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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. *frank*

    Muslims pray by kneeling with their face in a man's ass.
    I pray by kneeling with my face in a woman's ass.
    I prefer my way.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • 21k

      amen, brother. amen.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • hawaii

      ole frankie-u and ur dirty atheistic tricks , shame on u! using prayer as a tactic ???

      September 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • sniffiy Frank

      Yes I do!!!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      lol @ frank amen!!!!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  2. RT

    Why isn't he praying on the floor like others... may be a special consideration for the first muslim congressman.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Warren Joe

      your intellect is in your nose...Watch the video again, His leg is hurt... OMG...

      September 1, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Fawzy-deen

      Because is leg is hurt and in Islam no one is special not even the first Muslim U.S president!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • rus

      because his leg is hurt you retard

      September 1, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Kyle

      Fawz we already got ourselves a muslim pres.

      He aint welcome here down these parts. No sir we got a sign that says "keep out obama hussein we dont want your kind here worshiping the devil"

      And if he ever does come here we gonna tell him to leave and take his koran and his ugly wife and kids with him back to DC and tell him he needs to do some work.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  3. Ahmad

    This is an Alarm for Americans and for the rest of the free world. Islam has entered your politics. You wold think these people will not make decisions based on their faith, but you will be surprised. Islam has entered American Politic and Legislation. Get ready for SHARIA coming up in the next few years.
    Islam means going back 1400 years in history. Islam is BARBARIC.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Diane

      Guess you and "Ali" are playing....let's pick a Muslim name and spam the thread. Go back under your rock.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • EGYPTIAN

      I hope they listen, apparently they are soooooo blind and ignorant.

      September 3, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  4. Billy Offspring

    As an atheist you can imagine how I feel when "ANY" elected official brings his or her religion into government as a credential. It was the Christian majority that stood by and allowed slavery to exist for 175+ years after this nation was born. It was the Christian majority that allowed discrimination by law to woman and minorities for decades. Texas' Perry has pledge to discriminate against 10% of Americans that identify as Gay. I am not singling out Christians, less progressive religions and sects can be called out on the freedoms women have in a male run culture. Islam right is not so far from the Christian right in its desire to control it's followers. Having said all that I have met many religious people that don't judge others and are kind and follow the principles of respect and love for fellow humans. Unfortunately these people never get elected to public office.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  5. Ali

    limit Muslim immigration before they become the majority and through democracy and by voting put Burka on your wives and daughter faces, close down bars and Casinos, Islamitize TV programs, and make you kiss your freedom goodbye!

    September 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • *frank*

      Are these villains going to take away my MTV?!?

      September 1, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Humane

      "Ali" is a Muslim name, pronounced a bit differently. Ironic how that worked out.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  6. Joop Kaashoek

    Why did he have to look for another faith after catholicism? Was the concept of not believing in mysticism too much for him to handle?

    September 1, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • hawaii

      the best alternative was obviously islam, after all the positive images it carries it was the easy winner!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  7. garc

    I've got a solution to all this: Everybody have his or her god or lack thereof and leave everybody's else's god the hell out of it (pardon the pun). It's none of your business and it should have nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  8. sofas

    All you paranoid people thinking "conversion" when you read this article just don't seem to be getting it. This is about "So you say you've never met a Muslim before? Well, here, meet Keith Ellison, your average every American joe you would meet on the street: honest, hard-working, peace loving, family man, who just wants to lead an honest and good life, and oh, he happens to be Muslim." Like millions of other muslims in America and billions of Muslims in the world you have never met before, but feel so threatened by. Get over it.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  9. Will

    I think people should make him resign because he has been elected based on a deception.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Ali

      I think people should make government limit Muslim immigration before they become the majority here

      September 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • garc

      Deception by politicians....You mean like WMD in Iraq?

      September 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  10. Ali

    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. ISLAM MEANS going back to the STONE AGES.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Ewa

      Thanks Ali, in the name of women.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Faiaz

      Oh please. You were never a Muslim. You are just insecure that Christians convert to Islam at a much higher rate than Muslims convert to Christianity. You are probably an ignorant American. How clever... "Let's put that my name is Ali and say that I renounced Islam so my ego feels better." Good job idiot.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Diane

      Exactly my thoughts! "ALI" is a shill to promote hatred. Frankly, such people are the biggest threat to our security.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • jenny76

      astafurallah

      September 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  11. Keith Long

    How many of us infidels does the congressman have to kill to remain a muslim in good standing?

