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. dsallen

    Dropping everything to face east and pray isn't ritual?

    September 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Judge NOT...

      NO. It is discipline and respect.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Judge NOT...

      It is submission. It is Faith.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • um...

      it's those things, but also a ritual.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  2. DiscipleofElijah

    @danny who posted @ 5:59PM

    You question LB Colorado, but he never mentioned a chapter or verse of Revelation in his post @ 5:46PM

    You mentioned Revelation 2:9 and 3:9. The 1st 3 chapters of Revelation are to the 7 churches, i.e. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos,Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  3. Religion of laws

    I too left Catholicism because it felt like a bunch of empty rituals. The message of salvation in veiled in mystery. I'm thankful for people who do a better job of communicating the messag of the Bible or I woudl not be a Christian today.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  4. RonnieReagan

    Anyone notice this pattern?

    Again the SHAMEFUL cnn promoting islam and aethism at the expense of Christianity. I wonder what the schmucks at CNN will do when they realize the hammer is about to be dropped on their daughters by all the MOOSLIMS.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • jamal

      CNN and MSNBC both. They have been promoting Islam heavily for the past 10 years and the past few years they have been increasing their efforts. I am not sure why? Maybe the King of Saudi or Ayatollahs in Iran, or maybe the Muslim Brotherhood is sending huge compensations!!!!!

      September 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  5. jamal

    I am an Ex-Muslim. I am free, I am happy and I am now a proud Infidel......Islam is the religion of hate and suffocation. Islam is the religion of wife beating and polygamy. Islam is the anti-women religion and it hates free thinking. Islam is a crime against humanity.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • RonnieReagan

      Thank you for speaking the truth Jamal. Somebody has to when CNN ignores the facts.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      Good riddance, I'm sure the masjid you attended smells a lot better.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Ahmed Saoudy

      The so called anti-woman religion
      1- gave woman the right of inheritance 1400 years ago
      2- Gave the woman the right to own property and mange her finances without the authority of her husband.
      3- Insisted on the right of woman to accept or reject marriage
      4- gave the woman the right to divorce. i.e. get out of a failed marriage..
      Check other ways of life before accusing Islam. If you wer a muslim , you must have known these things.
      This is just one comment..

      September 1, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • BG

      @ Ahmed Saoudy


      It seems that your women don't agree with your 'interpretations.'

      September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • BG

      An even more descriptive essay about women in islam.


      September 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  6. Parkerman

    I am not going to say that one religion is better than another, but the lifestyle of Islam is not the lifestyle of the western civilization. I am concerned simply that our lifestyle and the laws and culture that made this country great will be lost. Look how made Muslim run countries are. I do not want any impact Muslim law just because we have Muslim congressman. It does not mix.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • jamal

      Islam destroy any country and cultures that enters. You add Islam to the politic of any country and you can kiss freedom goodbye. There have been may proud and civilized culture that Islam destroyed and continues to destroy!

      September 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  7. Paul

    A journey of a thousand milies begins with one step. Converting a country to Islam begins with one representative. Islam has a foot in the door.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Dan

      Converting from what? Our country isn't any one faith, that was the whole point of America. I am honestly sad you feel this way....so closed minded.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  8. jamal

    one more addition to morons on this earth!

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

    Fact is none of you really know. And if you don't know something, maybe you should just shut up.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  10. Ahmed Saoudy

    To Michael,
    I am a Muslim and say that the verses you quoted ifrom the Quran are correct.. However, we , Muslims understand these verses as they came at the time when the Muslims were in Madina (believers) and the disbelievers were in Mekka. The war between the two groups took about 10 years since Mohamed PBUH immigrated to medina from Mekka evading swords men standing at his door to slay him. The war ended when Muslims took Mekka
    There was a war for 10 years and Quran was revealed over 23 years ( 13 before immigration). Quran verses were revealed to tell Muslims what to do in certain cases at these times. We understand them this way. Most Muslims study the Quran (not just the translation), to understand why every verse was revealed. We have interpretation books of the Quran that use Mohamed’s (PBUH) sayings, his companions saying to understand why every verse was revealed.
    One last point, in the Quran, Christians and Jews are referred to as people of the book. Also the disbelievers were the idol worshippers who were fighting the new state of Islam.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • garc

      Educated people get it. Unfortunately, the political climate is such here that people are looking for a scapegoat.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Judge NOT...

      Thank you Ahmed.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Fred1

      In an attempt to polish Islam's image, Muslim activists usually quote verses from the Quran that were written in the early days of the Islamic movement while Mohammed lived in Mecca. Those passages make Islam appear loving and harmless because they call for love, peace and patience. Such is a deception. The activists fail to tell gullible people that such verses, though still in the Quran, were nullified, abrogated, rendered void by later passages that incite killing, decapitations, maiming, terrorism and religious intolerance. The latter verses were penned while Mohammed’s headquarters was based in Medina.

