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September 1st, 2011
10:24 AM ET

My Faith: Rep. Keith Ellison, from Catholic to Muslim

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Islam

soundoff (1,073 Responses)
  1. Fai

    And Nad Please Don't Judge what U don't Know Go through the real Muslims not other people that miss interpret Islam and know Islam first then u can judge weather Islam is evil or not

    September 5, 2011 at 5:38 am |
    • gsw

      better yet Nad – read the quoran and "Reliance of the Traveller" – but have a bucket nearby, some of it is actually worse than the old testament!

      September 7, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  2. Fai

    @nad If ur mouth cant say good things jst keep quite
    iam telling u one of the things Islam says

    September 5, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  3. mnz145

    Collective dress, thinking and behaviour is what communism, fascism and marxism aspired to, just like religions of today.
    It's just another idealogy to suppress intellectual develpment!!!

    September 5, 2011 at 4:43 am |
  4. mnz145

    Collective dress, thinking and behaviour is what communism, fascism aspired to, just like religions of today.
    It's just another idealogy to suppress intellectual develpment!!!

    September 5, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  5. aksdad

    Ellison is absolutely right: "at the end of the day we should be focusing on what you believe, not what your religion is." So Mr. Welch, how about asking Ellison what he believes? We admire Muslims for following the 5 pillars of Islam: profession of faith in Muhammad and Allah, daily prayer, fasting, taking care of the poor, pilgrimage to Mecca. Beyond that it gets problematic. Does Ellison also believe in Sharia? Does he believe that the laws of the U.S. supersede Sharia when they are in conflict and that in fact some points of Sharia are illegal in the U.S.? Does he believe in Jihad? Does he believe that women are subservient to men? How does he feel about women wearing a hijab or burqa if they are compelled to? Obama, Perry, Romney and others have had their personal beliefs examined. Let's have some insight into Ellison's beliefs, instead of this pablum that is a surprisingly poor imitation of a news story.

    September 5, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  6. talezspin

    When will CNN write an article about thousands of Muslims leaving Islam and converting to Christianity even risking their lives?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrHAGAXX230

    September 4, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Re- posting, hoping post will end up on proper place...

      @Talezspin

      THANK YOU for posting...
      I don't believe you could find this type of story on CNN religion blog....Even if they had it, you could be sure of THEIR OWN slant added to it.....
      One thing said in the story stood out : "they (Muslims) are beautiful people, but they are deceived. Christ died for them. They NEED TO KNOW THE TRUTH.
      This is exactly how I feel, and my heart aches for them..... because so many really want to serve God, but they don't know how to seek Him, so they remain trapped under the heavy yoke of religion that bars them from going beyond it's rule over them. They will NEVER find God to KNOW Him And HAVE RELATIONSHIP with Him, unless they break out, from this religion's oppressive rule over them. This video has blest my soul, and I rejoice for those precious people comming out and being set free!

      September 6, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  7. James

    Pretty neat trick Ellison. Hope you are gone come election time.–Don't need you around–

    September 4, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  8. Ted Wilson

    It sounds like Mr. Ellison's conversion in his own words has no profound theological or rational reason. He just felt more "comfortable". Well fine. but I just always hear how everybody else somehow has to adjust to, make room for, and accept Islam as it is. I rarely if ever have heard a word of self questioning and even just plain shame from muslims about their faith and the horrible current and past history it has. The Trans saharan Islamic slave trade, to name but one horror, that went on for over a thousand years until Europeans stopped it in the early twentieth century, the same slave trade that made west African slaves a readily available commodity for Columbus et al to bring slaves to the Americas without which there would probably never have been an atlantic slave trade. The whole long history of hand in glove religious militarism, slavery, and oppression of culture and language all around the Mediterranean. And the continuing double talk of "peaceful" Islam on the one hand while reciting the Koran's shop of horrors hate, fatalism, and M*mmed's liife example of dreadful deceit, murder, and self justifying betrayal. In short Islam demonstrates no capacity for self criticism, apprpopriate shame, change and renewal. In this day and age Muslilms simply cannot go on denying the huge issues present in Islam and just expect intelligent people to say "OK" we accept and "tolerate" this. There are tihings in Islam that are not and should not be tolerated or accepted. They are anathema to everything the modern civilized world holds dear. The ball is in Isl*m's court to get with the program and own up to and address these issues. No sensible person today believes the phrase "peaceful Islam" is anythng other than a painfully ironic pc cant phrase.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      It seems that a switch from Catholicism to Islan would be relatively easy. Both religions have a history of violence but also have many peaceful members. Both are loaded with dogma and ritual most of which is apparently for show. Both suppress the rights of women and both have underlying corruption that thwarts the sometimes good intentions of followers. The Mormon church follows a similar pattern. People often have a difficult time escaping from the "brainwashing" that these religious organizations leave them with. Ellison didn't really change religions, he just moved over a bit.

