then religious freedom is still the right answer even if you’re looking at the worldview that way.

Albert Mohler: That’s right. When we’re talking about religious liberty or any genuine human right, we’re glad to have it affirmed even if it comes from a different worldview than our own. In the world context, we need to understand why people think differently but we also need to … We have a Christian conception of common grace. Where you find an affirmation of the truth about the human dignity, then affirm it.

Ambassador Brownback: Yeah and what the Apostle Paul said. I mean these things are self-evident, they are known by man that this is, I would say, he’s arguing natural law. These are things that are obviously because of our human experience that we can see these things. When you find it in other contexts, when you find it in other religions, which often you do because each can discover natural law, each can discover these natural rights and you can see how these play really effectively for governance when government does things that back up this sort of natural law human rights philosophy.

Albert Mohler: Whenever you use the phrase, religious liberty, you’re likely to see a lot of nodding heads or at least a lot of people who want to be seen as giving a nod of the head to religious freedom or religious liberty. That would include many of the dangerous autocrats around the world, many of the governments that repress and deny religious liberty. They want at least to be seen as in favor of religious liberty. The Soviet Constitution guaranteed religious freedom and so it goes even down to the present day. The heart issue is defining the terms religious freedom, religious liberty, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience. What do these terms mean? Defining the terms is essential to defend the rights. You mentioned the word toleration, we’ve talked about religious liberty. I think it’s important to formally distinguish the terms. You are not the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Toleration.

Ambassador Brownback: No.

Albert Mohler: But rather for International Religious Freedom.

Ambassador Brownback: That’s correct.

Albert Mohler: Make that distinction. I think it’s really important.

Ambassador Brownback: The freedom is that this is an inherent right and it isn’t something you tolerate. I personally really don’t like the term of tolerance. We talk a lot in this space, people talk a lot in this space about religious tolerance. I’ll tolerate your faith, you tolerate mine. It’s way too low of a bar because today we tolerate each other’s faith, what about tomorrow? What if I decide tomorrow I can’t tolerate your faith anymore? Well, then, let’s take action, let’s lock him up. We really need to get above that and to a level of religious respect or even care and love for each other. I mean, that’s the standard that Christians are called for and that’s a standard, then, that can carry you through the next day when things start going wrong the next day. But if I respect you, okay, I’m going stand up for you. If I love you, I’m going to fight for you. We really ought to be fighting for each other’s religious freedom. But the job itself is about religious freedom and pushing governments to stand for that right. Even though they may say, “Look, I would really rather favor this faith over that faith. It would be politically advantageous for me to do that.” But we argue with these governments all the time saying, no, that is going to lead you eventually to some problem if you try to favor one over the other. The role of government is to protect the right and if you stay there, then you’re going to have a more robust society, you’re going to have a more robust economy, you’re going to have less terrorism, you’re going to have more satisfied people and not get in this tolerance business that’s one thing one day, different another. You just stand there and protect the right and it’s for everybody at all times in all situations.

Albert Mohler: I think the people sometimes fail to understand that religious tolerance can have a very low bar.

Ambassador Brownback: Way too low.

Albert Mohler: When I teach about this, I point to Elizabeth I of Great Britain who, by the way, is a heroine in so many ways as a monarch. But she reached a religious compromise in her day by saying that she was not going to force windows into men’s souls. She was not going to interrogate them about their faith. There would be a toleration of Protestants, there would be a toleration of even those who would be called Puritans, there would be a toleration of Catholics, a toleration of Jewish people within. That was probably about the limit of what was imaginable in Great Britain at the time. But I point out to people and students these days, when I take groups to England they’re astounded by this, but I say, look, not one of us could in parliament. Not one of us could go to Cambridge of Oxford. Not one of us could be in many positions because there was an established church. Others were tolerated, but you couldn’t go to Oxford, you couldn’t go to Cambridge. You were in a secondary status. You could say that Elizabeth was an example of a religious toleration but not of religious liberty.

Ambassador Brownback: Yeah and she wouldn’t have been. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, one of the first things you were citing about how these things tend to repeat themselves, you see that today. In modern China you can see a situation today where what happens is the society, you may have a tolerance but you get marginalized within the society. You can’t go to certain schools or you can’t occupy certain places because you’re too faith oriented. You want to go to church a couple of times. Well, the communist government doesn’t like that. They don’t want an institution that they don’t control, that’s outside of their control. They don’t want too much of this concept of human rights developing within the people, therefore we’re going to put this down. But maybe we’re not going to lock you up, we’re just going to tear your church building down. You’re going to have to go in to a house church type movement. But, if we find you keep doing this, we’re going to see that your kids can’t go to the school. Those sorts of things start permeating into a society and they happen then, they’re happening now.

