Few politicians have had the trajectory of Representative James Talarico (D-Austin). He went from being a public school teacher to passing historic progressive legislation as the youngest member of the Texas Legislature House, and now, answering the pastoral call by going to seminary.
Some of Talarico’s accomplishments so far include advancing the most significant reform to the state’s finance system in 20 years, proposing bills to: improve early childhood education across the state, putting the first-ever cap on pre-K class sizes in Texas, and expanding funding for social-emotional learning programs.
Texas Freedom Network’s faith project, Just Texas, had a chat with Rep. Talarico about his new adventure.
JustTexas: When did you first know you wanted to go to seminary and what inspired you to make the jump?
Rep. Talarico: When I was little, I dreamed of becoming a pastor. But I missed the mark and became a politician instead. Now, I’m starting seminary and realizing my childhood dream! I’m not quitting politics—I’m starting my third term in the Texas House this January. Seminary is a passion project—one I’ll be working on between sessions, election cycles, and my day job!
Growing up, my church taught me that love must grow into justice.
This may seem like a weird career move for a politician—campaign consultants don’t usually tell their clients to become Presbyterian ministers—but my faith is why I’m in politics. Growing up, my church taught me that love must grow into justice. My church taught me that faith must move us from the sanctuary to the streets. My faith is what led me to teach on the west side of San Antonio, lead an education nonprofit, and run for office five years ago.
Religion always pointed me toward politics, but now politics is pointing me back to religion. After 4 years as a policymaker, I’ve come to believe the root of our many problems is spiritual. Our inability to love ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet is killing us. Our world is in a spiritual crisis. I want to understand this crisis and be part of the solution. That’s why I’m going to seminary!
JustTexas: How does your faith guide your fight for a progressive Texas?
Rep. Talarico: As a progressive member of the Legislature, people often ask me where I got my politics. They’re usually surprised when I say “my church.” Last session, I (accidentally) sparked some controversy with my invocation on the House floor. I guess after decades of hearing from the Religious Right, some people had forgotten what progressive Christianity sounds like.
Here’s some of what I said: “Holy Mystery: you have so many names. The Torah calls you Creator, the Quran calls you Peace, the Gita calls you Destroyer, the Dharma calls you Truth and the First Epistle of John calls you perhaps the most beautiful name of all: Love.
I guess after decades of hearing from the Religious Right, some people had forgotten what progressive Christianity sounds like.
“In my faith, you expressed yourself through a barefoot Rabbi who embodied your perfect love. A crucified carpenter who gave only two commandments: love God and love (your) neighbor. Because there is no love of God without the love of neighbor.
“Help us love not just in word, but in action. Help us honor not just the name of Jesus, but the way of Jesus. Help us free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, release the prisoner, welcome the stranger, forgive the enemy, and above all: protect your Creation.”
JustTexas: Texas has seen an influx of right-wing leaders using their “faith” to drive hateful policies. What does your faith teach you about caring for your community and marginalized Groups?
Rep. Talarico: Religion can help us find meaning, build community, and discover our deep connection to each other and the natural world. But too often, religion is used to hurt people—particularly women, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized communities.
In 1970, German theologian Dorothee Sölle coined the term “Christofascism” to describe the kind of Christianity that worships social, political, and economic power in the name of Christ. Throughout history, the Power That Be—from Emperor Constantine to President Trump—-has co-opted Christianity to protect the rich and powerful.
But the Jesus we meet in the Bible stands with the poor and powerless. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Trans children are children of God, made in God’s own image. There’s nothing wrong with them—nothing at all. They are perfect. They are beautiful. They are sacred
JustTexas: As filing begins for the 2023 Texas Legislative Session, we have already seen an influx of bills attacking the LGBTQIA+ community. What role can faith leaders play in speaking out against these harmful policies?
Rep. Talarico: When the Religious Right persecutes our LGBTQ+ neighbors, we all must speak up. But Christians have a special obligation to denounce those who persecute the vulnerable in the name of Christ.
Before House Republicans passed the anti-trans bill last session, I talked about how my opposition to their bill is grounded in my faith. I said: “Trans children are children of God, made in God’s own image. There’s nothing wrong with them—nothing at all. They are perfect. They are beautiful. They are sacred.”
Christians—especially those in public office—cannot stay silent when the powerful abuse the most vulnerable members of our community.
JustTexas: What’s one message from scripture you think is important to reflect on in this moment?
Rep. Talarico: When I’m feeling discouraged, I often turn back to the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells a crowd of the forgotten and the marginalized:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…”
Jesus is describing a new world in which everyone counts—especially those who have been left out. That’s the new world—the Beloved Community—that we must build together. If Jesus visited the Texas Legislature, how would he adapt his Beatitudes? It might tell us:
‘Blessed are the trans children who are bullied,
Blessed are the new moms who are kicked off their health care, Blessed are the construction workers who are denied a water break,
Blessed are the prisoners who are trapped in windowless cells without air conditioning…’
Jesus would probably flip over our fancy desks and demand that we take care of all our neighbors—particularly “the least of these.”
Rep. Talarico may wear many hats, but he wears each one with equal dignity, diligence, and dedication. Given that Texas has seen an alarming increase in the number of far-right extremists who claw their way to positions of power, we’re incredibly blessed to have a political leader of influence who is not just compassionate and exemplary, but also in touch with his communities – educational, faith, and political. When done right, all three can work together for the benefit of all Texans.
We can help Texas reach its potential as an inclusive home for all communities by making a commitment to our personal faith communities. Learn how you can support and volunteer with Just Texas today!