      September 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  11. dan

    If God can create Adam with no father or mother, why cannot he create Jesus from only a mother.
    Who created this universe, earth, the million and million of species? Jesus? I don't think so! Only God has the power to create and provide powers to whomever he wish. He is the only one who can answer our prayers, and he forgive and give his blessing to whomever he wishes irrespective to what religion they chose. Native Americans knew it, Jewish knew it.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  12. Jon

    Don't care if he were a Hari krishna, as long as he does his job. Separation of church and government no longer apply's?

    September 1, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Excellent point. How come nobody questions their mechanic's or roofer's religion? Because all we care about is if he can fix our car or stop that leak.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Paul

      There is no such seperation under islam and islam is coming baby.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  13. So what

    He left rituals and dogma he says, can someone explain why he is a muslim?

    September 1, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  14. ccjuarez

    A step down isnt it?

    Move on up and convert to Atheism

    September 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • jamal

      absolutely! lol

      September 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      You're right. Atheism is just another religion with it's own dogma. Go agnostic. It's the true way.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • GlennUpNorth


      September 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Fred1

      @Knucklehead: Atheism is not a religion in the same way that bald is not a hair color

      September 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  15. Sara

    First muslim member of Congress? Let's hope he's the last.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      You're quite an American. The founding fathers would be proud.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Aziz

      wow, thanks Sara. 🙂

      September 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Parkerman

      Agree, its not a matter of hate, its a matter of losing our western lifestyle. Islam is a culture not just a religion, its what those governments were formed around. I personally do not want to have to deal with any muslim imposed laws in our country.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Parkerman, sounds like you're for the separation of church and state. Good for you.

      Protect your lifestyle? This is America. People can live however they want. If it turns out your way ends up to be the minority, tough. Try to be strong and don't cry out for someone to protect your "lifestyle." Sprout a pair.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Paul

      Freedom of religion is what made america grate. It will also destroy america.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      He's the first, not the only one silly Sara...

      September 1, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      Andre Carson is the other Muslim congressman for Indiana's 7th district.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  16. Qularkoo

    works related salvation (earning one's way into heaven) is appealing to men and women ... because then they can take credit (and glory) to themselves. It started with Adam and Eve when the Devil tempted them with "you will be like God". But, in reality only God can save us ... and He has determined to do that only through faith in Jesus Christ.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Hey!

      go preach elsewhere

      September 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Kebos

      If this were the case then what is Jesus waiting for? An invitation? If you asked me, he's a big procrastinator. He needs to read a book like "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and become more like many of us.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Fred1

      God sacrificed himself, to himself, to appease himself, to change a rule that he made in the first place. So he won't have to roast us alive, his beloved creation, for ever and ever. He loves us so much, we cannot even comprehend, but if we don't love him back, he will hasta la vista our soul into the molten lava jaccuzzi for all eternity.

      September 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  17. Judge NOT...

    As a Christian, I read the Quran after 9/11 because I couldn't believe the news that a Book of God could incite people in such a negative way. I was right, the Holy Quran confirms the Bible and vice versa if you read them both with an open mind. I am very happy that I read both because both teach the right lessons. For those of you nay sayers that say religion is a way to manipulate the weak-minded, how little you know about life and how little you know about your own potential. Read both as books, then study both as a life lesson. By doing this you will find your place in the World and after. God reigns, God is great and God gives peace to those that seek it. Instead of criticizing others, look inward at your emptiness and know that there is an answer, ONE answer. If you can't understand it, I truly pity you.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • Kebos

      I have read both books. Them were written by man for man. There is nothing in these books that could not have written been written by man. Religion is about power, control and wealth. Nothing more. Moral behavior and support for mankind does not the lies of religion.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Judge NOT...

      That is why you are empty, Kebos.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Ramy E

      You obviously understand what many people can't even comprehend. I wish more people could be as open minded as you are.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  18. George

    Who cares?

    September 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  19. sofas

    Many of the people who post on this website seem to never met or befriended a Muslim person and therefore put the face of terrorism on every Muslim they never met. This is why it is important to expose people such as these, people who have never left their little oyster shells, to one of millions of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims in America and one of billions of law abiding Muslims in the world. That is the significance of this story. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming a developed , civilized nation, & super power that is a breeding ground for haters and paranoid nut cases such as the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian terrorist) in this ever shrinking, increasingly global world.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • garc

      Thank you.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  20. RD

    If he really knew who Christ is, he wouldn't have ever "converted". To know who Jesus is makes other religions invalid. I know this sounds simple minded and one-sided and all that, but it is true.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • spiralbrain

      Funny, because thats what Muslims say about Mohammed which of course, makes your point completely invalid.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Kebos

      No RD, it's simple-minded. I was where you are 20 years ago. Thank goodness my eyes were opened to becoming a non-believer. I enjoy life more and I recognize the good in life and indeed mankind without being under the influence of something that is an illusion and deceitful.

      September 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • spiralbrain

      Or you can think of it this way: My religion is better than your religion. And back and forth and back and forth and so on and so on...

      September 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      What are you talking about RD? Jesus wasn't a Christian. He was kidnapped by you Christians and lied on. So what are you talking about?

      September 1, 2011 at 7:31 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.