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. alf564

    I think he should read the news and learn how members of his faith are killing other members of his faith and anyone they feel is in their way...the taliban is a really great example of Islam

    July 3, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • W2121

      ..And you're a great example of an ignorant fool.

      July 25, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • Larry Velasco

      Keith Ellison is a clown. He is for taking your money and give it to the Parasites in OUR country. People it's past time to do something about DICK'S like this guy. Who appointed him, GUESS. Probably, ASSama bid laden Obama, the TERRORIST PUNK that you IDIOTS voted for. Not once, but twice. COUNTRY IS GREAT. Some of the people are ignorant TAKERS. Let's get them out of here. Don't let that MURDEROUS Hillary get in either

      August 6, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Patrick Nichols


    The above article says it all. Christians please love and respect Muslims as our God has instructed, but do not be fooled by the certain interpretations that some would like give or display so that people do not see the truth until it is too late. There are bad people in this world from every religion but most do not promote violence in their religion like the above article will show.

    March 1, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  3. blm

    I could care less what his faith is, if he were an honest and trustworthy person – the fact that he is both a jerk and an idiot makes me ashamed to say that he represents my state. I live here due to work, but am looking to leave. Minnesota – as nice as parts of it are – is the state that not only elected this jerk, but the worthless Al Franken who wrote comedy sketches before his latest stint (actually fits in with his DC counterparts in that regard), The wacko conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura as our Governor, and Our new Governor and former Senator Mark Dayton who is a trust fund baby who's never worked an honest day in his life. Way to many wackos live here with a track record like that. All of the above make a mockery out of our political system in their own sick twisted ways. It's really almost laughable if it wasn't so sad – and to hear all the mindless minions who support these people by spewing their rhetoric makes a sane person want to vomit.

    February 27, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  4. promotion site

    Could it be alright that will put thing about this in my small personal weblog if I post a reference to religion.blogs.cnn.com ?

    January 23, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  5. UltraMontane

    no one who really understands catholicism will leave it for any other religion. there is no comparison in any sense in any way. I have met numerous amounts of people who leave Catholicism, but NONE who really know what the Church teaches and WHY. faith without reason is dangerous.

    December 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  6. Salt lick

    It doesn't matter if you are a fool christian or a moron muslim...do what is right,and that's matter most.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  7. TheJanitor1

    He did it for money.

    November 22, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Truth

    Like it or not, Islam is the last words from God to all of humanity & bashing it will only attract more followers to it.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • TheJanitor1

      It is not. It is one of many, many, many contorted words and commandments from the devil to mankind.

      November 22, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • The Light

      Get your facts right, the supposed Prophet Mohammed merely plagiarized the bible. The Holy Bible has being in existence many years before the Koran. If you would just tell me how anyone in his/her right senses will follow/believe ANY Prophet(Mohammed) who married a 6yr old girl (Aisha) and slept with her when she turned 9yrs. For God's sake, in America this is called "Pedophile", this is a Prophet that married among others a divorcee. Common, think straight and come to your senses.

      January 7, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Vinny

      Jesus is king!

      April 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  9. Josh

    How can anyone give time of day to a religion, or any religion christian included that murders, harms, harasses, and imprisons innocent GLBT people due to simple prejudice, and abuses women. *shakes head* here I thought this was the 21st century,not the 2nd. The quran, and the buybull both advocate violence, and murder. They both are used to justify ignorance of reality, and the two conflicting cause more pain, torment, and heartache equal to aids, and cancer. Islam is not better than xtianity, and xtianity is not better than islam. They both are very similar. Abuse women, murder anyone who doesnt convert, do as I say not as I do. They just use different words to convey same meanings, and one has been propped up on a throne wrapped in gift paper, but it's the same thing. Both are abrahamic, and share the atrocities of said time in this time developed in different regions. One is a toyota corolla, the other is a geo, same manufacturer, different name.

