The former ambassador at-large for international religious freedom who served under the Obama administration, David Saperstein, has praised President Donald Trump for nominating Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to fulfill the congressionally-mandated position he once filled.
The White House announced Wednesday that Brownback, whose second term as governor wasn't scheduled to end until January 2019, is Trump's nominee for the State Department's top religious freedom post, which is responsible for leading the department's Office of International Religious Freedom created by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom and monitor violations worldwide.
"He knows the issue very well," Saperstein, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to the position in 2014, told World Magazine of the social conservative governor in an interview.
During his 15 years in the U.S. Senate, Brownback actively promoted the issue and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 — legislation that created the Office of International Religious Freedom, the ambassador position and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"This is a very strong appointment, and I look forward to working with him in furthering the cause of religious freedom around the globe," Saperstein added.
John Hanford, who served as the ambassador at-large for international religious freedom from 2002 to 2009, told World that Brownback is "someone of real prominence who has a lot of professional experience in dealing with challenges that you would find at a place like the State Department."
"There's always the realization that he would have no hesitance picking up the phone and calling people at the White House or even on the Hill," Hanford said.
Brownback, a sitting governor and former U.S. senator, is the most most high profile person ever to be nominated for the position. Rumors have swirled for weeks that Brownback would be Trump's nominee for the ambassador position.
The 60-year-old's nomination comes as former State Department employees have said that the the Office of International Religious Freedom has had a hard time gaining the trust of other bureaus in the agency. Additionally, religious freedom advocates have questioned the State Department's commitment to the issue of international religious freedom.
"I don't think we've figured out yet the right way to pursue it internationally," Brownback said in an interview with World published Thursday, Brownback's first since being nominated to the position. "Religious freedom is such a hallmark of a forward-thinking nation."
Nina Shea, a respected human rights lawyer and a former USCIRF commissioner, told World that Brownback has the "political stature to end State Department policy paralysis to use diplomacy to stand up for the religiously persecuted." Shea, who works for the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Hudson Institute, was also believed to be considered for the position.
Brownback's nomination was also praised by numerous evangelical leaders.
"This ambassadorship is a key piece in our nation's responsibility to act on behalf of the persecuted around the world, one that requires a seasoned, respected leader who brings conviction and gravity to the work of this crucial post," Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement. "Governor Brownback is exactly this kind of leader."
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson praised the fact that it only took Trump six months to make the nomination for the ambassador position. The position was left unfilled through the first 27 months of Obama's presidency.
"In appointing a man of deep personal faith who is also a sitting governor, the president has sent a powerful message to the country and the world, that the United States will lead the global effort in defending and preserving every man, woman and child's right to practice his or her beliefs without fear of intimidation or violence," Dobson said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. "Many of the world's most challenging political, social and military conflicts are borne out of an attack on religious freedom. From Southeast Asia to Northern Africa and the Middle East, religious oppression impacts more people today than perhaps at any other time in world history."
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, echoed Dobson's remarks.
"By appointing a sitting governor, this administration has elevated the importance of the position within the Department of State and has sent a powerful signal to the world that the United States is serious about preserving and defending the religious liberties of all believers," Rodriguez said in a statement. "Religious liberty is the number one human rights issue of our day and is currently under siege in so many corners of the globe. In Gov. Brownback I am confident the United States will once again assume its rightful place as the world's leader in preserving and expanding this most precious of all human liberties."
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical communications executive and informal advisor to the Trump administration who was also believed to be considered for the position, said in a statement that he doesn't know anyone that cares more about the issue of religious liberty than Brownback.
"The decision to take someone of his stature ... and put him in a position of this importance is hugely encouraging," Moore said.
Thanks to the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed last December, the ambassador at-large for international religious freedom position was elevated so that it reports directly to the Secretary of State.
Before taking office, Brownback must first be confirmed by the Senate.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Brownback's nomination. The pro-lgbt group Equality Kansas called Brownback "unsuited to represent American values of freedom, liberty and justice, whether at home or abroad."
"His use of religion is little different than that of a bully wielding a club," the organizations said in a statement. "His goal is not to use religion as a way to expand freedom, but to use a narrow, bigoted interpretation of religion to deny freedom to his fellow citizens."
With low approval ratings in Kansas, critics argue that Brownback would be taking a step down by leaving the statehouse to take on the ambassador position.
"Oh my goodness no," Wolf, a former Virginia congressman and namesake of the legislation passed last year, told the Kansas City Star. "I understand maybe somebody in Kansas hasn't heard of it, but it is an important job ... 70 some percent of the people are living in a religiously oppressed environment."