Albert Mohler: I noticed something else, Mr. Ambassador, recently. That is a redefinition of terms, and I really had not seen this until actually the horrible attack in Sri Lanka where I was looking at some of the news coverage and also looking at some of the constitutions of several countries. Finding out that, for instance, there will be a constitutional statement of absolute freedom of religion but then it would say, but nonetheless, the government recognizes a responsibility to protect the dignity of Buddhism because it’s a part of the culture. I thought, okay, now that’s an interesting little slight of hand. It’s a part of national identity. Again, you can see where you can give with one hand and take back with the other.

Ambassador Brownback: Yeah, and that’s in places too that most constitutions around the world will guarantee religious freedom.

Albert Mohler: As did the Soviet Constitution.

Ambassador Brownback: Yeah, as does the Chinese Constitution. Most countries have signed on to the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 that declares religious freedom and those rights. They write even to convert. But then you’ll have these other pieces that are brought in. I think what ends up happening in a lot of government officials minds is they go, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re for religious freedom. We believe in that. But, if it starts getting in the way of cultural identity, if it gets in the way of our politics, we’re not going to really protect it at a very high standard, we’re going to say it’s here but it really doesn’t apply to you because we’ve got these other things that we’re going see as a superior issue. That, again, is another track that’s going to lead you into troubles either sooner or later. It will also strangle your economy. In today’s world, you really have to be able to reach out beyond your own borders and be able to trade and interact and you’ve got to be able get brain power and people in from other places and willing to travel and come in to have an economy that can grow robustly. If you don’t protect people’s rights of conscience, they’re not going to come. You’re going to artificially strangle your own economy in a world where intellect and thought is so much a part of what the economy does.

Albert Mohler: I want to ask you a question about the United States. Just asking about our foreign policy, how consistent have we been as a nation in defending religious liberty around the world?

Ambassador Brownback: I think I would put it this way, I think we’re better than everybody else and we’re not good enough. There are times where we will call out a country or not call a country because they’re a close ally. I think we’re getting better at it. For a long time we didn’t list Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern on religious freedom even though they were horrible. They are a terrible actor on religious persecution. We do now. We just recently listed Pakistan as a country of particular concern, but they’ve been for some period of time, really a real problem. But then we’re operating in Afghanistan and we need to work with them on the security issues and the problems we have in Afghanistan. So there’s always this internal pressure inside a state department that when you move forward on something like this, you also have the security issues and the trade issues and the other human rights issues and a whole series of competitor issues. Just the basic relationship with that nation that a lot of people are going, well, we don’t hurt our relationship with Pakistan. It’s at a tenuous moment and the Chinese might move in more, so therefore let’s not do it. But that’s always just so I think that just serves us poorly. Anytime we walk away from really declaring the truth and being clear about it is when we start asking for trouble. We’re better to call them like we see them, deal with the consequences afterwards rather slight something one way or the other.

Albert Mohler: As an historian, I often find myself asking the question, why then? It has to be explained why something happened when it happened. It has to explained why it didn’t happen before. I ask that question because you are a principle sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. That basically produced the job you now hold as part of that act. Why did the United States of America pass that legislation, it’s government, in 1998? That’s a commitment that was made in 1789. It took a long time to get there. What happened? What explains the timing here?

Ambassador Brownback: A number of us in the Congress at that time were hearing from people that were persecuted and locked up around the world and there started to be more connectedness to us. I was advocating for people in Uzbekistan in jails there and various places far flung around the world. We were pushing on State Department to be active on these too. In some places, they would and other places, no, we don’t really deal with that. And then they would say, “Well, we don’t want to get too engaged in this.” We were saying to them, “Look, you have to get engaged in these issues and you need to understand the role of faith and religion around the world. Because you’re not going to be able to understand an individual if you don’t understand their faith, if they don’t understand their religion.” They pushed back and said, “No, we want to do this on our own pace. We think this too close to an establishment clause issue, that you’re trying to establish religion.” We go, “We’re not trying to establish a religion, we just want you to understand it and we should stand up for this right for everybody, not just for Americans.” Then we went back and forth. At the time, then, there was enough people that were hearing from other individuals like I was that were locked for nothing more than practicing their faith peacefully that it was able to pass. Bill Clinton was willing to sign it into law. It really started a new chapter that was slow getting going but has really picked up speed now. But I think it was that interconnectedness around the world. The other thing I think was really starting to happen was you started to see these faiths, I don’t want to say clash but come up against each other. Where prior to the Soviet Union falling, the world was fairly static, not completely but in many cases, on a lot of the faith issues. And then now you started to see those worlds start to engage, the faith worlds engage and sometimes violently. That really, I think, moved people too to say why now is now you’re getting these sorts of contacts that you weren’t getting previously.