    November 9, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Lavar

      That\'s the best awsner of all time! JMHO

      January 28, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • atvmump

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      January 28, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • lsyqaisklo

      D1HJZO cwdrrkitdaup

      January 30, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  10. dougaussie

    The age old arguments about religions being responsible for violence don't hold water when talking about Christianity from its scriptual perspective. It simply teaches love as its core. History is another thing. For the first 700 to 1000 years the roman empire might have embraced christianity but it was still a violent world, then that world collapsed into the dark ages and Christianity was isolated into the monasteries. Most European governments have been IGNORANT of christianity and its values or have used nationalism with religion to their own ends. In the moslem islamic world POVERTY and IGNORANCE and NATIONALISM likewise have hijacked that religion.

    November 6, 2011 at 1:45 am |
    • ThinkForYourself

      And hey, in Michigan schools, you can now use religion to justify tormenting others: http://swampland.time.com/2011/11/04/why-does-michigans-anti-bullying-bill-protect-religious-tormenters/

      November 6, 2011 at 1:56 am |
  11. Bill

    What kind of Muslim? There are different denominations and also kinds. You know the kinds endorse terrorism.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • jonathan

      I would have to say that anyone who turned away from any form of Christianity only demonstrates that he never knew Jesus Christ as the bible says in Spirit and in truth.. the bible tells us that there would be many false Christs...and history has shown that the bible should have said that would be too many false Christs .... 🙂 🙂 🙂

      That's just a little humor from someone (myself) who understands how it's so easy to presume.. Christianity....

      That's why when I became a Christian having irrefutable evidence of Christ and his resurrection.. still I checked and double checked ........ Myself and my relationship with him, whether it is real and valid or pretend and make believe...no one could know the test But God Himself...and myself..

      November 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • sara

      There are no "kinds (of islam) that endorse terrorism" please pick up a quran and educate yourself rather spreading hate. or is it just easier to remain ignorant? i hear that it is bliss.

      November 16, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  12. David

    A religion that teaches that the strong need to protect the weak, that murder is as bad as genocide, that forcing people to convert (to any religion) is a sin, that children are to respect their parents (and their mothers more then their fathers as the parent that gave them life), that charity is a holy act, etc. IS ABSOLUTE EVIL according to about 1/2 of he people posting here. lol

    November 3, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • LoveAllReligions

      LOL! well saiidd David 🙂 it is people like you that are truly amazing, unbiased, and great people.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  13. truth speaker

    what a stupid story to post on CNN, CNN seems to be disguising a wolf into a sheep. just take a look at all the muslim positive stories they have posted its disgusting, go ahead join the team that believes in genocide.

    November 3, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • Leo

      Plenty of Christians have endorsed genocide in various historical events. And you can try to deny it all you want, but Hitler was definitely a Christian.

      November 3, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • jonathan

      Hitler was no Christian Leo...to make such a statement reveals that you have no idea what a Christian is and that's a shame in he United States ....

      November 5, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Nicole

      and its sad jonathan...in america you have no idea what a history book looks like

      November 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Nicole

      "My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter." Adolf Hitler, in a speech delivered in Munich, 12 April 1922. Thought I would help you out with the history.

      November 16, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  14. Imam Truth

    So the guy converts from "Love thy neighbor as thyself" to Jihad on all non-Muslim piggy dawgs. Chances are he never understood his first faith, hopefully he won't understand the second fully either or he could be a target for predator drones in the future...

    October 31, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • know it all

      and u know it all, right?

      November 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • The Funny Man

      What about "kill thy neighbor if he works on sunday."

      November 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • truth speaker

      haha thats kinda funny but he is joining the darkside

      November 3, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • jonathan

      There's enough peaceful Muslims in the world to make your statement invalid...the only person you are fooling is yourself and those like you....what a shame! I hate Islam more than anyone in the earth; and yet here I am defending them to people like yourself who have nothing but contempt for your enemies because you have no idea how to defeat them.. 🙁

      But praise God I have... 🙂

      November 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  15. musicmoviestvblog

    Hello there dude, This was a fantastic website for such achallenging niche to focus on….

