In the second season of The Soul of the Nation, Jim Wallis is sitting down with some of the presidential candidates to discuss how their faith informs their work. Following is a transcript of Wallis’ interview with Julián Castro, discussing Castro’s Catholic faith and upbringing, why Democrats should talk more about religion, and more.
Jim Wallis: This conversation is about how your faith, whatever that means to you and your values, [how] it will shape your priorities, your policies, your moral compass. You're getting scrutinized by the press all the time, like all the candidates, about your policies and every statement you make and every moment in a debate. But what's most important to me and to a lot of people out there is somebody's moral compass. Who they are and why? Because you're going to be facing things that nobody can predict or control. And how you make decisions is critical. So not just your policy record that's important, but what's down deepest — soul stuff. So I knew that you would get this and some candidates get it more than others, but what's always warmed my heart, I'll just start with this: The core of this for me is you've warmed my heart again and again about how passionate you are for immigrants, migrant people, refugees.
My own conversion text in the gospels was Matthew 25 — where Jesus made the most radical statement ever made on immigration — when he said, “I was a stranger” (the word means immigrant refugee. That's what the word in Greek means). “And you welcome me” or “You didn't welcome me.” Welcoming and not welcoming is how we treat Christ himself. That's right there in the text. And it feels to me like you get that down deep. This is more than just a policy issue or even a family issue. It's gospel — it's fundamental gospel. Your emerging policies are positive … impressive. They're exhaustive, but they're passionate. You are so passionate about welcoming the stranger.
Julián Castro: Yeah. I mean, throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, as part of my Catholic faith, the part of that that I have been most attracted to has been the social-justice aspect of it, especially the need to protect the least among us. That's what I'm most passionate about. I have to be honest, I'm not somebody that goes to church all the time. At different points in my life, I have gone more frequently … but I grew up Catholic and I grew up believing that when we have an opportunity to, that we should do something for the most vulnerable. And in this campaign, that's what we're trying to do, to speak up for the most vulnerable among us, whether they are migrants who are being treated cruelly right now, or people who are homeless or others who have been persecuted or scapegoated or otherwise during these times.
Wallis: So you mentioned that text, when Jesus said, “How you treat the least of these is how you're treating me.” I love that text (It brought me out of the student movements to my faith) and [Jesus] says, “It was me.” “I was hungry,” “I was thirsty,” “I was naked,” “I was a stranger-immigrant,” “I was sick and in prison.” How much … It’s not how much you love me, but how much you love them. But in politics, as you know so well, being a cabinet Secretary and a mayor and now running for the highest office in the country, the “least of these” are often the least important, and others are so much more important.
Castro: That's true, that's very clearly true in terms of a lot of the policy that happens in Washington, D.C., and who gets their way, whether it's in Congress or state capitals around the country or city halls even. It's also true, I believe, in the rhetoric of — certainly, the Republican Party — but the Democratic Party; we focused a lot on the middle class, which I know why and I believe there should be some focus there, but somewhere along the way in the last 30 or 40 years, we stopped talking about the poor and we stopped talking about the least among us or those who have least. And that's something that I've addressed during this campaign consistently and have said that and tried to remind people that I believe whether the politics of it is the most advantageous or not. I believe it's the right thing to do and that I'm going to do that.
Wallis: You were a part of the Obama administration and Obama — I’d call him a friend and was on his faith council — but I remember one time in the Roosevelt Room, we had the Council of [Catholic] Bishops, we had the National Association of Evangelicals, trying to protect the poor from budget cuts. And Catholic papal bishops said, “Mr. President, we're here because of a text today. That text doesn't say, ‘As you’ve done to the middle class, you've done to me,’ just, ‘As you were doing to the least of these …’” And you're right: They vote; they donate. Yet, Jesus says he'll measure societies and princes and kings — the biblical prophecy — the same by how they treat the most vulnerable. So, you're making that a moral compass for you.
