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Amid partisan din, Sen. James Lankford walks a fine line: Pastor and politician

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., visits with constituents during the LibertyFest parade on the Fourth of July in Edmond, Okla., north of Oklahoma City. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) — As music plays softly and the Quail Springs Baptist Church prepares to sing “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling,” the guest speaker urges the crowd to bow and pray.

“Here’s my very simple invitation,” the fill-in preacher tells the congregation. “There’s a God who loves you and will walk with you through some very difficult things. Are you interested in coming to know him?”

It’s a traditional altar call — the kind offered in countless evangelical churches each Sunday.

What makes this one unusual is the person behind the pulpit: U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a rising political star who mixes a boyish, Opie Taylor-like face with a booming, bass voice.

In the nation’s capital, Lankford’s weekdays consist of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and frequent cable news appearances to discuss policy questions ranging from national security to health care.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, describes Oklahoma Republican James Lankford as one of his best friends in the Senate. King says his fellow Senate Intelligence Committee member is smart, morally and ethically grounded and doesn’t come across as partisan. Photo by Joy Holder

“He’s one of the most respected members of the Senate, even though he’s only been there two years,” said Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “He’s deeply respected on both sides of the aisle.”

But each weekend, the former youth pastor flies home to Oklahoma and worships with the Quail Springs church, a large Southern Baptist congregation in this Bible Belt state capital. Here, the senator insists, he’s not “The Honorable James Lankford.” He’s simply “James,” husband of Cindy and father of Hannah and Jordan.

When senior pastor Hance Dilbeck went on vacation this month, he asked Lankford to preach at all three morning services on two straight Sundays. Lankford didn’t hesitate to oblige.

Likewise, Lankford turned to his faith when a gunman opened fire June 14 on the Republican congressional baseball team: Lankford prayed on the Senate floor for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and three others who were wounded.

Despite Lankford’s increasing national prominence, the 49-year-old lawmaker says he remains more a pastor than a politician.

“This feels more like home,” Lankford says as familiar church members line up to greet him after the service, telling him they pray for him and encouraging him to remain strong.

A nudge from God

In 2010, Lankford — who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas — was a political neophyte.

For 14 years, he had directed Falls Creek Youth Camp, a Bible camp that each summer draws more than 50,000 young people to southern Oklahoma.

But through months of Scripture reading and prayer, Lankford said he and his wife felt God nudging them to “get ready.”

Get ready for what? He had no idea — until he read in the newspaper that then-Rep. Mary Fallin was giving up her U.S. House seat to run for governor.

“I just remember leaning back in my chair, and I had this overwhelming sense,” Lankford said of the spiritual clarity he felt.

Add his prowess at social media — Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — extensive connections with the state’s roughly 650,000 Southern Baptists and his willingness to do his homework and educate himself on the issues, and he created an unbeatable formula.

“All across Oklahoma, in all our Baptist churches, they all knew him,” said the Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, a statewide association of 1,800 congregations. “While he is supported by far more than Baptists, he had a core group of people who encouraged and passionately worked for him.”

Supports Trump, not his tweets

After just four years in the House, Lankford was elected in 2014 to fill the final two years of former Sen. Tom Coburn’s unexpired term.

Then, in November 2016, Lankford breezed to a full six-year Senate term, receiving 68 percent of the vote, topping the 65 percent support President Trump got in the dark-red Sooner State.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., center, and his wife, Cindy, right, visit with constituents during the LibertyFest parade on the Fourth of July in Edmond, Okla., north of Oklahoma City. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

But while Lankford and Trump both won Oklahoma big, their approaches to politics could not be more different.

Trump is brash and willing to spew venom on his political enemies. Lankford stresses the importance of treating everyone with dignity: “Every person is created in God’s image and has value and worth regardless of their political party.”

Nationally, white evangelical support for Trump surged even as some high-profile evangelicals, including Southern Baptist Russell Moore, railed against Trump’s behavior toward immigrants, women and other groups as un-Christian.

