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James Lankford says he was called to run for congressional seat

Although James Lankford felt called to run for Oklahoma's 5th District seat in Congress, the former Southern Baptist camp director says he knows the task is secular and that he's not running for pastor.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL Published: August 15, 2010

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 Congress."

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.

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