      September 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • ...

      I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind.... I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle . Ghandi

      September 4, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Samsword

      @Elizabeth I think you're misinformed. Truthfully most Catholics aren't very active in their religion (most will even admit that it's a cultural thing.) Second, having spent quite a bit of time in Malaysia, I can tell you that a majority of Muslims are very peaceful family-oriented people. And finally, I simply think you're wrong about Mormonism. It's deeply rooted in Mormon doctrine to "test" everything spiritually. To pray about everything and follow the "Spirit's guidance." So... I apologize if you've had a poor sampling... but I assure you that Mormon doctrine emphasizes gaining a personal witness, and NOT simply relying on the words/dogma of others.

      September 5, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  9. Wastrel

    Mr. Ellison, you are an idiot.

    September 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Allocer

      Wastrel, you're a coward and a moron.

      September 5, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • AmericanPatroit

      Your observation is based on what? bigotry or hate?

      September 5, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  10. Kris in AL

    The issue is not Islam, but those who are radical Islamist terrorists and their supporters.......across the globe and probably within this country.

    September 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • AmericanPatroit

      Kris....the radicals and terroists are in all religions. Check thru human history, recent or past.

      September 5, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  11. Timothy Bopp

    He wants to hear someone who is "really articulate" instead of reasoning out the answers to life's problems with his own brain. So therefore he switches from one moronic cult to another. Catholicism to Islam. What a joke. This guy has been a follower all his life and will always be a follower. Exactly the kind of person we don't need in Congress. Sigh.

    September 4, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Chris V

      Don't be an idiot. To be a great leader one must first be a follower. They must understand what it is to follow, and see its value, to then be able to lead and understand those people or nation he's leading. I'm not a Muslim, so don't use that excuse for why I'm responding to your comment. A stupid comment is stupid no matter whose mouth (or keyboard) it comes out of.

      September 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Timothy Bopp

      It has nothing to do with being a leader or a follower. We are all leaders and followers, depending on the given situation. It does have to do with learning how to use one's brain instead of unquestioningly accepting the pap and drivel which was handed out to a bunch of primitive peoples 1500 years ago. He is a morn and so are you, Chris. Now go to bed and get ready for your job at MacDonald's tomorrow....

      September 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  12. SOFSoldier

    One word: "Fruitloop"

    September 4, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  13. rmarc

    Religion poisons everything!

    September 4, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Samsword

      Sorry you've had a bad experience with it my friend. To be fair though, a lack of religion has done it's fair share of damage too... Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, the Khmer Rouge (just to name a few). All of these people/groups were wielding (rather forcefully) the banner of atheism. It's the person not the creed.

      September 5, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • You Pray

      It is not religion that poisons ...it's ignorance and hate.

      September 5, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  14. rs1201

    It's rather deplorable that most of the posters on this board can hardly put a sentence together and yet they go ahead and post.
    As a New Yorker, there is nothing that muslims can do or say that will prompt me to forgive or even want to associate with them. I saw way too much on 9/11 and I can't forget. I mistrust them and really wish they would all leave my country whether they were born here or not. They've shown themselves to be traitors and enemies of America. Just think of Hasan, the murderous thug of Ft Hood. I don't know how all this will end...but I certainly hope and pray that America and Americans will remain safe from these monsters.