Lankford did not endorse a candidate in Oklahoma’s GOP presidential primary, won by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Later, Lankford cited Trump’s policy positions — limited government, anti-abortion, pro-religious freedom — as reasons for supporting his party’s nominee.

But Lankford’s emphasis on kindness and civility has kept him from fully embracing Trump or the anger-fueled movement that propelled him into the White House. In October 2016, Lankford told a Tulsa Regional Chamber luncheon that he would “go to bed grieved” on Election Night, regardless of which presidential candidate won.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is part of a bipartisan Bible study with Oklahoma Republican James Lankford. Photo by Rebecca Hammel

“He’s definitely sincere about his faith, and it’s absolutely a guidepost in his public service,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a Roman Catholic who joins a weekly bipartisan Bible study with Lankford and other senators.

Just last week, at a Fourth of July parade in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, a gray-haired gentleman wearing a patriotic T-shirt and a steel-building company cap shook Lankford’s hand and commented on the media’s negative treatment of Trump.

“He can bring it on himself sometimes,” Lankford told the man. “He loves a scrap.”

Lankford characterizes himself as a supporter of Trump and the vast majority of the president’s policies. At the same time, the Oklahoma senator has not been shy about voicing objections, particularly on Trump’s use of Twitter.

That dual role — support for the Republican president and criticism of him — has been evident this summer.

In the wake of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before Congress, Lankford appeared to go easy on Trump. The senator told the media Trump’s request that Comey back off the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn was “more like an inappropriate conversation than obstruction” of justice.

But after Trump tweeted June 29 about MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” Lankford responded: “National and local leaders, including our President, should model civility, honor, and respect in our political rhetoric. The President’s tweets today don’t help our political or national discourse and do not provide a positive role model for our national dialogue.”

King — the Maine senator — said he and Lankford often disagree on issues, but he appreciates his friend’s thoughtful manner.

“There’s too much partisanship in the Senate, too much demonizing of one another,” said King, an Episcopalian who is a part of the weekly Bible study. “It really helps to get to know each other as people or Christians or Jews or whatever. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘You can’t hate someone if you know the names of their kids.’ And I’ve met James’ daughters and his wife; he’s met my wife. I consider him to be a very, very valued friend.”

No politics in this sermon

As Lankford sees it, politics don’t belong in the pulpit.

“When I preach, it is just the Gospel and the truth of Scripture, and we’ll walk through that together,” he said.

James Lankford on stage at Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, where he preached at all three morning services on July 9, 2017. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Why then did Lankford — joined by Louisiana congressman Scalise — introduce a measure earlier this year to let houses of worship speak freely about electoral activity without running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service?

The senator said the Free Speech Fairness Act addresses the shortcomings of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. Trump signed an executive order May 4 gutting enforcement of the law.

“The Johnson Amendment needs to go away because it’s unconstitutional,” Lankford said. “Now, there are people who say churches shouldn’t talk about politics. I completely agree with that. But it’s a different thing to say ‘should not’ as opposed to ‘could not.’ … We shouldn’t limit their speech or have anyone on the outside say this certain group can’t speak.”

On this Sunday at church, Lankford stays true to his word. He avoids any hint of partisanship.

However, he can’t help but relate his assigned sermon topic — stress — to his work in Washington.

“My wife can gauge my stress level by how pretty the backyard is this season,” he tells the church. “Because for me, when I come home back from D.C., I’m typically out in the backyard, pulling weeds, pruning, planting and puttering around. And if the yard looks really good — which, by the way, it looks really good this year — she’ll say, ‘How about your stress level right now?’”

Then he delivers the punch line: “The backyard is one of those places I can work for several hours and turn around and say, ‘Look, something actually got done!’”

The congregation laughs and applauds, as Lankford opens his Bible and — for the next 30 minutes — puts the focus on Jesus.

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

13 Comments

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  • It is my understanding that the Johnson Amendment only prohibits churches from endorsing specific candidates. It is not unconstitutional because it hasn’t been ruled such by the SCOTUS. I suppose, given the differences of opinion, this will eventually end up there.

