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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. DB COpper

    I think the majority of Americans are really Deist and they just dont know it.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • cleareye1

      Just won't admit it.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  2. petemg

    Why is it that the majority of Muslims want us to respect them but they do not allow us to worship as we want. Also why is it that Elison and Obama state that the Muslim religion works for him. It sounds as if he converted to the religion would assist him in his political field. Obama at one time had also stated that Muslim assisted him. Do they not realize that the Grace of God is there for us and needs nothing to receive it. Why does this religion demand that we should bow to them. I have no problem with a person's religion or lack of, but do not dictate to others. Christianity states that we should love our brother as ourselves. Because of the Muslim demand for respect makes it difficult to look at it as a religion.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Shak

      Who isn't allowing you to worship as you want in America? That is a load of crap.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • rep

      @pete there's so much misinformation and so many misconceptions in your post i wouldn't know where to begin.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • J.W

      Which Muslim was it that assisted Obama?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • cleareye1

      Your drivel contribution leads me to the conclusion you are a believer of all the 3000 year old fairy tales loaded up in the Bible.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Steve

      @ slah – we all know what islam is all about, we know what sharia is all about, once muslims have a sizable population in the US they are going to stop us from going to the church, please please stop talking nonsense, I am worried ..of the growth of islam in USA. we need to kick these virusses our ASAP, it would destroy our freedom and you corrupt our society.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Steve

      do you know you cannot built a mosque in Saudi Arabia, we cannot pray at home, do idol workship in SA, we need to enforce the same here in the US, No hijab, no hallah meat, all pork laden meat, no food stamp, no BS ..here ...just kick them out. Stop bringing in people from other muslim nation on DV visa it is causing hell here.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Fred1

      “I have no problem with a person's religion or lack of, but do not dictate to others” this is my entire argument against Christians and especially the GOP presidential candidates. To worry about right now

      September 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  3. prophet

    I think what is obvious here is that this chap needs a religion more than he needs God because he obviously doesn't believe in God he believes in religion because for him it doesn't matter because if he believed in God then he would not be in a religion. Many people are in religions to look as thouigh they beleiev in God and pretend that they are good people, they hide there so they don't have to face themselves.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  4. wwajdblogger

    Why did Peter King give all the attention to the Muslims like Keith Ellison? He should have called and cross examined the Christians, like Pontius Pilate did, and given the world another Christian martyr. Now Keith Ellison is getting all the attention. What if he became the American Jesus? To what country will the real Jesus go for his Second Coming?

    http://www.whatwouldamericanjesusdo.com/2011/03/wwajd-about-rep-peter-kings-hearings.html

    September 1, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Bibletruth

      Someone asked: To what country will the real Jesus go for his Second Coming?

      Answer: Every eye shall see him...the whole world. The second coming of Christ is one of the most ,if not the most, spoken of events in scripture, both old and new testament. Prophets from Enoch to Malichi spoke of it. The new testament dwells on it. There are abundant details given

      September 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  5. AJ

    He converted because of ritualism & dogma in Catholicism? And Islam DOESN'T have that??? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight...

    September 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Cheeseburger

      And hey, with Islam, you can beat your wife! Why the women of the world haven't united and formed an army to defeat this clearly oppressive "female unfriendly" so-called religion is beyond me!

      September 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Sarah

      Where have you gotten your PhD in Islamic and Quranic studies? 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Cheeseburger

      Where did you?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Sarah

      Cheeseburger –
      Your ignorance staggers me, it's actually sad. I'm an American, female, muslim... and my religion empowers me from every aspect. Women in Islam were allowed to vote 1,400 yrs before the first "western" woman officially could in the 1900's. Women in Islam have the right to divorce, inherit, education, to run their own business... things women of other faith could not do, and things only known to the modern woman. Studies show that barely 13% of Muslim men practise polygamy, while the majority are monogamous. On the other hand, the same studies also show that the majority of men in "western" nations have an affair, or another woman on the side. This isn't about whose better or not... it's about being educated about other ppl's religion and in simple history... it's about tolerance and humanity.... don't be so narrow-minded and judge those you perceive to be different from you. We're all brothers and sisters...