Albert Mohler: I also look back and as I remember, it’s been 20 plus years now, but as I remember Senator Diane Feinstein of California was one of the Senate co-sponsors of the bill.

Ambassador Brownback: Don Nickles and Diane Feinstein were the two sponsors, the two primary sponsors of it. It was Don Nickles’s bill primarily but Senator Feinstein was right there with it.

Albert Mohler: The reason I raise that is because that demonstrates the fact that it was bipartisan consensus in 1998.

Ambassador Brownback: And was in 2016 when the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act passed, which was the follow-on bill to it passed by a Republican House and a Congress divided and a Democrat President. This remains. That one of the key pieces about this is that this is a bipartisan issue and we work aggressively to maintain it as such.

Albert Mohler: When you look at that course of religious freedom around the world historically, where are we headed right now? Because there’s a sense in which Americans and people in the intellectual elites of the west, we thought we knew where the world was headed after 1989. The world doesn’t appear to be headed where we thought it was going. Rather than seeing increased liberty around much of the world, we’re seeing increased repression. How are we to read the world right now or is it just a country by country analysis?

Ambassador Brownback: Great question and I don’t … It’s not the end of history, I can tell you that much. Some of the aspects of these clashes of civilizations you see pieces of. You know Al, I think, honestly, we’re at a point in history where we’ve got to figure out how various civilizations interact. I spent a lot of time in Islamic world working with Islamic leaders, both governmental and religious leaders. The effort is to try to find ways to navigate through this greater interconnection that’s taking place and when you have substantial differences of worldview that happens. But I do find now much more interest on the part of Islamic governmental leaders and Islamic theologians to try to figure the way to make that connection work without the brutality that we’ve seen so much of thus far. You’re seeing more brutal situations in Buddhist parts of world. When you’re thinking inherently, aggressive, violent Buddhism, does that sound accurate to you?

Albert Mohler: It does if you know Buddhist history and the history of the East. Again, to say that’s not the big story of Buddhism but it’s been there. Because when you’re talking about Buddhism or Hinduism, Americans, Westerners think you’re talking about one thing. But actually, there are different schools of Buddhism, different even rival schools of Hinduism. You see that being played out in India and in China right now.

Ambassador Brownback: It’s just I think … It’s my belief that world leaders are now starting to see more of we have to try to figure out how these interactions and these engagements work because the world’s not getting bigger, it’s getting smaller, it’s getting more connected. If your country wants to grow, it’s going to remain a part of a connected world. People now travel so much and they’re interconnected. You may get phone calls today from far flung places around the world on your cell phone and it’s no big deal, it’s not anything unusual. This is just going to be a feature that world leaders I’m meeting with, a lot of them they see the world this way. If we’re going to get a handle on some of this terrorism, like what happened in Sri Lanka and other places, you’ve got to have this sort of respect for fellow people of faith in different places around the world or you’re just going to have more of this stuff. We don’t want this stuff. The Sri Lankan government didn’t want that Easter bombing to take place. They may have fumbled things in addressing it but they didn’t want it to take place. This hurts them and it killed a whole bunch of people.

