September 1st, 2011
10:24 AM ET
By Chris Welch, CNN
Minneapolis, Minnesota (CNN) –Prior to 2006, few people even knew that then-Minnesota state legislator Keith Ellison was a Muslim. Because of his English name, he said, no one thought to ask.
But five years ago, when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives - a race he would go on to win - word of his religious affiliation began to spread.
“When I started running for Congress it actually took me by surprise that so many people were fascinated with me being the first Muslim in Congress,” said Ellison, a Democrat now serving his third term in the House.
“But someone said to me, ‘Look Keith, think of a person of Japanese origin running for Congress six years after Pearl Harbor–this might be a news story.’”
Though Ellison's status as the first Muslim elected to Congress is widely known, fewer are aware that he was born into a Catholic family in Detroit and was brought up attending Catholic schools.
But he said he was never comfortable with that faith.
“I just felt it was ritual and dogma,” Ellison said. “Of course, that’s not the reality of Catholicism, but it’s the reality I lived. So I just kind of lost interest and stopped going to Mass unless I was required to.”
It wasn’t until he was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit when Ellison began, “looking for other things.”
He doesn’t have an elaborate explanation of what led him to convert to Islam in college, though he said he was “drawn to the multi-national congregation.”
“I would really like to hear somebody who is really articulate about the elements of their faith conversion. I'm not,” he said. "I investigated it, it worked for me, and it made me have a sense of inspiration and wonder, and I became a Muslim. It's been working for me ever since.”
Ellison's political opponents have made his faith an issue in his congressional campaigns.
“I would caution [opponents] that it doesn't work. People are not hateful like that," he said. "If you come up saying, ‘Vote for me because Ellison is a Muslim and I’m not,’ nine out of ten voters are going to see that as the silliness that it is.”
“It doesn't hurt my feelings at all," he said. "In fact I actually feel sorry for these people.”
And he said he has never had a second thought about converting.
“My faith and my identity as a Muslim - I never saw it as something that made my job harder," he said. "It’s just an aspect of who I am. It's the time that we live in. We have to respond to the realities of the world we’re in.”
But Ellison acknowledges that his faith has given him something of a national profile, not always in ways that are welcome.
In March, he testified in nationally televised congressional hearings, called by Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, to explore what King said was radicalization in American Muslim communities.
At the hearing, Ellison choked up as he described the sacrifices of Muslim Americans who tried to save others in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Without any of my choosing or desire I became somewhat of a symbolic figure," Ellison said. "And I urge anyone to avoid becoming a symbolic figure if you can. But I ended up in that position, so I just figured why not talk about it? Why not help try to bring people together with it?”
“Faith really should be a bridge, not a wall," Ellison said. "Because at the end of the day we should be focusing on what you believe, not what your religion is.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.