      September 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • J.W

      Sarah are you married?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bibletruth

      He probably thought Catholicism was Christianity or representative of Christianity, (which couldnt be further from the truth) so didnt look further regarding Christianity. I wish I could sit with him a couple of hours.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      @Sarah – Sorry but you're ignorant of your own religion. First off, the majority of American men don't have women on the side, garbage statistic and you know it. Second, 13% are in polygamous relationships, that doesn't seem like an awfully high percentage for something so barbaric? Third, How does Islam empower women? Excluding western nations, the women are required to cover themselves, walk behind their husband, don't count as a full witness to a crime, etc, the list goes on.

      You may believe the nonsense you speak of because you live in America, however what you're saying is not even close to the truth.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • deano

      Oh, so some mexican is gonna come and lay it all down for us.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • J.W

      Everyone seems to be ignoring the real issue of whether or not Sarah is married.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      Go get her, JW. One of these days, it'll happen.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • J.W

      I think she left too Damian. I am scaring them all off. Soon Faith/Adelina/Zelda will be the only woman regularly on this blog

      September 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • John

      Come on Sarah, here in Indonesia they use religion as excuses to have more wives and ask women to bear the polygamous marriage since 'these' women will straightly go to heaven.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  6. carnivalbarker

    ritual & dogman isnt that all religion

    September 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  7. prophet

    its really great that this chap has gone away from the catholic religion but he's jumped out of the pan into the .....

    Obviously he left the catholic religion because he was disappointed with it and this is absolutely understandable but he should of just began to believe in God and not gone to another religion and whilst the people are related its not the people that are the problem its the religion and the idealogy.

    Many people who were once muslims are becoming christians and a lot of them are

    September 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • deano

      and vice versa.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Cheeseburger

    Hmm. So the Muslims have an ally that practices the theo-political system pretending to be a religion. I wonder if he is "devout" and believes all infidels must be converted or killed or just a regular "Sunday Baptist?"

    September 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Sarah

      Clearly you haven't read the Bible, or much less know that what the Torah refers to as "goyim" essentially means... wait for it (!).. "infidel!". Please educate yourself in simple religious doctrine and human history... whatever you accuse Islam of being isn't actually limited to Islam; never mind the fact that "infidel" derives from the Christian Crusaders ...and not Muslims.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Cheeseburger

      One does not need to be "educated" in the particulars of the theory when the practice is so evident.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Sarah

      Right. I see what you mean... i recall names like Anders Breivik, Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph etc. and organizations like the IRA, National Liberation Front of Tipura, National Christian Army, Lord's Resistance Army, KKK, and a dozen more terrorist organizations 🙂 You're right, actions speak louder than words... or the text, I suppose. 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • BG

      @ Sarah

      "... i recall names like..."

      All one-hit-wonder / flash-in-the-pan 'wannabes' when compared to the 1400 years of terror and oppression from organized Islam.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  9. Colin

    I would say that he is no longer associated with the Worldwide Order of Kiddie-Fiddlers, but, then again, Mohammed's wife was three years younger that Warren Jeff's youngest victim (who was 12) when Mohammed "married" her and started having $ex with the poor nine-year old little girl.

    Disgusting.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  10. Muneef

    Now that he became to be known as a Muslim,guess only from now he will become to feel what Muslims face due their faces,color,dress and names... Which were all hidden for him all this time but now became to the screen... People will not judge him for his achievements but rather for his Religion,Faith,Belief... GOD be with you brother Keith Ellison..

    September 1, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  11. theDude

    impeach him.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  12. LoveNotHate

    Wow. I shouldn't be surprised at some posts on here but I am. I cannot believe there are so many people that say there isn't a God. How sad. Imagine how amazing your life would be if you believed. It's because of God that you draw breath. It's because of God that you are able to sit in front of a computer or a smart-phone and voice your opinions. To each his or her own, but I think it's a sad state of affairs when people lose faith. As for Ellison, his faith doesn't have anything to do with his job so long as he upholds the law. Just because he isn't a Christian or Jewish doesn't make him a bad person nor does it make him any better. It's his religion and he has the freedom to chose to believe and practice what he believes. As far as what Islam teaches, I wish people wouldn't judge any religion without getting information first. I am not Muslim, but I have many people in my life who are and I am proud to call them friend. The culture of certain countries may allow for mistreatment of women, but it's not the religion. People need to learn the difference. One country, for example, may require that women wear full Islamis dress while another country is more open to Western style dress. It's cultural, not religious. Some areas in some countries, our own included, feel it's ok that a woman stay in the home and birth babies and stand over a hot stove all day, while others, even where there is a majority of Muslims, encourage women to pursue careers or run for office, etc. Stop blaming religion for people's actions.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • DB COpper

