WASHINGTON (BP)–Freshman Rep. James Lankford isn’t the only political newcomer in the new Congress, but he may be the only one who is going from the ministry realm to the political realm.
Lankford, 42, was program director at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s high-profile Falls Creek summer camp from 1996 to 2009 but quit his position because he said he felt God was calling him to run for Congress. The camp sees around 50,000 youth visit each summer.
He shocked the political establishment in 2010 by winning the Republican primary and then cruised to victory in the general election to become the representative from Oklahoma’s conservative-leaning 5th District. The seat had become open when the former representative, Mary Fallin, ran for governor.
In late December Baptist Press talked to Lankford, asking him about the transition and about his priorities for the 112th Congress. Following is an edited transcript:
Baptist Press: What’s the last month and a half been like since you won the election?
Lankford: It’s been an interesting whirlwind, lining up all the staff, making sure we set our office priorities, going through the committee assignment process, meeting the other freshmen, thinking and praying through first steps and second steps.
Baptist Press: Has it been a full-time job just trying to get ready for D.C.?
Lankford: Oh yeah. Definitely. We’ve been up early and at it late every day to make sure that we’re on focus for this. There are no funds, there is no structure allotted or created for the transition. You’re elected Nov. 2 and you’re expected to be there for the swearing in on Jan. 5. But there are no resources to help you in the move, to help you hire staff. There is a book you get that has some ideas of some things to do and not to do, but that’s all you have. Even getting back and forth for interviews, you’ve got to either pay for it yourself or wait to do it in January.
Baptist Press: How many staff will you have?
Baptist Press: When you began sensing a call into politics, were you confident that this would be the outcome?
Lankford: I was. I didn’t [simply] feel called to run. I felt called to do the job. For me, the campaign was the necessary job interview that actually fulfilled the task.
Baptist Press: You were confident, then, that the Lord had you not just running but winning?
Lankford: That’s correct.
Baptist Press: Is your family moving with you?
Lankford: No, I’ll be commuting back and forth.
Baptist Press: How do you plan on balancing family time and legislative time, because it’s a time-consuming job, isn’t it?
Lankford: It is. There’s a lot of research and a lot of meetings. And a lot of people want just 10 minutes of your time, and that 10 minutes ends up being an hour. I understand that dynamic. My wife and I are calling it the new normal. She and I have been married 18 years, and our daughters are 14 and 10. We have not had a time when we’ve done anything major that wasn’t together as a family. When I directed the Falls Creek Camp, we moved down there during the summer and we did that as a family. I’ve been interim pastor at a lot of different churches, and at the majority of those churches, we all attended, we would plug into the Sunday School structure. We went as a family. This will be the first time in our married life and for my kids that there will be this other place that they’re not intimately involved in every day — just because that’s not possible. It’s going to be an interesting challenge for us.
Baptist Press: How many days will you be in D.C.? What’s a typical year for a representative?
Lankford: It depends, but around 35 to 40 weeks a year that we’ll actually be in the office in D.C. Of course, we’ll have an office here in my district as well. So that requires management also. Typically I’ll fly [to D.C.] on a Monday and be able to fly [back to Oklahoma] on a Thursday night or a Friday. And I’ll be home Friday through Monday, and then fly out and do it again.
Baptist Press: What do you think the top priorities should be in the next Congress? What do you hope to see Congress do?
Lankford: We have got to take on our debt and our spending. A lot of issues will center on how we handle that, and if we mismanage dollars, people will not re-elect us, because that’s what we’re being sent to do. Money has been wasted. The way it has been done has been an abuse of power. We have got to get back to just the basics of spending money wisely again and practicing basic principles of good finance.
Baptist Press: You’re one of 535 legislators. How do you see yourself making a difference? Are there any bills you plan on introducing?
Lankford: There are. The No. 1 areas for me are reform issues — reform our systems and structure. How do we make ourselves more efficient? How can we push authority back to the states? How can we get us back in line with what our original design was of divided power? That power should not be centralized in the federal government or in a single branch of the federal government but dispersed among all branches and also pushed back to the states. I’m going to be looking for pieces of legislation that we can introduce that are going to push those things. I’m going to run [the ideas] through committee structures to make sure that I am doing it the right way. So I am not ready to push those things out yet.
Baptist Press: Do you know what committees you are serving on?
Lankford: I do. I have three committees: Transportation and Infrastructure, Budget, and Oversight and Government Reform.
Baptist Press: Are those committees that interest you?
Lankford: Absolutely, yes they are. I had a top committee list, and those are my top three. I was very, very pleased to be able to go compete for and to get the committees I was wanting to be on.
Baptist Press: You’re a man with a strong faith. How do you see your faith integrating with your decision-making?
Lankford: Honestly, faith should play out in every decision no matter where you are. In every occupation, your faith should dominate — how you handle your family, how you handle your business. You’re looking through the lens of faith at everything you do. So it better have an impact on the way that I practice my day-to-day life there and here. There is this interesting dichotomy in the Christian world sometimes between those who are called to ministry and those who are in secular vocations. And I just don’t see that is a biblical concept. I see, ultimately, people being called by God towards a task and gifted for that task, and as they do it with excellence they honor God with what they are doing. So, for me, the primary thing boils down to the simple task of ‘follow Me’ — Christ’s calling to His disciples was not to an occupation, it was to a person. And He is the person they are called to be. So I feel like I am doing the same thing now I was doing five years ago in ministry, and that is I am still following Christ in what I am doing. My occupation may have changed significantly, but my task is the same.
Baptist Press: Do you think it’s going to be a challenge to stay grounded in your faith in your new role? (Editor’s note: Lankford is a member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.)
Lankford: I think it’s a challenge in every role — whether you’re a pastor or a seminary teacher, and Scripture becomes a book to you to be able to research and teach from. The challenge that we’ll have in D.C. is just the challenge of power and authority — that people pull on you and say that you are something that you know in your heart you are not. The Proverb that I am going to repeat again and again and again and come back to often is, “The crucible is for silver and the furnace is for gold but a man is tested by the praise that he receives.” (Proverbs 27:21).
Baptist Press: Do you have a goal of how long you want to serve if the citizens do keep sending you back?
Lankford: I don’t. I am a big proponent of term limits, and I really want to see us apply term limits to everybody in the House and the Senate. I think fresh voices and fresh energy and blood is a positive thing to have in government. But on the other side of that, until we can get that done, we are a seniority-based system. And if I stay there three terms and then leave, it does not help, because right when I start gaining influence to be able to move some legislation forward, I leave. So until we can get that turned over, I don’t think it’s a good idea to self-term limit.
Baptist Press: Are you exited about serving?
Lankford: I think more than excited, I am deeply honored. You can only imagine how humbling it is to have more than 100,000 people vote for you and to say “I trust you that you’re going to do what you said you were going to do,” that “you’re the person who is going to represent me.” Two weeks after the election we had freshmen orientation, and one of those evenings I am sitting in the House chamber and you get this very humbling feeling looking at the voting spots and think, “700,000 people back home are watching when I vote” and they’re saying, “You represent me.” It’s a very humbling feeling. I am very careful to hold people’s trusts that I don’t go and violate their trust with either how I vote or how I behave or my own ethics or how we manage our staff. People have trusted us to do the right thing. For the last two months people have run into us, introduced themselves, shook my hand and said, “I voted for you. I am excited you are going and I trust you. You’re going to do the right thing aren’t you?” You feel that: Don’t mess this up. People are really looking for the status quo to be different.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.