Castro: Yeah, we've made that part of the campaign and part of the focus of our efforts when we put these different policies out. And when I've gone out and spoken, and in the places that I've gone in the campaign, you know, visiting the storm drainage tunnels in Las Vegas where homeless people sleep at night right under the gleaming hotels that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. My first trip was to San Juan, Puerto Rico, visiting with people there who had been hard hit by Hurricane Maria. So, in different ways, I've tried to lift up the voices and the experience of people who do need our help and that we should work to help. I also, you know, I don't believe that help is a bad word. For a long time following the Reagan revolution in the 80s, there was a sense that if you said you wanted to “help people,” that somehow that was the wrong approach or that was bad — that was this “liberal fantasy.” And all of us recognize that there are things that government can do better and have to continue to improve, but I believe in helping people. That's why I got into politics in the first place.
Wallis: You once said, (I love this line), “Catholicism has never been far from my life.” You talk about your mother, Rosie Castro, how she was a faith-based, social justice advocate, and how mom just really passed that on to her two boys.
Castro: Yeah, my mother, you know … a wonderful mother, a very strong woman, and also quite a character. She went to Catholic school all 12 years, and then went to a Catholic university here in San Antonio for her college degree, and was a social activist on women's empowerment issues and Hispanic issues. She's always had a moral compass and she passed that down to us, including a respect for the social-justice component of our faith. At one time she was a part of the network board …
Wallis: Nuns on the Bus.
Castro; So, you know, you get a sense of both her politics and her commitment there. And so, my brother Joaquin and I have taken that, and in this campaign you see that, and it comes from a place (I hope people will see) of love for other people, and of trying to do right by everybody.
Wallis: I teach [at] Georgetown, [It’s a] Jesuit school, I teach a course called “Faith, Race and Politics,” and the Catholic social teaching is really, pretty powerful stuff — it's often the best kept secret even in the Catholic Church, but it's very powerful stuff about what you're saying. How do we make prioritize those who are on the margins? So, this is right out of the harder Catholic social teaching.
Castro: Yeah. it’s … you know, it's fascinating. Oftentimes as others have pointed out, when we talk about faith, whether it's the Catholic faith or other denominations in the United States, oftentimes the attention is put on different issues and other people; it's not often put on the social justice component and working to help the least of these. And I think that more should … I also believe there are a lot of people out there (and your show and the audience is a good example) who do believe that progressivism is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions, but in the way that we think about this, and then the way that politics is covered, those voices are not the ones that are raised up or spotlighted. And because of that, I believe that over time their presence in our politics has been diminished significantly. And one of the things I hope from this campaign is that we're giving more voice to that part of our faith community.
Wallis: Well, you went to Harvard Law School. I've taught there, and clearly, the “least of these” are not so up front every day at Harvard — it's the “best and the brightest.” So you've been trained by the best and [the] brightest, but then you came back … I don't think many candidates for the presidency have ever announced their campaign for the presidency in the same place they were baptized.
Castro: Yeah. It'd be good to go and check that. I think you're right. Yeah … we announced at Guadalupe Plaza on the West Side of San Antonio, which is part of the complex where Our Lady of Guadalupe church is [located], where Joaquin and I were baptized in late 1974, and so it was a nice homecoming. It was also very symbolic, you know …
Wallis: Yeah. Sends a signal.
Castro: It did. It did. Because … I think [it’s] true to who we are. I mean, that's the community we grew up in, that's the church that we were baptized in, I went to school right near there. And so, both in the symbolism and what it meant for me in my own life, I was happy to be able to launch the campaign from there.
Wallis: There is a politics of Jesus that’s not either Republican or Democrat. In fact, as you say, sometimes Democrats — I love the way you put it — Democrats sometimes put in a box religion and morality, which strikes me as often very surprising because when you think about it, the base of the Democratic Party, African-American voters, Hispanic voters, [they’re] probably the most religious populations in America.