    October 25, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  16. rational

    i'm curious what every one here ranting against islam purposes to do with the 1.2 billion muslims worldwide (low estimate)? if you truly believe that islam is a blight on the world then it implies that the muslim population has to be dealt with as a blight. so whats the plan? do you force them to convert at the end of a sword or just kill them all? one of those sounds like what you have been referring to as jihad and the other genocide. so really what do you want here? what are your values?

    October 25, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Kenney

      That is what Islam teaches will happen to ALL non Isalm so how do you balance that? It is not what Christ teaches.

      October 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • rpguy

      There is only one way to approach it: love. Also pray for your enemies. Christians won't DEAL with any of this. God will.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Christ Teaches

      Kenney, muslims also believe in Christ's teachings. He taught that "there one and only one God!" And that he is a messenger not a son of God.

      November 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  17. rpguy

    I'd like to know how a believer in a loving religion (whatever the name) can convert to a hating religion, because that is exactly what is, no matter how you slice it. This is what I would call an anti-conversion. There has to be something seriously wrong with this man.

    October 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • hippypoet

      there are 3 religions that stem form the teachings of Abraham, judism, christianity, and islam.... none are hating beliefs, but all have there extremists. Now if you believe that islam is a belief based on hate then you don't know much about islam. One can easily say that christianity is a much bigger hater, how many died in the cursades, or the spanish inqishtion (i can't spell)... look, lots of very very evil things have come from religion and sad to say much less has come out of religion that was good. The slave trade was thought of by a catholic priest as a way not to kill off the native population of the Americas... just another fact. Islam may have been the most peaceful religion of all 3 untill the cursades, that just set the whole holy war in motion... see before cursade number 1 there was no such thing as jihad, we as westerns almost created that by our actions!

      October 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • rpguy

      hey hippypoet..True Christianity does not tolerate violence of any kind, while the Koran teaches violence against those who would not convert to islam, and those are the real facts

      October 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • rpguy

      Here's a lesson on Christianity. Don't lump catholics in with Christians. Christians follow Christ, who was God incarnate on earth, the son of God. Catholics don't follow Christ, they have corrupted the Bibles teachings with man made doctrines, answering to a pope who replaces Christ, and the whole Catholic hierarchy. The Bible addresses this in the New Testament where it says false prophets will come, forbidding some to marry, that's catholicism. It is a false religion as is islam, buddhism, etc.

      October 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Kenney

      hippypoet, you still have my challenge, you're facts are wrong http://www.centerpointesc.org/ask_kenney

      rpguy, God gave us one bar to be judged upon... acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, acknowledge Him as Savior and us as sinner and strive to be as Christ like as possible. While I disagree with some of what my Catholic brothers and sisters adhere to as long as they have made that step which many have they are as saved as I. Be careful in how you judge, God has a different scale.

      October 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • rpguy

      Kenney, you need to study New Testament, every thing I said about Catholics is true, Christ is the ONLY way, not praying to mother Mary, etc. They have supplanted Christ"s teachings with man's. Yes, the way is narrow and few there be that find it. That's Bible, believe it or reject it.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • HippyPoet#2

      Read the 'poem' by the HippyPoet...again

      November 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • jonathan

      Perhaps you should check out the history of that religion you call loving...I've heard so many person of that so called loving religion say to their enemies and those whom they will not forgive "burn in hell...etc " Too many!

      November 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  18. John Geheran

    How a rational person could embrace a totalitarian political ideology masquerading as a religion is a sad commentary on Rep. Ellison. It can only be a case of willful blindness or sheer stupidity.

    October 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • LoveAllReligions

      and you are pure ignorant. get your facts straight. there are extemists in all religions.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  19. John


    October 18, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • .....

      GARBAGE ALERT – click the report abuse link this garbage isn't worth viewing. TROLL ALERT AGAIN!

      October 18, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  20. asimj

    have you looked into what islam is really about before adopting it as your faith? its got too much ugly truths you may have tried to avoid.. but the fact is there is much to learn from any source than that vile faith that goes by the name of islam. blind supporters like you have strengthened something that ultimately causes much suffering to mankind.

    October 16, 2011 at 11:38 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.