Faith in the Public Square
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford
Editor’s Note: The CCCU is a nonpartisan association committed to advancing Christian higher education in the executive branch, courts, and legislature. To accomplish this, we work with leaders across the political spectrum, like Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma who embodies faith and intellect for the common good as he exercises his responsibilities as a senator.
When I began the journey of serving in Congress, I was constantly asked how I was going to set aside my faith to do my new job. After serving for more than 20 years in ministry, I was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, then to the U.S. Senate in 2014. This new calling is what my bride, Cindy, refers to as our life’s “greatest interruption.” I can only assume that some thought faith would no longer be important after I was in Congress; that public officials should not talk about their private faith because of the diversity of views in our nation; or that the Establishment Clause in the Constitution requires public silence on personal faith from any elected official. All of those thoughts are wrong.
We live in a unique country with an unusual Constitution that allows any person to have a faith, live their faith, change their faith, or have no faith at all and still be a “good American.” The First Amendment (which history enthusiasts know was actually originally the Third Amendment) ensured that our nation would not have an established religion and that our laws would not inhibit the free exercise of anyone’s religion, even public officials.
In fact, even before our Constitution had a First Amendment, it included special religious protections for elected officials in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That means, in America, public servants do not have to set aside their faith to serve their neighbors who do not share their faith. No one is required to change their faith to align with some cultural norm. It is a baseline of our freedom. We are not a theocracy; we are a blending of all views.
Americans would be appalled if a public official refused to serve Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists because of their faith choices or lack of faith. But for some reason, our culture has made it entirely normal to encourage that same public official to change his or her personal faith to serve others. If those served do not have to alter their faith, why should those who serve have to alter theirs?
From the founding of the U.S., we believed as a nation that faith is not something you can require someone to take on and off like a uniform. Your faith is your most precious possession. It defines you, motivates you, and centers you. Simply stated: If your faith is something that you only do on weekends, it is not a faith; it is a hobby. Hobbies are weekend activities; your faith penetrates every aspect of your life. Any person who serves publicly is given the same rights to have a faith and live according to it as any other citizen. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right.”
How My Faith Impacts My Work
Everyone has a worldview. My Christian faith remains the lens through which I see the world. Like other followers of Jesus, my faith impacts my daily decisions and actions as I work to follow the still, small voice of God in my daily life. My faith affects how I treat other people around me — even those with whom I strongly disagree. They are also created in the image of God. They are someone for whom Christ died to forgive. They deserve my respect because they are loved by God. Even though it is the responsibility of any legislator to passionately and aggressively pursue the right solutions for the many challenges our nation faces, there is no political exception clause to the Greatest Commandment.
I co-chair the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Prayer Caucus. I attend the Senate prayer breakfast that meets once a week to pray, sing hymns (often poorly), and talk openly about our families and faith. I also take the opportunity to prayer walk my office building to pray for other senators and their staffs. Over the past few years, I have forged lasting friendships through prayer and faith that have yielded a number of important bipartisan policy proposals and solutions.
We do not even have to share the same faith traditions to work on faith-based issues. We can unite under common values and moral principles. Senator Jacky Rosen, a Jewish Democrat from Nevada, and I started the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism last year to join forces against those who challenge the Jewish faith through hate. Protecting religious liberty both in the U.S. and internationally — one of my key priorities in the Senate — is also vital to who we are as a nation. The vitriol of hate is easier to access than ever. All of us should stand up for faith communities, here and around the world, who seek to worship freely in peace.
An Example to the Next Generation
As we defend the right to live our faith in our nation, we should not fail to neglect the basic responsibility of passing on our faith. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind ends with the admonition to teach these truths to our children. The Old Testament ends with the challenge from Malachi to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the hearts of the children back to their fathers. As social media pervades our lives, the often-toxic conversation disconnects families and our culture. Social media is not the problem; it is just the latest isolating distraction. But it is a reminder that mentorship from older generations is vital to our faith and to our nation.
As I meet young staff and interns on Capitol Hill, I challenge them to live their faith in a place that desperately needs to see authentic faith, just as Christian higher education leaders like you encourage the young adults that walk your halls or stop in your office. If the next generation believes that faith divides us, then they will work to diminish public and private faith as a pathway to greater social harmony. But if they understand faith is life-giving, societally challenging, and personally refreshing (as well as soul-saving), they will rightly fan the flames of faith across our nation. We have the freedom to live our faith as a nation. Let’s actually do it.
James Lankford is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.