Castro: That's right. A lot. Yeah. A lot of church goers there. I was just in South Carolina, at Relentless Church in Greenville, the church of Pastor John Gray, and just one more example … this, you know … it's a diverse congregation, but also a very much in the style of an African-American church, and just another reminder on the campaign trail that you're right. I mean, the African-American community, the Hispanic community, [there is] a lot of faith. And so, that's not inconsistent with a progressive approach on policy or politics.
Wallis: And, why then would Democrats sometimes be reluctant to talk about faith? It really doesn't make much sense. God's not owned by any party or candidate, and faith would call us ALL accountable to what Jesus says if we're followers of his, but why are Democrats reluctant to speak of this and the way we're talking right now?
Castro: Well, I think you're going to see that with this younger generation of Democrats — Buttigieg has done a good job of this — I think also that you may see a little bit of that reluctance, you know, slipping away and more willingness and enthusiasm about incorporating into articulation, of a vision of the country's future, the place of faith. Now it's also true that on the Democratic side there are people who choose not to believe. And I've been very clear that I'm respectful of that — of their beliefs, of their choice not to believe, but I don't believe … I think that we can recognize their choice not to believe and respect it under the law and otherwise, but also recognize the value of faith and the place that it plays.
Wallis: Well, you and I both believe in the separation of church and state, but that doesn't mean the segregation of moral values from public life. And so that's what we have to get over, I think here. And how do we respect the multiple faith traditions that we have and people who are of no faith at all, but operate, many of them, with a deep moral sensibility, so how do you do that? How do you, as somebody who is not unwilling to be expressive of their faith, how do you relate, then, to other people who might be nervous about that and not knowing what you mean, and people [with] no faith at all who want to know that they’re in the conversation too?
Castro: Well, I think it starts with being as inclusive as possible. Obviously …
Wallis: That's a word you often use.
Castro: (Julian laughs) Yeah.
Wallis: Inclusive as possible.
Julián Castro: I am, of course … I'm Catholic. However, I recognize that so many different faiths share similar values, and oftentimes similar experiences and certainly aspirations, and so when I talk about these things, I often talk about how the values are reflected across different faiths and the aspirations are reflected across different faiths. And oftentimes, in our history you have coalitions of people of different faiths [who] have come together to make progress. I'm thinking of the civil rights movement, for example, which is maybe the best example of making progress. And today, whether it's pushing back on the proliferation of guns and the violence that we see or trying to address the need to get out of wars around the world, people of different faiths have coalesced. That's what I try to do is to be inclusive and to speak to people of different faiths, even as I recognize I'm bringing a certain perspective as somebody who grew up Catholic.
Wallis: So, you can be a person of faith without alienating non-religious voters.
Castro: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I have had very, very few instances of people who were nonreligious or agnostic or atheist who have said, “I just don't want to hear it at all.” I think people are respectful; the vast majority of people are respectful as long as you're respectful of them. So, I do think that we ought to do more on the progressive side to incorporate the values that we bring from our faith.
Wallis: You often talk about the word, “neighbor” — what it means to include our neighbors, love our neighbors. So, I've been looking at the Good Samaritan text, which Jesus used when a lawyer asked him, “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” And [Jesus] says, “Love God, love your neighbor.” And he [tells] the Good Samaritan story, which we all know. But when you look at that text, what he's really saying is your neighbor is someone who's different than you. You probably know the name, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American theologian — liberation theologian. Gustavo [said], “You can't find your neighbor in your path. You've got to go outside your path to find your neighbor.” So much of our division right now is people aren't going outside their paths. How do we change that?
Castro: I think it starts with leadership that encourages us to do that. Because right now, we have leadership that is encouraging us to stay in our silos, and this other rising scapegoating, particularly [toward] immigrants or Muslim Americans or others. So it starts with leadership. It encourages us to go beyond ourselves. But our cultural and social and educational institutions have a big role to play. A good example of that is what our children learn in textbooks. If your son or your daughter, like my son and daughter, go to the public schools here in San Antonio, do they learn about people who are different from them, the contributions of people who are different from the contributions of people from different backgrounds? Oftentimes that's not the case.