      Just because people refuse to believe in fair tales and mythology does not mean they do not enjoy life. It is foolish to assume that because you believe in a God/gods you are some how happier and more fulfilled then someone who does not.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  13. P54

    Who is this Muslim god that they praise when they do acts like this? Is this the god of the Muslims and is this what their god tell them to do? See video:

    http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/08/video_shows_taliban.php

    September 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  14. Chedar

    Christian, Muslim and Jews are not difference. They all came from Abraham. So there should be a surprise to get converted from Chrisitianity, to Muslim back to Chriistian on the way to Judasim. So there you go. The only difference is they kill each other.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Mary

      God bless you!

      September 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • mnemos

      Actually it would be very surprising – not converting from Christianity or Judaism to Islam of course – it would be very interesting if he converted back to Christianity from Islam, since that is apostasy and punishable by death in most Islamic countries. Even in the West when a high profile Muslim converts it tends to bring death threats (cf Magdi Allam). THAT would be surprising.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • neednottoknow

      hmmm.... that is not a difference.... they all do so they are still the same... I believe that is kinda true to all humans...

      September 1, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Lark

      An intelglinet point of view, well expressed! Thanks!

      January 28, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • litcspetf

      RIxZnL awqjsubislaf

      January 28, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • ofplapj

      Tk3DnH xwdcmygyvbzc

      January 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  15. Jah

    Politicians will do anything for votes.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  16. Bob

    Islam is a foreign civilization and ideology with religious trappings. We view it as a religion like any other at our peril.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Fred1

      I view all religion as a great peril

      September 2, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  17. r-hope

    The good news is that we will all die – sooner or later and we will all get to know the truth – in full. The bad new is that it might be too late for most.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Fred1

      Even if I’m wrong about god not existing, I bet he’ll treat an honest atheist better than a butt licking believer

      September 2, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  18. Alfonzo Muchanzo

    My roommate is an atheist. Although ofcourse not all are like this, I'm merely expressing my opinion. He's a pretty angry and extremely selfish person. I'm not surprised that he doesn't believe in God, because he believes he can do no wrong, even when he obviously does. He always rationalizes his ways in his own head to make himself out to be right, thus no need for God when you are the most righteous person out there.

    As I said, this is merely my experience with someone whom I've grown close with (we used to be friends when we didn't hang around each other much), and I've had other similar encounters (mainly the selfish thing) with other atheists who are friends. Not all are like this, but I do find it to be more common.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Gray

      Your post is complete BS. If you don't like atheist just say so. No need to make up stuff. That would be like me saying most Christians I've known are self centered and rude. It would be complete BS.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Cheeseburger

      God is the glue that binds this nation together and as it dissolves, so does the nation. As your friend matures, I guarantee, he will believe in "something greater than himself" because belief in nothing at all leads to a miserable existence. He doesn't have to find "God" through an organized religion, and certainly not Islam.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      @Grey – Thanks for merely proving my point about the whole anger thing. I don't despise anybody, given that they treat people with respect and are decent, you however seem to lack that. I clearly stated that I was talking about what I have personally seen, it's not BS and is what I have experienced. If you don't believe me that's fine, but you should work on that temper of yours.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • agsn

      It is true atheist are generally self centered. But you miss-understand its meaning, it means they first look within them selves for the difficult answers and explanations, instead of always looking for an explanation from some one else. Being self center is a good thing as it means they know they are responsible for themselves as the are not "inclined" to rely on someone else (they are not used to waiting for divine help ). Where self centered become bad is when they cause uncalled for difficulty to other in their action, I do not think from your statements that he did, given u called him friend. As for the fact that they are rude, well!! If you say "I believe in god" and I say "I believe there is no God " I am going to bet you will call me rude, though all I did was state my belief just as you did. Don't you think I will feel you are rude to my belief if you ask me not to state what I believe in?. What I am trying to say is belief/faith is not like a difference of opinion, you will get hurt if some one has a conflicting one, just have to understand that.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • deano

      Is that your friend or just the other person in your head?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Fred1

      @Gary: it’s not BS. Most of the Christians I’ve known are self centered and rude and those are some of their better qualities

      September 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  19. darko

    Being a Muslim is irrelevant. The man's an idiot. He's shows it every time they put a mic in front of him.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  20. abaddon

    Congratulations sir, you have now gone the full retard.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.