    September 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  12. Olga

    This is how they sneak in and next thing you know we have Sharia law, burkas and child marriages.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Ali

      I cannot agree more....The number of Muslim immigrant has increased significantly and they give birth to 10 kids in every family. Before you know it, they are in majority.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Diane

      Wow....this has to be the most ignorant statement out there.....IGNORANCE is scary, not a Muslim Representative!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Diane

      And ALI.....I don't believe you are who you say you are. You sound like a SHILL coming on this thread to promote hatred.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • garc

      Whereas if we ruled entirely by the Bible we would have scenarios like the following: "Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourself every girl who has never slept with a man." "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array" (unlike fundamentalist Islam, right?), etc.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  13. Bo

    I don't even know how to get responses

    September 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • A Theist

      Ok well I have to get going, but basically to my knowledge there isn't a way to receive notifications that you've received a response–at least I haven't found one yet. You sort of just need to track what message boards you've been messaging on. I imagine there's a way to configure it in the privacy settings or something, but I haven't had the time to look into it. Good luck!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  14. Oops

    do you think everyone got it wrong and jesus really wasn't on a cross, rather the jews were simply putting him on an airplane pointed to heaven?

    September 1, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • ed washatka

      The Jews didn't put Jesus on a cross or an airplane. The Romans crucified Jesus as they did anyone who posed a threat to Roman rule by stirring the masses.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  15. Bo

    ===================Help I usullay use my cellpone and I have a few minuets on this computer, but it is not like my phone. I don't reconize any name here

    September 1, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Bo

      I guess nobody wants to help me

      September 1, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • A Theist

      Recognize a name? Can you describe the problem in a little more detail?

      September 1, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • BG

      @ Bo

      What the problem?

      September 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  16. Peter

    its a shame that people feel the need to identify with any cult (oops! I meant religion) Its as if you cant just be a good person without something to hang it on or create a reason to be such a person.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  17. edka

    He is not the first muslim. Barak Husain Obama was the first

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

      You guys' only problem with this is that you had a problem with his going to the CHURCH, not mosque, of REVEREND, not Imam, Jeremiah Wright. Oops! You kind of have to pick one conspiracy theory or another, don't you, to cover up your real problem with him?

      September 1, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  18. Bill Henderson

    It's interesting that Rep. Ellison is working so hard just to end up in hell. Jesus said," I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes through the Father except through me." No one means exactly that – no one. That doesn't leave any ambiguity. Jesus is either who He said He is or he is from the pit of hell. There is no middle ground. Rep. Ellison has chosen a false path.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • *frank*

      You're either an idiot or an imbecile. There is no middle ground.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Peter

      ph please Bill, get off it already. Thats what YOU choose to BELIEVE.. There is no truth but what each of us chooses to believe. Its extreme nuts like yourself that create the hatred in this world. Keep your cult to yourself.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Bill Henderson

      All I am saying is what Jesus said. He leaves it up to the individual to believe or not. Your choice.

      September 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • heynow

      omigosh!!! Not HELL!!!

      September 1, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  19. Really now

    If you are hating on a certain group, that's the work of Satan if you believe in fairy tales.

    Now I don't believe in either religion because all religions are nuts.

    If there is a god, he would be sending all you bigots to hell (if there is such a place) for the hate/murder etc of others among yourself and other religions. To all religion, doesn't matter I don't give a f: Congratulations you are epic failures. – God.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  20. bigbiz2

    What an ignorant lying stooge. Who would convert to a "idiology" that makes women cover their head,can't pray with their family,pray five times a day(on the ground) have "sharia law " that trumps democratic law...truly a political ideology and not a religion

    September 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • garc

      "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection." "Whose adorning let it not be that outward [adorning] of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel." But don't worry–it's not just against the women: "The Lord commands: "... slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women" (Ezekiel 9:4-6)

      September 1, 2011 at 7:24 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.