What effort do our churches do? [What do] our neighborhood associations, [what] do our companies make to encourage people to come together and have conversations that build relationships in our physical spaces? How do we build out our physical spaces in ways that encourage people to what I think of as “reality tests?’ Sometimes you have preconceived notions of other people that are different from you, and how do you get the opportunity to reality test? I remember when I studied in the Boston area, and taking the T, people of all different backgrounds — obviously different faiths, different walks of life that were all there — riding that subway together. Now what it did was, it gives the opportunity for some interaction. I would be lying if I said that everybody was just chatting each other up. And especially these days, they're probably looking down at their phone. But I say that to say, what opportunities are there for us to build out our public spaces and to encourage people in parks, in transit, in our theaters, [and in] our public libraries for people to come together and learn about one another — by interacting in ways that it has become so easy to avoid because of technology? Because we tend to go home after work, you know, you get home at 6:30 or 7, and then turn the TV on and, and it's time to help the kids with homework and then you're going to sleep … and it's not quite the same as it used to be.
Wallis: And where are we go home to? Our geography is so racialized …
Castro: Yeah, and it’s still segregated …
Wallis: … such a racial geography, which is not by accident; it's by policy.
Wallis: And so, one of the things that prevents … when I was a Little League baseball coach (my boys for 22 seasons), I always noticed how much … dads too, but moms — when they talk together about their kids, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, It's a deeply bonding experience, but that doesn't often happen much across racial lines because we're so deliberately split off from each other, so we fall victim to those, as you said, stereotypes and caricatures. When you know somebody, you're talking about your kids, it gets really close really fast. So as a leader then, as a political leader, how do you do that? How do you help people get outside those bubbles, those spaces that make them hard to understand others and then they're vulnerable to this talk of fear and hatred that now is every day in this country — how, as a leader, do you break us out of that?
Castro: Several steps. Number one: the vision that you articulate for the future of the country. One that is inclusive, that instead of scapegoating people, lifts up their history and their contribution to this nation. Secondly, that you model that. A president makes appointments to the cabinet, to other positions. Think about what Justin Trudeau did in Canada when he took over, and how diverse his cabinet is. And then third, it is through policy. Whether it's breaking down patterns of continued racial and economic segregation or helping to ensure that our schools are teaching the history of people of different backgrounds, funding things like the arts because the arts, whether it's music or visual arts or performing arts, they speak a language that crosses racial and ethnic and religious and other boundaries, oftentimes more powerfully than words can — simple words. And then, how do you work on your public spaces so that people have the opportunity to congregate with one another, and perhaps have those conversations, begin those conversations and break down the barriers between them?
Wallis: I love it. This … you said … I'll quote this, “The whole reason I got into politics in public service in the first place was based on this idealistic notion that we could create a world in which everybody is able to fulfill and reach their potential. Everybody is able to be prosperous. Some of that is rooted in the Catholic faith, a lot of is rooted in the upbringing I had with my mother ... It's all based on the idea that all of us are God's children and that we have the same worth and dignity.” When you start talking about the image of God — made in God's image and likeness, that all of us were, that’s just (as a whole) undergirding to our politics. So, voter suppression is an assault on Imago Dei, the image of God. So that theological rooting of this makes it even more powerful than just left and right and all the rest. “We’re all made … ” It says in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:26, “ … in the image and likeness of God.” How do you make that true in politics? How do you bring that in politics … It's so fundamental. How do you bring that into politics?
Castro: And you know, I think we can articulate that more strongly, more powerfully, and appeal to people who often don't get appealed to see the value of expanding the franchise instead of suppressing people's ability to vote, and empowering people to their democratic right. Yeah, I don't know that there's any magic to it except that if more of us who are in politics would speak in those terms and make it part of the conversation and give people something to think about when people of good intention think about whether they're going to support doing X or Y, they’ll have these arguments in their head about the moral underpinnings of whether we should go in one direction or the other.