    September 4, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • rmarc

      Why are you so angry about Muslims.

      American taxpayers are subsidizing parasitic Israel and every government official is completely terrified of challenging AIPAC or Israel!

      Since jews are 2% of the population, the control they weild over the sovereignty of the USA is cultural imperialism!

      Besides, if Israel is such a wonderful place why are there so many jews here?

      September 4, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Timothy Bopp

      Kudos rs... your position is consistent with history. The bare truth is that these mothers hate us. They hate Israel and America and always have. So what do you do when someone hates you? You hate them right back. Next time they pull a stunt like 9/11, I hope we have a prez with the balls to turn their countries of origin into nuclear dust. Unfortunately, we don't right now ...

      September 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Kris in AL

      Hate to break the news to you buddy, but this country allows anyone to practice any religion.

      Muslims are not a problem, it's those who are radicalized.

      Regardless of what a very small group of radical Islamic terrorists did on 9/11, to 3000 civilians, American Muslims were not the source or inspiration of a SINGLE 9/11 terrorist.

      Personally I would like to HEAR AND SEE MORE from the American muslim community and it's efforts to stamp out radicalization within itself. I don't think we have nearly the problems that England has.

      September 4, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • CH

      I wouldn't hold my breath......

      September 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Realtybites

      Timothy,
      I find it interesting that you say this several years after a Repugnican president went into, then ignored Afghanistan, then the present president killed the guy responsible for 9/11.
      BTW,
      Until you've actually interacted with the peaceful people of Afghanistan, you're a complete buffoon to suggest the entire country should have been destroyed.because of the Taliban's acts.
      Initial step: Move out of your mom's house

      September 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Allocer

      Kris in AL

      http://www.islamicity.com/articles/Articles.asp?ref=AM0109-335

      http://www.themodernreligion.com/terror/wtc-distortion.html

      http://www.angelfire.com/biz2/FIANZWEB16/PressRelease1.html

      There are many others, perhaps you should do some researching before posting.

      September 5, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • AmericanPatroit

      Man! you guys watch too much FOX news. You may be suffering from "Fox Syndrome" (not kidding ...this is an accepted psychiatric diagosiss).

      September 5, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  15. Jim S

    It is sad that religion is supposed to instill promise and hope and yet history proves religion has actually created more hatred and death than any other reason for war. Even today the so called "religion of peace" kills each other, both in the name of Allah. (Sunni / Shia) Islam and Christianity authorizes discrimination of each other, Jews, Gays, and any other group of people who are different than the local tribe. We should embrace people, all people, regardless of what they believe. No one should lose their life over believing in a spiritual existence. Everyone should remember that we all laugh, cry, bleed and feel emotions the same way. No one is different, no one is special and therefore no one should be excluded. Religion excludes I will have no part of it.

    September 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  16. In the name of Allah, the Merciful

    I'm Muslim, i must admit deep on my heart in my mind that i cancelled all my promise and faith to believe Prophet Mohammad SAW is messenger from Allah. Even i notice that what i have been read is a trap, i already read this and admit it in my mind. I hope

    September 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Timothy Bopp

      Pee on you and everyone who thinks like you ...

      September 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  17. Joe

    Worst religion ever!

    September 4, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • rmarc

      Nah!

      I think the christian "religion/cult" of the ignorant and delusional Rick Perry is as dangerous as any other cult.

      Religion poisons everything!

      September 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • nad

      I am just wondering how much Saudia Arabia paid to this congress man to become a muslim!

      September 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  18. Airmail56

    He supports affirmative action, which is injust and racist. That he would embrace other corrupt ideas, like sharia law, is no suprise.

    September 4, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  19. Xenia

    Real reality: De-christianized Americans are too intoxicated that the presence of any pagan religions make little difference in the society. America needs repentance before the Almighty God.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:28 am |
  20. Blake

    Its like going from one drug to an harder one.

    September 3, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.