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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. LB Colorado

    Minnesota put him there – Muslims are not our friends. Not sure how this all sounds to all of you, but Revelations has spoken of the evil uprising and how it will play out. HANG ON TO YOUR BUTTS.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      Minnesota also "put" Michele Bachmann there. DEFINITELY hold on to your butts! 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      The Book of Revelations reads like someone whose brain was fried in the desert and then took LSD...

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

      Really LB? Are you referring to Revelation 2:9 & 3:9 please be more specific as opposed to generalizing

      September 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Stevie7

      @LB – speak for yourself – I have plenty of muslim friends.

      And revelations is about as clear as a Nostradamus prediction. Or clear as mud. Or maybe slightly more clear than the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

      September 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  2. koruthu george

    He is a typical opportunist ,blaming his church,He may blame his parents also for raising.Ignore this kind people.May god give wisdom to know what is right.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      Your post doesn't make sense .... where is Ellison "blaming"? How is he an "opportunist"?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • JUSTICETO ALL

      He is also a liar.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  3. prophet

    the woman on here who wrote that she converted. Most of the western women who convert are really very unfortunate people and their private lives are a mess and this is how they try to be someone by converting and they do this deliberately so as to get noticed.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • rob

      are you a jesus guy? jesus himself said that he had not the last prophet. there will be at least one more after him. living in a lala land....

      September 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Shak

      Really so you can speak for us Western Woman who have chose to convert to Islam and generalize all of us under one banner. Talk about ignorant. You know nothing of the reasons I converted or other woman have. Do not talk about something you don't know, you sound ignorant. My personal life is far from a mess, in fact since my conversion 9 years ago I have been happier then I was before.

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

      the woman on here who wrote that she converted to Christianity. Most of the women who convert are really very unfortunate people and their private lives are a mess and this is how they try to be someone by converting and they do this deliberately so as to get noticed. Nothing get's you noticed like making the most money at the Church bake sale! "Screw Mary Anderson from down the street and her brownies, my lemon bars will win the day!" Talk about unfortunate...

      In all seriousness, there are many many stories I have read about women who turn to Jesus because they were abused, beaten and thrown away by their family's or husbands, this would be no different in Islam countries where wounded individuals look to something to believe in and be apart of when they are feeling so alone and abandoned.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  4. Aaron

    IMO having lived in the middle east for a year..... Islam merely enables people in power to hang on to their power by creating a nation of subserviance based solely on this religion. It holds people back from progressing as a civilization and as a human being. In other words..... even though most people who who practice Islam do it for the right reasons of trying to be a good person it basically boils down to a manipulative and evil religion.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Spongeon

      sounds like a general description of most religions.
      opiate for the masses, tool for the powerful.

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

      IMO having lived in America for many a year..... Christianity merely enables people in power to hang on to their power by creating a nation of subserviance based solely on this religion. It holds people back from progressing as a civilization and as a human being. In other words..... even though most people who who practice Christianity do it for the right reasons of trying to be a good person it basically boils down to a manipulative and evil religion...

      If the shoe fits...

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

      To the response on my post.... I agree.... I never said anything about Christianity being any different.... I do however believe that Islam takes it to a much higher degree of subserviance

      September 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  5. McJesus

    I believe in Lerprechauns. Can you write a story about me too?

    September 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • GodPot

      Well, if you got yourself elected and were trying to pass legislation to build a bridge to the end of a rainbow because you plan to solve our debt crisis with pot's of gold, then I'd be a little worried. Thankfully we only have 99% of our lawmakers pushing for laws to help bring about what they believe is the inevitible battle between good and evil on the plains of Megedo...

      September 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • McJesus

      sweet! I'm running for office!

      September 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Keith

    Relegion is always a good thing unless it is taken to extremes... anything taking to extremes is always bad .. ANYTHING!!!!

    September 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • cleareye1

      Even love?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Keith

      Yes even love taken to extremes is evil.. have u seen men and women that take their lov eto extremes what they do to each other??? Once she leaves .. he kills her just for love.... YES EXTREMISM IS EVIL....