Wallis: Now, as you know, faith is not pre-packaged or easily packaged. Faith is always tested, and all of us who are trying to be people — as Bono, he's a practicing Christian, and he says, “Yeah, I keep practicing and practicing and practicing … “ — to put your faith into action, you often have a crisis of faith, personal, and even political. How have you experienced, sometimes, things have become a crisis of faith in your own life or in your public service, and you just feel those tensions in that crisis?
Castro: I think in different ways. You know, I think of moments in my life. For instance, when my grandmother passed away — my grandmother was like a second mother to me. Because I grew up with my mother and my grandmother and my brother, going through that and dealing with that, I was 21 at the time, but just getting to the point where I felt like I could have a different relationship with her and a more grown-up relationship with her, and then she passed away from diabetes. I think like anybody else, [you do] have those moments where you question your faith. You wonder. I can't say that I've had some spectacular crisis, but I believe everybody has those moments when they wonder. And that's what faith is about, as well, is being able to get through those moments and to understand that you do have to have faith, you do have to believe and that things do get better, and that you don't fully understand perhaps the path that your journey is going to take. But you have to believe that it's going to take a better path. It's going to take a better term in the future.
Wallis: You went to Mass with her [at] 10 years, a kid.
Castro: We did! Yes, yes, and she used to wear a veil — this veil [in] the way that that traditional, women Catholics at one time did, but she never gave that up.
Wallis: So faith is not always apart from doubt or wondering, “What this means?” or “How do I get through this?” It's really what sustains us sometimes through those hardest times … loss, for example.
Castro: Absolutely. And one of the things that I have enjoyed about being in public service and running for office is that it gives you this license to talk to people about their own experiences and … yeah, because you talked to them about what they want for themselves, for their family, for the community, the country. And that's one of the things that I have heard clearly, the crisis of faith that people sometimes have and how they're able to pull through that and that there's always, as you say … this underlying questioning, but I think that's healthy.
Wallis: Yeah, yeah. So as they say in Washington (as you know well from being there), “Politics is all about compromise.” So how do you determine where or when you can compromise to get things done, which is what politics often is, and when do you decide you just can't compromise something because of this thing we call “faith?”
Castro: You're right, that politics is often about compromise because it doesn't matter whether you're progressive with your conservative. As people often say, “You're not gonna get everything that you want.” You know, if you're in Congress — there are 535 members of Congress. Even if you're on a city council like I was when I started, and there are 11 members, you have people with 11 different opinions about what we should do. And so, you have to recognize going into politics that very rarely are you ever going to get everything you want. You can't compromise on the underlying values, but you should be willing to compromise, where it makes sense, on the particulars — understanding that you may not get there as fast as you want to, but that you can make improvement to take good steps in that direction. And right now, we're actually having, in the Democratic Party, a big conversation about how much compromise we should accept. I think that's a healthy conversation, and I would like to see more giant steps than some people on certain issues. I also recognize that at the end of the day, in order to go in the right direction, as long as you don't betray your values, if you're making progress, you're doing what you should do in public service for people.
Wallis: A lot of leaders I know want to do the right thing, but they also want to be reelected. The number that would choose to do the right thing, even though they think it might cost them the election, I don't really need two hands to count. So how do you decide when … how fast you get there is one question, but how do you know when to stand up and say, “No, I can't do this”?
Castro: When something would betray your values, your principles. Early in my time in public service, I quit my job at a law firm because I wanted to be able to vote against a land deal that a client of the law firm had in front of the city council that I was on at the time, and they wanted to build a golf course over our water supply. I wanted to vote against it, but under the ethics rules for lawyers in Texas, you can't just vote against the interests of a client. So I was stuck. On the one hand, my constituents wanted me to vote against it. I wanted to vote against it. I have concerns about the environmental impact to our water supply, but my livelihood, my car payment, my house payment, my student loan payment depended on that good income that I was making at the law firm. And one day, I walked into my law firm and I quit my job after that, and my house went into the foreclosure process. I got behind on my student loan payments and car payments. You know, ultimately, I was fine, but [I] was hurting there for a while. I made that decision because I believed that it was the right thing to do, that I was there to represent the people and help ensure that we had a good water supply. So I think you have to make those decisions based on just the core values that you have, and there's certain things that you can't compromise on. In that case, I wasn't willing to compromise by being conflicted out.
