WASHINGTON — When he was 8 years old, James Lankford was baptized by W.A. Criswell, the influential Dallas pastor who drove conservative theology to the forefront in the Southern Baptist Convention and embraced Republican politicians.
Lankford was living with his mother and brother in a detached garage at his grandparents' house in east Dallas. His parents had divorced when he was 4. In that period in his life, living in the remodeled garage, he was exposed not only to Criswell's sermons at the First Baptist Church of Dallas about Christ's message, but to nightly debates with his mother and brother at the dinner table.
"My mom kept the peace by reading the newspaper to us, and we would hash out the issues of the day," he said.
As part of a program for gifted students, he started working with the high school debate team when he was just in fourth grade. He still remembers researching American policy on alternative energy for a debate in 1979.
Lankford, 42, would ultimately devote the first 15 years of his career to the ministry and the Southern Baptist Convention.
For the last year, he has been a Republican political candidate, hashing out the issues of the day on the campaign trail. He is the heavy favorite in next week's election to replace U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin in Congress.
Though he seemingly came out of nowhere, he was known to thousands of people as the director of the Falls Creek youth camp in Davis. The camp is operated by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Andy Harrison, who worked with Lankford at the camp for 10 years, said attendance grew so much during that time that the number of camp weeks almost doubled. In 2009, Lankford's last summer as director, more than 50,000 kids went through the camp.
Harrison said Lankford was good at all aspects of the Falls Creek job — the logistics, the programming, his own teaching — and was meticulous about the details.
"He's all about the task," Harrison said. "When there's a task he has to accomplish, he's pretty relentless about it."
Darin M. Wood, who has known Lankford since the summer of 1990, just before they attended the Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth together, said Lankford was "focused," a description few would likely dispute after watching his long-shot quest for the 5th Congressional District seat.
Lankford, of Edmond, created a campaign with little money and a few volunteers and turned it into a battle against the "status quo" that swept aside six other Republican candidates, including two current members and one former member of the state House of Representatives. He faces Democrat Billy Coyle and independent Clark Duffe in the Nov. 2 general election.
"He's not a politician by trade," said Wood, who is now the pastor at Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Texas. "He says what he means. One thing that stands out about his character is that he's not a guy who's going to tell you one thing and then act differently. He is who he is, like it or not."
Interest in government, but not politics
Wood said Lankford's decision to run for Congress "came out of the blue, but I wasn't shocked."
When he and Lankford talked in their seminary days about what they might have done if they hadn't chosen the church, Lankford "talked about running for office then, and that was almost 20 years ago."
"He's always had an interest in government," Wood said. "He's been an avid reader of things that were political in nature. He quotes the Federalist Papers as well as he quotes the Bible.
"I think the truth is, he's been heading this way all his life and now he's finally here."
Harrison said Lankford didn't leave Falls Creek because he was tired of the job and needed a new challenge. Harrison believed Lankford when he said he felt called to run for the office.
Lankford, he said, was just following the advice he gave students at Falls Creek, which was to be open to opportunities for which God might call you. Wood said Lankford gave him similar counsel when he was trying to decide whether to pursue his doctoral degree, telling him that it could be a way for him to be more useful to the lives he would later touch.
"His life has to be open to that, too, and I think he feels called to do it, and he feels passionate about it," Harrison said.
Asking the hard questions
Lankford's dad "kind of floated in and out" of Lankford's life, Wood said, but Lankford's mother "is one of the most exceptional people I've ever met."
A librarian for the Dallas school system, she remarried when James was 12 and the family moved from what Wood described as a tough part of Dallas to Garland, where he attended high school before going to University of Texas.
Though he was influenced early in his life by Criswell's sermons at the Dallas megachurch and by his experiences at the small church he started attending when he was in junior high, Lankford said his path to the ministry didn't become clear until he was a teenager and started "asking the hard questions."
What he decided was that he believed in a God you could "know" and that if you could know Him, He could care about your daily life.
"I want to follow you," he prayed to Christ then, "but I don't even know what that means."
In Austin, he began working as a youth pastor, which led to summers organizing Baptist youth gatherings around Texas.
In 1992, he married Cindy, whom he had known since high school. They didn't date then — in fact they went out on double dates, with different mates — but they kept in touch while she was getting her bachelor's and master's degrees at Baylor University.
The couple have two daughters, Hannah, 13, and Jordan, 10.
Lankford's friends say the toughest part of his yearlong campaign has been the time apart from his family.
Harrison, of Piedmont, said he expects Lankford to go to Washington and build coalitions to solve complex problems. The people he represents, he said, "will be pleasantly surprised with what they get."
And Wood said Lankford won't have any trouble representing Jews, Muslims and atheists along with Christians.
Lankford's faith "is a big component of his life and will guide some of the decisions that he makes," Wood said. "But it doesn't define James in toto."