“We are sensitive to the criticism, and we try to make all our calls in this area factually based,” says Brownback, who was on a tour of the region that included Kathmandu, Dharmashala and Bangkok. “That is why we want to get the International Religious Freedom Alliance up because we would like a much larger group internationally that would push and establish some basic standards.”
However, is it not a bit awkward for an American official to be going around the world preaching religious tolerance given what is happening back home?
“I usually raise it myself,” replied Brownback, who was governor of Kansas when two Indians were shot in his state. “I have had Jewish people killed, or white supremacists come after Somalis, but in each case I went out of my way to be assure those communities this does not represent American values. Religious freedom is in our DNA, we were founded by successive waves of people fleeing religious persecution.”
Brownback admitted that the United States is serious about protecting religious freedom, learning lessons from its own history: “We are an example of how difficult this is to do. We have own tragic past in the way we treated minorities. And if you get it wrong, religious differences are a real rocket fuel to propel angry mobs.”
A recent international Pew survey showed that 80% of the world’s population lived in a religiously restricted environment. Religious persecution, intolerance, as well as manipulation of religion is on the rise around the world.
“We believe that everybody everywhere is entitled to do with their own soul what they want to do. This is their fundamental right,” Brownback said, “and a government’s role is to protect religious freedom not to manipulate religion.”
Brownback was appreciative of Nepal being an open society compared to other countries in the region. “I want to really tip my hat to the Nepali people who have fought to maintain this openness.”
However he added: “The erosion of the practice (of the constitution) is concerning to us. You want religious freedom, but also social harmony. Religion is a fundamental human right. If you are qualifying it, that is when I start raising questions, this is not a long-term sustainable path given how much integration is taking place in the world.”
Brownback does not like the word ‘secularism’, and being a person of faith, says he is prefers to work for a society where there is the freedom to practice all religions peacefully.
He also has no patience with conversion using coercion and inducements, and says he has told officials in India and Nepal bribing people to convert is a no-no. “If you know of groups doing that, I hope you will tell us about it,” he said.
But what Brownback said he is most worried about is those in power using religion to fan populism. “Faith can be wonderful, but it can be manipulated, and that can be very dangerous. Religion has not declined as a flashpoint, in fact it has increased. Why should a government protect a faith? Shouldn’t a government protect a right? It is your choice what you decide with your soul.”