WASHINGTON (ABP) — James Lankford is typical of the many outsider conservative Republican candidates elected to Congress during the recent midterm elections. Elected to the House of Representatives from Oklahoma’s 5th District, he unexpectedly beat several more experienced opponents in the GOP primary on an anti-government-growth, anti-deficit platform. He went on to
But one thing about Lankford is unique in Congress: He’s a Baptist minister. From 1996 until he resigned to run for Congress in 2009, he was president of the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s youth encampment and one of the biggest facilities of its kind in the country. Lankford, 42, and his wife, Cindy, have two daughters. They are members of Quail Creek Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
While in Washington Nov. 19 for his congressional freshman orientation and to set up his office, the representative-elect sat down with an Associated Baptist Press to answer a few questions about his faith, his new calling as a secular public servant and his agenda for the 112th Congress. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: You are a sort of political novice. You were the executive director of Falls Creek, a ministry of the BGCO — why did you, all of the sudden, decide to run for Congress as a sort of outsider candidate?
A: It’s definitely not something I expected. In the summer of 2008 … my wife and I both sensed that God was saying to us, “Get ready.” And we had about four months there where just every time we’d pray, every time we’d sit in church, it was just an overwhelming sense of, “Get ready.” In September of 2008, separately, we both sensed that God was calling us to run for Congress — for this position, this year, this time. No vision in the clouds, no audible voices — just this constant assurance that this is what you’re supposed to do. And this was before the presidential election, even. We just couldn’t get away from it.
It stayed that way for about seven months, and it finally came to a point in March of 2009 with a sense of, we have to do this. I’m going to be an old man one day and tell my grandchildren about the time I didn’t do what I knew I had to do if I don’t do this.
Had you had a political bug before this?
I’d been around the issues; I’d been in speech and debate since the 4th grade; I was a history and speech major in college. [I’ve] always been very passionate about conservative issues — but that did not come out in my preaching; that did not come out in my teaching. The social issues did, but none of the fiscal and all the other things you would anticipate with that.
Well, that’s a good lead-in to the next question I was going to ask, which is: The exit polls seem to show — and then, actually a study on religion and the election that just came out this week suggested that social issues like abortion rights and gay rights were way back at the end of people’s minds….
Obviously your platform is socially conservative. What role do you expect those issues to play in the 112th Congress?
I would concur with where we are on the polling. Even in Oklahoma — a very conservative state — I was asked very rarely about social issues in the campaign. It would come up occasionally, and I don’t know if that’s because they just knew where I was [but] they just weren’t on their radar.
The people see debt as a moral issue. And from a Christian perspective, you go to the book of Nehemiah, and there were two major issues in the book of Nehemiah in the transition of their crumbling city. It was the infrastructure — obviously, the wall, which we’re all familiar with — but it was also debt; the people were heavily in debt to the nations around them. And those were the two issues that Nehemiah took on. And so I think there are a lot of folks who still just inherently see our national debt as a major issue. Back to Proverbs 18 again — a righteous man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children. We’re not doing that; we’re spending the inheritance of our children’s children. [We’re in] the first generation in American history that I can tell that’s actually, for their own benefit, spending their kids’ money.
Do you anticipate this Congress — and particularly the new members who were elected on this sort of platform of focusing on the deficits and the debt — to actually be able to do anything significant about it, given the structural problems of cutting entitlements, which are by far the biggest part of the budget?
To grow this budget, you’ve got to have both houses to do it. It is a divided body, so that is one aspect. We can stop the growth of government based on having Republicans [in the majority] in the House and Democrats in the Senate. And the same thing is — there’s going to be negotiations. How do we bring this back? If Democrats nationwide and in the Senate in particular want to continue accelerating the rate of spending, I think they will pay a price again in 2012. Because the nation — Republicans and Democrats alike — see the looming effect of debt. I think the nation has shifted and put their attention on that. Now it’s [on to] the solutions.
Well, do you think it’s shifting enough that people might start looking seriously at entitlement reform?
I don’t know. I hope we do.
To shift gears a little bit, Baptists’ sort of birthright is religious freedom for all people …
… historically, all the way back to the Baptist ancestors in the United Kingdom, all the way down to Virginia Baptists and John Leland and Thomas Jefferson and then James Madison.
Oklahoma made religious-freedom news this election — the same day you were elected — by passing this amendment regarding Sharia law.
A lot of critics … have said this isn’t about anything that is a real threat; this is actually a law that’s inappropriately targeting one religious minority for opprobrium in the United States. How do you feel about that; how do you react to that?
We didn’t take any stands on any of the state questions on that. It’s a federalist nature for me that, you know, if I’m running for a federal office, I’m going to focus on federal issues instead of focus on the state issues. So on all the state questions and all of that stuff, I stayed out of that….
The piece itself, you know, targets a particular type of law; it says we’re not going to have any kind of international law or Sharia law that could be used in Oklahoma courts. And so, while Sharia is obviously [used in] a Muslim court, or a Muslim legal system, it just identifies — you’re not going to use international law, Sharia law — that can’t start integrating into state courts.
So, am I what I’m hearing you say is that, to you, it’s not necessarily a religious-freedom issue?
No, it’s a legal issue; it’s what will be the foundation for legal decisions in Oklahoma? And Oklahomans do have the right to be able to define out in their own state constitution how do our courts function? And the statement is: Our courts will function based on state law and the United States Constitution and the parameters of that — not based on international law or Sharia law.
Moving forward, as the 112th Congress takes place — and, if you get re-elected, future Congresses — what issues, once we get beyond debt/deficit/economic issues, do you see as being important on the radar screen, particularly to religious voters?
I think reform of systems and structures. People can’t get their voice heard — and in the past several years, people that were passionate about issues couldn’t get those issues discussed. Nothing could move because the leadership was so tightly packed around a small group of people. The House of Representatives, I believe, should be a fairly raucous house where voices are heard. And currently voices are not heard in the House of Representatives; a select group of folks are. That’s not what we were supposed to be. And I think that’s one of the best things we can do for people of all persuasions on that, is to make sure the House rules are reformed in such a way that representatives actually get to share the voices of the people they represent.
So, reform to things like the seniority systems? Lobbying reform?
Access to be able to put amendments on the floor — that would be a big one. You know, voices on the committee structures; where’s the language coming from? Is it coming out of the committees? Do the committees actually function? Or is it just the leadership handing, you know, “Here is the final bill; let’s go vote.” If people are not able to give input along the process, then it’s not an open process. And your voices really aren’t being heard.
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
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