WASHINGTON — James Lankford has told the story many times.
Almost two years ago, he read an online article about the possibility of U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin giving up her seat in Congress to run for governor of Oklahoma.
"When I was reading that, I got the sense that that's what I was supposed to do," he said.
That is, he felt like he should run for Congress — not at some point in the future, but then, if Fallin gave up the position.
He kept it to himself until three days later, when his wife, Cindy, told him, "I feel like we're supposed to run for
Lankford, of Edmond, ultimately decided to run for Congress last year, after Fallin publicly announced her decision to run for governor.
Lankford was working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, directing the Falls Creek youth camp near Davis. He had never run for any kind of political office — not even student council, he said. And an open congressional seat — a rarity — was bound to attract experienced politicians.
But Lankford, 42, got more votes July 27 than six other Republicans in the 5th District congressional primary. He now faces Kevin Calvey, a former state lawmaker, in the Aug. 24 runoff.
Lankford talks openly about his background and faith, but he also seeks to assure people that he's not running for pastor of the 5th District, which includes most of Oklahoma County and Pottawatomie and Seminole counties.
"I don't go to anybody and say, 'I feel called by God so you have to vote for me,'" Lankford said in an interview last week.
In fact, he said, he doesn't "talk about a lot of spiritual issues."
But will he?
Where will his calling to serve in Congress and his calling to serve in the Southern Baptist Convention intersect?
"This is a secular task," he said. "I will not be in the lotus position sitting in the (House) chamber trying to connect with (a) deity" to determine how to vote on each issue.
Focus on faith
Nick Singer, vice president of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he views Lankford with some concern.
Singer, of Oklahoma City, has watched Lankford's website videos and read some of his campaign material. And while he hasn't heard Lankford speak of the United States as a "Christian nation," he said he is worried that is part of his faith.
"They're very clear that we're a Christian nation and should pass laws" that conform to their religious beliefs, Singer said.
Americans United does not take stands on candidates, he said, but monitors issues such as school prayer, public funding of religious groups and gay marriage.
"His background is obviously very strongly Southern Baptist, and he knows all the powers that be" in the convention, Singer said. "It really just depends on what he's going to push."
Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader, said of Baptists, "Our unique gift to the Reformation is separation of church and state." Land heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, Tenn.
Politics, he said, is "certainly a more worldly pursuit" than the ministry, but there is no "biblical prohibition" to running for office.
"I believe God calls people to public service," Land said.
Land is in Washington frequently, meeting with lawmakers and administration officials on issues. Earlier this summer, he was in Washington with other religious leaders talking about comprehensive immigration reform that would begin with tougher border security but include an earned path to citizenship.
Lankford told The Oklahoman in June that he wouldn't support legislation that allowed people who had entered the country illegally to obtain citizenship.
Asked how he would view Lankford if he were to win the seat, Land said, "I would look at him the same way that I look upon all of the congressmen and senators from Oklahoma. I'm used to getting a careful hearing from them."
The last time he checked, Land said, "one-third of the people who live in Oklahoma are baptized members of Southern Baptist churches."
Lankford said he would consider Land as another Southern Baptist with a point of view. "There is no one person that represents the views of Southern Baptists," Lankford said.
The resolutions passed by the national convention — such as the one endorsing comprehensive immigration reform — reflect the views of the "messengers" in attendance voting on them, Lankford said.
"Ninety-nine out of 100 don't know what resolutions are passed," Lankford said. "Baptist churches are autonomous."
Explaining his 'call'
Lankford said he knows that "it makes some people uncomfortable" for him to talk about being called to run for Congress. In an interview, he used the word "creepy" twice to describe how some might view it. But he said no one had actually told him that.
"There are all kinds of ways to twist this out of perspective," he said.
In fact, he said, there have been very few times "when I felt God was trying to shift the direction of my life."
Once was in 1994, when he took the position that led to him directing Falls Creek. The other was in the summer of 2008, when he got "the unsettling sense that something was about to occur."
That something was apparently the story about Fallin considering a run for governor.
Lankford didn't feel called to run against her for Congress.
"The moment for me was when I read that she was considering running for governor," he said. "If she had not been running for governor, that moment would never have occurred."
Lankford is a conservative and shares the views of Oklahoma Republicans already in Congress on such issues as abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, Israel, health care reform and spending.
Asked about school prayer, he said, "That's just not something schools should be into." He said he would have problems with a school prohibiting any child from praying.
Fallin's predecessor, Rep. Ernest Istook, a Mormon, pushed for years to get an amendment to the U.S. Constitution allowing religious expression in schools and other public places. And Southern Baptist leaders, including Land, pushed back with concerns it would create a new government authority to acknowledge religious belief.
Though he has gotten campaign donations from Baptist church employees and has several volunteers working for him that he knows from his former job, Lankford bristles at the notion that "a small group of Baptists" is working to put him in Congress.
"A lot of folks in this campaign are not Christian," he said.