      September 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      The extreme of love is obsession (in my opinion), and that would be a bad thing.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • McJesus

      Masturbation... *uh* can never *ooh* to be taken *eee* to extremes... *ah* Except when *fap* one runs *uh* out of *mm* vaseline.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  7. retired fed

    The muslims will PREVENT us from worshiping the way we want if they gain more footholds in this country. I watched a very interesting video on line, long about 90 minutes that gave very interesting information on ISLAM. Like, while allah is all for peace and getting along in his early years, once he becomes more popular and rich, he goes the other way. That is when the crap about killing any who will not convert comes up. Also tells of him killing an entire city of men, 800 – 900 by beheading and asking his followers to do as he does to the infidels, that is everyone else folks!! His other option is we can all be second class citizens, slaves I guess. Great religion! NOT

    September 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Keith

      This is what cruscaders said to ignite anger and war against muslims... u are generalizing which is a form of extremism.. u are an extremist.. extremism of any kind is eveil.... not relegion but extremism is evil....

      September 1, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Student

      Sir, if you insist upon insulting another religion, the least you could do is get the names right. Allah means God in Islam, the character you are talking about is Muhammad, the prophet. I'm not even a Muslim and I know that. How about you actually try reading the Quran before you judge an entire religion, rather than believing every word of some 90 minute anti-Islam propaganda show that you most likely saw on a Fox affiliate station.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • cleareye1

      All religions are the same. They are fantasy based and would not survive a generation if they didn't brainwash children before they learn how to think. Maybe Scientology differs, but what is Scientology?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  8. prophet

    I was best man at a muslims wedding and I know them, as I said its the religious aspect that changes what are otherwise good people. Don't balme the people blame the religion its a deception. The people in the religion are very misled and they need us to pray for them.

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

      muslim is the fastest growing religion in the world. there must be a reason for that. guys, let's give it a try and be open minded to learn about muslim. maybe islam have the best to offer.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • John

      easy, you get killed if you are free to believe in whatever you believe in Moslem countries in other part of the world you are free, even not to believe!!

      September 1, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  9. Spongeon

    these comments are amazing.

    islam is evil because it's not your religion, or because it might influence people's political decisions?

    every social conservative in america bases their entire opinion on their religion, rarely even trying to disguise it with talk about how society or the children would be adversely affected.
    which makes them true americans, as long as their religion is close enough to your own?
    there's thousands of deities out there that people worship. they're all filled with good and bad people.
    but none of the mumbo jumbo should be considered reasonable justification for anything in american politics.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  10. kingsley

    All these qualities that he is talking about, didn't he see it in christianity? or is it that those qualities ar enot in christianity? What does Jesus christ represent? He represents love and love encompasses everything.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  11. splasher6

    A Democrat converting to Islam... is this really news? They're already selling out the nation as fast as they can.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • GodPot

      Your God is dead, I know you are angry but get over it. America will recover from its addiction to intangible and imaginary deities and rise out of the rubble that was the racist, s e xist, greedy, bigoted religionists had tried to make it.

      Cheers 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • McJesus

      Jesus prefers me more than you. I know it, because he talks to me in my head and tells me so.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  12. Faithful

    Why does Congressman Elison's religious faith mater? It is a private thing between he and his God. This small mindedness makes me very sad.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • splasher6

      It matters when national security matters... I'll not bother to explain think about it in 9 days....

      September 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Steve

      you fool it does matter, if he is muslim, I am not going to vote for him, and I will not allow him to favor folks from his stupid religin islam, plain and simple. enough is enough, we will not tolerate all these non-sense, they come here on DV visa into the US and starts detroying it, without any contribution to the economy or anything, they are all on food stamp and goverment dole. Kick this guy and rest of them to another islamic nation, we do not need trash here...stop being liberal and melting pot etc crap.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • cleareye1

      You are tight of course, but the non-thinking "Christians" among us won't accept that. Why is it only the Christians are so upset about Muslim "encroachment?" The Buddhists don't care, neither do the Hindus. Even the Mormons don't care.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  13. J

    your faith is a joke based on the teachings of a pedophile

    September 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • McJesus

      catholicism is a joke because it is taught by pedophiles

      September 1, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  14. jarda cervenka

    if you read koran , especially the section on women and how to punish those who defect islam you'lll know what Ellison is talking about. Not to burn Koran but to read it will educate you. It is, in its basi, s extremely intolerant and dangerous. Those interested in the truth should get educated in Islam. IMPORTANT TODAY!

