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."Profile: James Lankford