Representative Keith Ellison was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.
Ask the plainspoken U.S. congressman Keith Ellison what’s most important for America and you’ll get a blunt treatise on income disparity. “People who are working and middle class have to see that we have got to maintain some solidarity,” he says. “Otherwise, the corporate bosses will eat us for lunch.”
Ask Americans what they think is most important about Keith Ellison, however, and they’re likely to mention his religion. Ellison is a Muslim–the first to serve in Congress–and this fact has defined his national political career since 2007, when he announced his bid to represent Minnesota’s solidly Democratic Fifth Congressional District.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the apparent divide between Christians and Muslims has shaped global politics above any other force. Ellison has made it part of his mission to bridge that divide. “I can help talk to the Muslim world about the goodness of America, and to Americans about the contributions Islam has given to America,” he says.
What really sets Ellison apart from many contemporary progressive voices, though, is less his faith in Islam than his faith in his country: the America of tolerance and religious freedom. “When Martin Luther King was marching, he wasn’t condemning America–he was calling America to its best impulses,” Ellison explains. “He was saying, ‘We know you’re fundamentally good. Let’s see some of that.’ It sounds corny, but I believe all of that. All countries have roots that are ugly, but America has been able to overcome slavery, Jim Crow, religious hatred, denying women the vote. So what a privilege for me to be positioned historically to remind Americans of our tolerance.”