Albert Mohler: As a convictional Christian, I cannot participate in interfaith events. I don’t and I can’t. It was very difficult after 9/11 because there was so much pressure to show up at interfaith events where there would be a prayer offered by an Imam and a prayer offered by a Buddhist Priest and a prayer offered by a Christian. I couldn’t do that because that was implying something that as a Biblically committed Christian I could not imply. But, I say on the other hand, I have a lot of great conversations with Muslims and with other world religious adherents. But I have to show up as who I am and I only want to have a really interesting discussion with a Muslim who’s really Muslim and with a Buddhist who’s really Buddhist and they should want to an evangelical Christian who’s really an evangelical Christian. Along these lines, I think this is what the secular world confuses and just gets completely wrong. Because actually the full measure of theology rightly should not bring contempt but respect. An example of this I give is I defended Secretary Pompeo recently because of an address he had given in the Muslim world. The secular press was all over him for identifying as a Christian. I just said, “Look, I’ve been in the same places. You have to understand, what Muslims really do not respect is a secularist. The worldview they really don’t respect is secular liberalism.” I said, “They would have much more respect, and I’m sure did, for a United States Secretary of State who shows up and says, ‘I am an evangelical Christian. I know who you are, you know who I am.'” I’ve spoken in the Muslim world and they actually are interested in me speaking, where I’ve been invited, as a Christian. Again, the secular mind is the mind that cannot understand it. It wants to bring about world religious peace by minimizing everybody’s beliefs into a secular mash. But actually, if you’re going to find mutual respect, it’s going to be a real Muslim respecting a real Christian for each holding to very genuine convictions.

Ambassador Brownback: I speak often in the Muslim world, and I declare who I am, and I’m a follower of Jesus and I’m a Christian. I have no difficulty with this. My experience is what you say, I receive a lot of respect that you’re there, and you’re saying this is what I believe, this is who I am. Now let’s talk about religious freedom, which I am not expecting you to give your faith up, and I’m not even going to ask you to do anything like that. All I’m asking you to do is when I’m persecuted for my faith to stand up for me and we’ll stand up for you if you’re persecuted. It’s because you should have the right to be free and that we should be able to agree upon that standard. Plus, to me, I think it’s honestly a great advantage for the Secretary of State to have a dynamic faith. I mean, I know him personally, we’re both from Kansas, he’s a great man, he’s very bright. But it also helps you understand other people of strong conviction and faith. You kind of understand more of what the negotiating limits are and what the negotiating possibilities are. Because I understand, you’re not going to go against what your conviction is and your soul, you’re not going to do it. Okay, that’s good to know. Now, let’s figure what we can work on, what our are the parameters of the things we can deal with. There’s also a healthy respect, I respect you for this. I love Mother Theresa’s line on this that I just think really summarizes it the best. She adheres as a Catholic woman in a dominantly Hindu country that was a very public person. What would she would say, “I love all faiths as the search for God. I’m in love with my own.” I thought, yeah, it’s this level of love and respect for that other person and their search. I’m in love with my own faith, this is who I am and I this is what I believe and I love it.

Albert Mohler: As an evangelical Christian, I would have to reformulate that and say that I can’t love any other faith than the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I do see in that quest an evidence of what it means to be made in the image of God. Here I’ll quote Augustine who said, “My soul can have no rest until it finds its rest in thee.” I have to be evangelistic at every turn. I can’t celebrate a Hindu being a Hindu or a Buddhist being a Buddhist. I can’t. If that’s what religious liberty requires, then I fail. But I don’t think that’s what religious requires of me. It requires of me to say a Buddhist should be as free to be a Buddhist as I am to be a Christian. A Muslim should be as free to be a Muslim as I am to be a Christian. I’m going to honor every single one of them whether we define it the same way or not, it’s made in the image of God. Look, I have to be honest, I hope every one of them will come to hear the gospel and come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. But even so, I’ve got to defend their rights as a God-given right, including religious liberty. By the way, that’s our only hope for preaching the gospel. Evangelical Christians we have to remind ourselves, that’s the only argument we have for why we can go into a country that is defined culturally by some other religion and say we have the right to preach the gospel. I appreciate your consistency in pointing to the fact that religious freedom must include the freedom to convert. I just cannot tell you how important I think that is for the State Department for the United States and how much I appreciate it in your consistent defense of religious liberty.

Ambassador Brownback: It happens to be in the UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is that right. What freedom do you have if you don’t have the freedom to be able to choose, to not choose, to change, to not change? This is part of it. Plus, to me, too, it’s kind of … I image God when he’s creating us thinking about what problems are going to happen when he gives us this kind of freedom. I mean, this is a massive freedom and he knows people are going to mess up this. He knows this is going to happen and yet he gives us this freedom anyway. To him there must have been something incredibly valuable with this level of freedom and what government has the right to interfere with that level of love and freedom that God, Creator God of the universe would give us? I think that’s a highly suspicious on our part that we would think that we’ve got a right to interfere with something that would have had to have been had level of contemplation and concern from a Creator of the Universe.