    By the way, a PR firm couldn’t have done a better job on his image than this article did. I was ready to nominate him for sainthood until the article revealed his political positions.

  • I don’t think the Johnson Amendment will EVER end up there. The IRS will never take it that far, IMO, because it will be dead on arrival. It will either be repealed outright or vegetate on the books indefinitely.

  • I don’t recall it ever being enforced but no one has pushed yet and this is the right climate. I was thinking of Trump’s executive order and this proposed legislation, if passed, and their impact. Based on previous articles there seems to be little demand for it from mainstream clergy.

  • Every year since 2008 over 2000 pastors have participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in which they deliberately violate the Johnson Amendment in hopes of getting it to the SCOTUS. Only one has been audited and none punished.

    It’s true there is little demand from mainstream clergy. Black clergy are much more gung ho for a repeal, but of course predominantly black churches have always been the heart of the political civil rights movement.

  • I can think of no legitimate reason why pastors should not be able to endorse candidates, it is both a question of free speech and conscience, as well as freedom of association. What is constitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court may be codified in law, but that does not make the Court infallible. That said, I applaud Mr. Lankford’s reticence, others would mostly do well to emulate him.

  • The government can put restrictions on their tax-exempt status. The Ammendment makes it illegal to do so but the courts haven’t ruled it unconstitutional.

  • Yes, of course, I’m aware of the potential tax implications, I simply think that they are an unreasonable and unwarranted intrusion of government employing a fiscal punishment to limit free speech.

  • The Johnson Amendment allowed Obama’s IRS to attempt wide-open, blatant censorship on the Rev. Billy Graham, back around 2012.

    They attacked Graham because of a North Carolina newspaper ad in which Graham (1) encouraged NC voters to vote *against* legalized gay marriage (which Obama was totally crusading *for*), and (2) to vote for “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles.”

    At NO time did Billy Graham’s newspaper ad endorse or even mention any specific candidates, politicians, or parties. Nor did it say to vote against any names. But the IRS tried to attack and punish Graham anyway, using the Johnson Amendment.

    Thankfully, Trump’s recent “religious liberty” order has now exorcised any further devilment on the part of the IRS, at least until the SCOTUS says otherwise.

  • My paternal grandfather & his identical twin were both SBC preachers. Their disdain for Billy Graham was due to his mixing politics & religion and I’m certain they would feel the same about all of the current crop of preachers/politicians. The SBC knew full well what the consequences are when the two are mixed as it is a direct descendant of the Calvinists, founded by John Calvin & Oliver Cromwell. The Baptists were quite aware of the dangers and asked Thomas Jefferson to include separation of church & state in our Constitution and spelled out their reasons in a letter from the Danbury Baptist Church.

    The last time church & state were unified in North America people were burned at the stake.

  • You can paint Lankford as a good southern Baptist to us in Oklahoma, but in DC, he’s another rino. Supporting things we are against, failing the voters of Oklahoma, AGAIN. We support Trump, we approve of his brassiness in calling out the failures of the GOP, we want change, not the same old, same old anymore. When Lankford showed up standing at the elbow of McConnel: we knew he wasn’t listening or acting on our behalf. To bad he’s not at the WH each day praying with their prayer group, Pence and Pres. Trump, then maybe he’d receive our trust, because now he has lost it. We PRAY to OUR GOD for a conservative senator who support our President’s agenda to make our country great again. And drain the swamp, and it goes down drain, so be it.

  • It’s refreshing to see a senator of his caliber representing the Republican Party. His relationship with fellow representatives in the Bible study is one small step to building the collegiality the Congress so badly needs. Too bad he gives Trump such a wide support.

  • “Well Versed: Biblical Answers To Today’s Tough Questions by James Garlow” This book has an excellent chapter on the issue of the Johnson Amendment among other issues. I highly recommend the book. My pastor (the author of the book) is one of the original “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” Pastors. He is definitely well versed on the issues of our day. This book will help all who read it, become well versed, too. :o)

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