This Faithful Politician Puts God First

Here's where you might find this Oklahoma youth pastor-turned-senator on the weekends

by Bobby Ross Jr. | Updated 14 Jul 2017 at 1:56 PM

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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.

"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.

Related: His Head Bowed in Prayer, Trump Shares Faith and Hope

"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.

Lankford created an unbeatable formula.

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.

But while Lankford and Trump both won Oklahoma big, their approaches to politics could not be more different. (go to page 2 to continue reading) 

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