    September 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Shak

      You know oddly I did that jarda and instead of making me against Islam it made me understand it better and lead to my conversion, and I am a woman.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • retired fed

      Absoulutley agree! And Shak, did you read all the books that explain the koran? That is where all the information is. Check out snagfilms.com for islam.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Shak

      I did indeed and I watched "What One Billion Muslims Think" on Snag and I thought it was really well done and very informative. Some people on here need to watch it.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Spongeon

      many of the founding fathers had read and studied the koran and respected islam.

      america's standard view of islam seems to be akin to fred phelp's view of christianity.
      everyone should think about all the variation in christianity, and how "crazy" some of them sound, when making blanket assumptions about a religion of over a billion people.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  15. ma1961

    just send them all back, the middle east will hahe a democracy soon...just think about it

    September 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • zamedo66

      You mean send him back to Africa? Because if you obviously read the article, this guy is an african american. He has long family roots in america.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • McJesus

      Hey, I have some respect for the guy. At least he chose a religion other than the religion of those that enslaved his african ancestors. Right? 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  16. Jez

    I knew he was black. Another watered-down wannabe trying to get attention.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  17. Say What

    What is with all these articles about this subject? Stop spreading this crap.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  18. Shak

    I must say I just find these ignorant comments about Muslims in general sadly amusing. The fact that most likely 99% of those making them have never met a Muslim in person yet call them all manner of names is sad or say they are not Americans.

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

      I have interacted with many Muslims. but not many lately (in the last year) since I have moved. Some are easy to talk to regarding religion and some are sort of hostile at the mention, sort of like the average out there. Most of the ones that like to talk about religion like to dominate the conversation with huge generalities, like on here..lol...and many go right to the " the bible has been corrupted" path. It is very very important to them that the bible be "corrupted" as even they can see the vast superiority of the bible otherwise. So they are content with this. I do not let them be content concerning this matter. I dont argue about it, but after the second or third acquaintance I bring the subject up specifically and then go over it and show them the truth. It leaves them very discontented sometimes hostile, but if they are truth seekers the imparted knowledge will do its good work, and has. The defining factor is do they love God, i.e. truth. Many, among all people, love God or want to love God (when I say many, my guess is less than 1% to maybe 3%-I hope it could be that high) and will find the truth, as it is in Jesus.

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

      @shak – you just shutup, you do not have give us a lecture here on CNN blog, we already know ...what islam is all about, and a child abuser is your owner of that holy book koran, we know how islam treats women, we have seens their progress in the last 1400 years, they all live in ghettos, and they all talk nonsense, please get yourself brainwashed in the local mosque, you are doomed for like, try leaving islam and see what happens to you. Islam gives birth to hippocrats, terrorists and sucide bombers...you do not have to educate us here...we have seen all the examples in the islamic work starting from Indonesia to Libya, please leave the free world, and go and live in a ghetto in Libya, Yemen, Iran, egypt, they are going to democracy very soon. it is a religin of junk, ...we do not want koran, mosque and madrassa here in the US, keep it in Saudi Arabia, and live and die in Kabba, you are just another unwanted guest in America

      September 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  19. prophet

    we just read in the CNN news about two mentally ill palestinian girls were chained up, so this is this what thier religion teaches, chain up the mentally ill.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • zamedo66

      Ofcourse, a people of nationality A with religion B, preform action C. So: if A, then C. Therefore, B = C. Are you dumb?

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

      Wow could your like of thought be any more simplistic, that is a cultural issue not a religious one.

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

      no american or christian has ever abused a child, a woman, or a handicapped person, ever, though.
      thats how we know they're evil and the american christians are good, right?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  20. Robert

    Why is this even a story. Muslims are leaving Islam in droves. But don't ask most muslims about this, they just deny it.

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

      The amazing thing is that you can't even leave Islam without. If you convert to Christianity or any other religion from Islam you should be punished by death according to the Qur'an. Mr. Ellison, I'm sorry for you that you chose this life. Islam was spread through the sword rather than through faith. Islam is a cult based on faith for this false pedophile prophet who was supposedly chosen by God.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Rick

      Funny is that you don't have any facts. Fact is Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world by conversion. You should google fastest growing religion in the world and check for yourself. In the period of 1990-2000, approx 12.5 million MORE people converted to Islam than Christianity.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Qublai Khan

      Ellie, I'll give you one million dollars if you can substantiate your claim from the Quran. Just cite the verse from the Quran according to which the punishment for conversion out of Islam is death, and collect one million dollars from me. Wanna take it?

      September 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Your Name Here

      I have a question Rick. What does "fastest growing religion" have to do with anything? More people are going to hell than not????

      September 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Stevie7

      @Your Name Here
      Nope, just that people are substi.tuting one imaginary being for another at a high rate.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Fred1

      @Qublai Khan: Then explain why Ayaan Hirsi Ali (you know the famous apostate )needs 24 hour a day body guards?

      September 2, 2011 at 6:55 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.