U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma is an ordained minister who had spent years leading a large student ministry before he sensed God calling him to run for office. Lankford, 50, was first elected to the U.S. House in 2010 and to the Senate in 2014. He has emerged as one of the leading new voices in the Senate and a champion for religious liberty and the right to life. Recently, Lankford spoke with Decision about serving God in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you sense the call to run for office after so many years in church and parachurch ministry?
A: I was 22 years in ministry before I was in elected office. My wife, Cindy, calls it life’s greatest interruption. In 2008, Cindy and I both sensed that God was calling us—a very simple, quiet whisper of God saying, “Get ready.” And it just continued, every time I read Scripture, every time I was in a church service, every time I was in prayer. It’s as if I heard the same message over and over again: “Get ready,” which was kind of exciting for about a month. But that went on for about six months, and it was very unsettling. In September 2009, I read a newspaper article about Mary Fallin, who was my congresswoman, announcing a run for governor. And I can’t explain it other than as I read that newspaper article, it’s as if the Spirit of God said, “That’s what I want you to do. That’s what ‘get ready’ has meant all these months.” That’s it. It was a very clear, distinct message. It wasn’t that loud, but it was clear; I really sensed God was calling me to run for Congress.
Now, my wife was not with me at the time. I didn’t tell her because it was so crazy. I thought, That’s not possible. That’s not even rational. That couldn’t be what it is. Three days later, Cindy tells me, “I feel like we’re supposed to run for Congress.” Now, my wife is completely nonpolitical. I was in speech and debate and was the nerdy kid who read the newspaper and all those things growing up, but I’d never been in elected office. That started us on about a seven-month journey of praying this through to be sure. At a point, I had moved from “this is something I’m supposed to do” to “I’m being unfaithful if I don’t do this. I know I’m supposed to do this.”
Q: How would you assess President Trump’s first 18 months in office on the religious liberty front, and then also, what’s at stake if the people who were faithful voters in 2016 don’t continue to show up in the midterms this year?
A: There’s been pretty remarkable work on the religious liberty issue. The appointment of our ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, is a cause for optimism. Most every agency in the federal government has a faith-based office now to protect people of faith, people of conscience. That’s unprecedented, and it’s a remarkable shift.
These are things done by executive action promoting religious liberty and conscience, both around the world and domestically, and making sure we continue to be a safe haven of religious freedom. And by the way, those are freedoms that could be lost. I can’t tell you what the next president or what a different president would do or how a different Congress would protect those rights. I have no idea. But I do know how this president is doing it and how this Congress is protecting those rights.
Q: What about the federal courts?
A: In the federal appellate courts, as of June, there were 21 circuit court judges—all very pro-Constitution, plain-reading law judges—who had been appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate. We have prioritized this. That pace is unprecedented and represents a significant shift in the courts. Elections matter greatly. If you don’t have the Senate confirming those judges, it doesn’t happen, and if you don’t have a president appointing strict constitutionalist judges, then that doesn’t happen.
Q: What are some ways you see God working among your colleagues and the people on Capitol Hill?
A: There are more Bible studies and prayer times on the Hill than I think most people know. Every Tuesday morning there is an intensive verse-by-verse Bible study with multiple members of the Senate. Every Wednesday morning, there is the prayer breakfast that has continued since the 1950s. Between 20 and 25 members of the Senate get together just to be able to pray for each other, sing a hymn together, and then one senator stands up and tells their spiritual journey and shares Scripture. On Thursday afternoons there’s a chaplain’s Bible study, also well attended. There’s a women’s Bible study on occasion that several of the ladies in the Senate, in a bipartisan way, gather together just to be able to talk about Scripture together and pray with each other. There are interns meeting for prayer time. I host a prayer walk once a quarter in the Capitol.
I’ve had lots of folks ask, “How can you work in such a godless place as Washington, D.C.?” And I will typically smile at them and say, “Because it’s not godless.” It’s people whom God cares about, and He continues to send people there who love God and want to serve Him. God is at work there. So that would tell me He’s not done there. And what He’s not done with, we shouldn’t be done with.