Albert Mohler: The big questions of life and where the most urgent headlines meet. I can’t imagine any diplomat anywhere in the world with a greater frontline responsibility than what has been invested in your office and what you personally have taken up. Ambassador Brownback, I want you to know how thankful I am that you serve in this role and I want to thank you today for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Ambassador Brownback: My pleasure.

Albert Mohler: One of the reasons why I so enjoyed this conversation with Ambassador Samuel Brownback is that he goes to the hard work of defining the terms. He’s deeply thoughtful even as he is in this frontline position defending religious liberty and religious freedom around the world. I also appreciate the fact that in this conversation he was willing to speak specifically. This is one of the problems of the entire issue of religious freedom around the world. Many people say they’re for it and of course, as I’ve said earlier, they want to be seen as saying they’re for it. But when it comes down to specifics, specific charges, specific rights, and specific aspects and dimensions of religious freedoms, that’s where you see regimes, governments, and cultures falling short.

The issue of conversion is so important and, as Senator Brownback mentioned, it’s in the UN Declaration of Human Rights going back to the late 1940s. But that, again, just points to the fact that words are only as good as the insurance behind the words, the moral integrity and credibility behind the words. That’s why the State Department of the United States has an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. If it were all just about words, such a position wouldn’t be necessary. But it’s not just about words even as it starts with the words being rightly defined.

But here’s where it evangelical Christians sometimes get confused, to affirm religious liberty rightly is not to affirm religious diversity. It is not to affirm the fact that it is a good thing that so people believe so many different things about God, believe in so many different Gods, have so many different theological systems. It is not right for evangelical Christians to look at the religious diversity of the world and say what a beautiful picture, we should be so thankful that human ingenuity has spawned so much religious creativity. Biblical Christianity and de-biblical religion going all the way back to Israel is exclusivistic. It’s not only monotheistic, it’s specific about the God who is being worshiped, the God of Abram and Isaac and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We point without reservation to Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” We cannot ever apologize nor waver in our commitment to conversionist gospel ministry. In faithfulness to Christ’s command, we go into the nations. Not merely seeking to add to the hues and the depth of the picture of glorious religious diversity. No, we go into the world to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s very crucial.

Why do we defend religious liberty for all? Well, for two very important reasons. The first is the fact that we believe that every single human being is made in the image of God and thus possesses certain rights that are granted by the Creator and one of them is the right to an uncoerced conscience. That means, most importantly, an uncoerced soul. Now, that’s a deeply theological affirmation. But after all, even the founders of the United States pointed to nature and nature’s God and they pointed to the fact that these rights were endowed by the Creator. That’s a crucial distinction. Thus, we understand that we affirm religious liberty because we cannot affirm the opposite.

We cannot coerce persons to be Christians, that’s a violation of the very gospel that we preach. Putting people on the rack and demanding that they confess Christ is not evangelism. Evangelism is the persuasive presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as we see modeled by the apostles in the New Testament. It is telling the good news about Jesus, calling for conversion, promising the gift of everlasting life and the forgiveness of sins. It is never wavering in monotheism, it is never wavering on monotheism. It’s never wavering on the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is never hesitant in calling for conversion. It is never reluctant to say here is salvation and salvation is found in no other name. Salvation comes only to those who conscientiously confess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s essential to the gospel. But that also means that we have to respect religious liberty because we are looking for conversion, we are not called to a ministry of coercion. Those are two very different things. Conversion is actually the opposite of coercion, a real conversion you cannot coerce.

The second reason that we defend religious liberty is because we are faithful to the call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and that means that we answer to a higher calling than any human sovereignty and we will even break the law to preach the gospel if necessary. But we do want to call upon nations to respect our religious liberty, governments to respect our religious freedom even as we in turn respect the religious freedoms and liberties of others.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to have the conversation that I had today with Ambassador Brownback. I’m an evangelical protestant, he’s a roman catholic. We had a discussion on those terms with the full measure of conviction. That’s a model for what needs to happen outside this room and in continuing conversations. That’s what needs to take place in a respectful conversation everywhere we are in the world where we contend for religious liberty. Yes, because it is a God-given right that every government must respect. But of course we are also as evangelicals driven by a far more urgent mission and that is faithfulness to the call of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thankfully, we come to understand those two commitments do not come into contradiction, they’re actually consistent. And Christians are called to a consistent defense of both.

Thanks again to my guest, Ambassador Samuel D. Brownback, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you’re going to find over 100 of these conversations at Just look under the tab, Thinking in Public.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on our undergraduate college, Boyce College, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.