Many of us who grew up as devout Christians in Texas have a distinct canon of stories that describe our faith formation. Those from our childhood often include attending Vacation Bible School and competing in “sword drills,” games that tested how quickly we could locate a biblical passage.
Our adolescent stories often revolve around youth camp and the many times we “rededicated our lives to Jesus” after emotional worship services.
For Texas House Representative James Talarico, the faith story that first comes to mind was attending a 1998 political protest outside the Texas governor’s mansion in fourth grade. The demonstration occurred in the aftermath of the murders of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard and pushed for expanded protections for victims of hate crimes.
The resident of the governor’s mansion at the time was George W. Bush. The protest was organized by Talarico’s church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Austin, and its pastor, Dr. Jim Rigby.
In a recent sit-down interview with Talarico, he and I discussed the differences in our Christian upbringings, how spiritual disciplines fuel his work, the battle for democracy and public education, and the benefits and pitfalls of legislators “going viral” on social media.
Talarico, the grandson of a Baptist pastor from South Texas, has been mentored and inspired by Rigby his entire life. “We, Presbyterians, are known as the ‘Frozen Chosen’,” Talarico quipped. “But like my granddad, Dr. Jim infused a lot of his preaching with deep emotion.”
Rigby’s sermons, according to Talarico, also bent heavily toward social action. “He always told us our love for God has to grow into justice and move us from the sanctuary to the streets.”
As a teenager, Tarlarico took to the streets for the 2003 mass protests against the Iraq war. He recalls that “politics and religion were always two sides of the same coin for me growing up.”
I was curious whether there was any connection between my Christian adolescence and his, so I asked Talarico if he had ever attended a See You at the Pole event. This elicited a hearty chuckle. “No,” he said, “but those were the sorts of events when I could tell there was something I wasn’t quite part of.”
Reflecting on this, he said, “Evangelicalism was all around me. All my friends, my neighbors, my teachers were evangelical Republicans.”
He added, “But I remember feeling my Christianity was somehow different. I knew we were all Christians. We all went to churches on Sunday mornings. But it didn’t feel quite like the same thing.”
The dissonance has carried over into his work in the Texas House, a body dominated by conservative, evangelical Christians.
Talarico believes differing shades of the Christian faith can create “an opportunity for connection, for a shared vocabulary and stories embedded in our moral DNA. But it also creates lines of difference in how I understand the gospel call and how they interpret it.”
The tension was fully displayed during a 2023 House Public Education Committee hearing. The hearing was to discuss a bill requiring public schools to post the Ten Commandments in every classroom.
Talarico confronted the bill’s author, Rep. Candy Noble, with his belief that the bill wasn’t just unconstitutional, but deeply un-Christian. He did so by appealing to his and Noble’s shared Christian faith, taking a firm, principled stand while not shaming her.
He received widespread praise for his approach, and footage of the interaction went viral. It recently received another round of attention when Saturday Night Live alumnus Leslie Jones shared it on X (formerly Twitter).
As a devout Christian, Talarico understands how these viral moments can be equally helpful and dangerous. “Every age is defined by its technology. In my case, beginning my political career in 2018, it is social media. Yet these algorithms encourage conflict that exacerbate division.”
He says the conflict “is unhealthy for us personally, but also for the body politic. And so I’ve had to learn how to participate in this technological environment but also to resist it.”
Talarico believes that one of social media’s most dangerous aspects is how it hinders us from loving our enemy, which is central to what Jesus commands of his followers.
“Jesus said you are going to have enemies. He was very explicit about that. If you hate injustice, you are going to have enemies.”
He added, “But we are called to love our enemies, which is a strange, paradoxical belief, as all Christian paradoxes are. I struggle to do that and fail all the time because it’s not easy to do.”
It is even more challenging to do in the current political environment, particularly in his fight (often against fellow Christians) to save public schools in Texas.
For Talarico, public schools are as much a theological issue as a political one. He says,
“In my reading of the gospel, God’s kingdom inverts the power dynamics of the world. Instead of a throne, Jesus sits at a table. Instead of a war horse, he rides a donkey. Instead of a sword, he picks up a cross. So this new kingdom we are called to build is one where true strength is vulnerability, true status is equality, true wealth is sharing, and power is shared. That, to me, is the gospel boiled down– how do you share power with your neighbors, especially those not like you?”
Although it is far from perfect, he believes the closest we can come to this kingdom ideal is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy in which everyone has an equal voice.
And with the crumbling of so many of our community pillars that have upheld democracy for so long– local businesses owned by local business owners, community hospitals with local doctors who know their patients, and houses of worship– the only ones left standing to prop up democracy are public schools.
Listening to Talarico speak so passionately about politics and matters of faith, it can seem he is as much a preacher as a politician. There is a good reason for this.
When he isn’t walking the halls of the Texas capitol, he can be found about a mile north on the campus of Austin Presbyterian Seminary, where he is working toward a Master of Divinity degree.
In seminary, he has attended spiritual formation groups, studied scripture and theology, and preached. Yet, of all the spiritual practices, prayer is the one he “falls back on every day.”
“I try to start every day with prayer,” he said. “I got in a bad habit in my first campaign of waking up and checking my phone, which I know many of us do. So I got a separate phone I call my ‘sabbath phone.’”
His sabbath phone is disconnected from the outside world and only has the time, plays music and allows him to check his blood glucose levels. (Talarico was diagnosed as a Type I Diabetic during his first campaign.)
“So I wake up with that phone and immediately go to a place in my house that I have set up for prayer and meditation. I have it set up with statues from my Christian tradition and other faiths, as well as some Bibles that are important to me. It is in that space that I start my day, every day.”
He continues, “I practice some ‘breath prayers’ and say the Lord’s Prayer, and then take some time to read scripture. This sounds kind of cliche, but giving God the first word of every day helps center me and give me the strength I need to go about the rest of the day.”
James Talarico represents the 50th House of Representatives district. He is widely believed to be considering a run for statewide office, perhaps a challenge in 2026 to Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
Senior editor at Good Faith Media.