Ambassador Sam Brownback is the co-author of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and a former United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He's been fighting for people who have been persecuted for their faith for his entire career. However, he didn't expect that he himself would become a victim of religious persecution by his own bank.
I recently talked with Ambassador Brownback on my podcast "Meeting of Minds." Below are a few highlights from that discussion, lightly edited for clarity and length.
This is part 2. You can read part 1 here.
Jerry: Your system is coming out of ivy league universities and it kind of feeds into a lot of the managerial class, for whom the American experiment was evil from the beginning. "Why should we care about the Constitution?" The 1619 Project says that America is based on nothing but evil and racism. So these are code words for power. So when we appeal to the First Amendment, it's no longer common ground. Maybe it is for 60% of people, but it's no longer a shared good in universities. And the people who are hostile to it have gravitated to positions where they're able to censor and de-bank others. We can no longer assume when we're dealing with these large financial institutions, or business institution that were dealing with institutions that actually respect the Bill of Rights any longer.
Sam: I find the evolution of this topic kind of fascinating. When Chuck Schumer was a junior Senator from New York and I was in the Senate with him. He and I did a religious freedom bill together. The Sikhs carry a small ceremonial knife. It's part of being a male Sikh: they carry a 3-inch ceremonial knife. And they were being blocked from being able to do that at certain jobs. So we put together a bill that allowed them to carry their ceremonial knife. Religious freedom was a completely bipartisan topic. This is the First Amendment. We all agreed on this, these bills were passing 99 to 1.
Jerry: Which President signed that? Was it Clinton?
Sam: I believe it was. And the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed with 90-plus votes. But then it became controversial because some were standing for Religious Freedom as a part of their traditional set of values. Their traditional moral beliefs. And then it just started started fraying and becoming a divisive political issue when it had always been a unifying issue.
We have a number of Amish in Kansas and some of the Amish groups don't believe in having their children go to school past the age of 16. And so there was a controversy because the state requires it until 18. But we found a way to accommodate them by having them get a GED after the age of 16. That worked out. And and historically, that's what we've always done in this country: figure out a way to accommodate somebody's deeply held religious belief. Like carrying a 3-inch ceremonial knife if you're a Sikh.
Now, it's kind of like, "oh no, we disagree with you, and we're going to make it hard on you. We're not going to try to find a way to accommodate."
Jerry: We've seen situations in the last few years where, if a state legislature passes a state level version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which you helped bring into existence, which is identical in language to Federal legislation, they get threatened by large corporations with divestment! In other words, we're going to put your people out of work, we're going to move operations out of your state to punish you. So tat's how quickly, that's how quickly that flipped from being almost universal: you, Chuck Schumer, and Bill Clinton all aligned, to the point where large corporations treat that same kind of thing like it's hate. That's how quickly we've switched.
Sam: I saw it happen to me while I was governor of Kansas. So I become Governor after being a Senator. A state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill comes in front of me as Governor. I say, "oh yeah, that'll be easy. That'll be big bipartisan bill. I'll be able to sign it." But instead it just blew up, and it was one of the most controversial bills that session. We had threats from corporations.
Frankly I think we're poorer as a nation when we fight about fundamental freedoms, like religious freedom and free exercise. I think that really is harmful to the very design of the nation. To have this big diverse nation with lots of different values that aren't accommodate to. And I think this hurts people that aren't even religious. I think it hurts atheists. You don't want your freedoms to be infringed upon either.
Jerry: Because the the right to be an atheist is not, I would say, metaphysically different than the right to be a Catholic or a Muslim. In essence it's the right to decide in your deepest core, what you believe and what you'll pay allegiance. If you believe that humanity is the highest thing, you're a secular humanist. Essentially, sociologically, anthropologically, that is a religion. So any apparatus that can say, "you can't practice your Catholicism" could just as well say, "you can't practice your atheism" when the shoe is on the other foot.
Sam: It's not a hypothetical, either: it actually happens in places in the Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia you get persecuted if you're an atheist. When I was an Ambassador for Religious Freedom, we stood up for atheist in parts of the world that required that you be of a certain religion. Freedom of religion means you've got a right to not be religious. And this is a deep, precious human right. That's the human right of the soul.
And it's interesting to me that religion is the one institution that has enough alliance, and allegiance, and pull over the heart, to actually get a group of people to stand up to the government. There's just not any other kind of affiliation that has enough pull to get people to do that. That's why religious freedom is so important: it actually acts as a counterbalance to government.
Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”