Wallis: And the reason that's a good story is [because] you don't know the outcome, right? You don't have a plan B that is clear.
Castro: That's right. Yeah.
Wallis: So, you're taking some risks. There's always risk involved with doing the right thing.
Castro: Yeah. I also believed that … this is for the politicians out there, potential politicians … it's always good not to be dependent on having that office. To always know that that office could be gone for different reasons, and be willing to give that office up even when those points come where you have to make a decision, and do the right thing. Right after the Affordable Care Act passed a few years ago, there were a number of people who voted for that [who] lost in the next election. But they did the right thing to make sure that more people could have health care.
Wallis: So, do you like Pope Francis?
Castro: I do. I do. I believe that he's been a pope who has reached out to different constituencies, so to speak, within the Catholic faith and has taken some stances that have surprised a lot of people. And I think in a good way. In many ways, [he] has been more progressive than we've seen in a long time.
Wallis: So, as you know, it's your birthday today … you're getting older, but you're still a young leader, I would say. As a young leader, young Catholic, and you deal with all these issues that are so divisive in the country — take abortion for example. Is there a way to find some different pathways, some third ways, beyond all the polarization on each side? I like to say, Well, here are two vulnerable people. A young mother, [who’s] often low income, often alone, and [with] a potential growing child. Can we find some ways not to criminalize desperate, tragic choices, but try and reduce the number of abortions? Can we find a way that — many people would welcome — a third way, and not this endless shaming, attacking, making “pro-life,” “pro-choice” into just slanderous words?
Castro: I think we can, I believe that we can. Look, I believe that people should know all of their options. Those who choose for instance, adoption or another route, they want that information — those resources. I believe that that should be there. That there will be ways that we can work together. I fundamentally do believe in a woman's right to choose. At the same time, I recognize the concern that folks who [hold] a different view, and hope that there's a way to work with them, if a woman is interested in other options [in] what those are.
Wallis: Like the Clintons said, “Abortions should be safe, legal and rare.” Let's together make it rare. That would be a good direction. What's hopeful about this conversation to me is that the narrative on religion and politics in 2020 could change the old narrative, as Republicans act like they own religion, they own religious voters, sometimes they own God. And we were critical of that, but we also don't want there to be just Democrats trying to do the same — to wrap an ideological flag around Jesus, a religious left to counter a religious right. We've got to go deeper than that. How do we open up this conversation and make it a deeper, richer, fuller, narrative in 2020 about the role of faith in our public life that should have held us all accountable, and [doesn’t] just polarize and politicizes in the name of God?
Castro: I think that starts with a genuine willingness on the part of candidates to talk about their faith, and also to talk about how the policies they put forward relate to their faith. And I think what we'll find is that you do have some common ground there among people from different parties, different ideologies, and that's something to build on. As you say, trying to remove that from what is too often today a very polarized, and maybe more polarized than ever because of social media, but the more that we articulate on policy and on vision, how our faith plays into the views that we have and the decisions we make, it gives a chance for people from the left and the right to really understand where that common ground is. And maybe it doesn't start necessarily with people who are just in electoral politics because that's the heat of the moment. That's the campaign that you're trying to win. It really begins with the people around that orbit, but that, I think, are not necessarily just in the heat of that moment, but are able to build those coalitions for the long-term.
Wallis: So in the media, as we know, it's always, “Who's left?” and “Who's right?” “Who's moderate?” “Who's far-left … ?” All of that — you're weary of that as I am. But name a couple of policies that, for you, are core.
Castro: One of those is something that I've been dedicating years now to, which is a push to end homelessness in this country. As part of my faith, I see housing fundamentally as a human right. Another example is police reform. People wouldn't necessarily connect those two. Maybe the connection to homelessness is more obvious, but when we think about “authority over people,” police officers have a certain “authority,” those who have “authority” I believe should treat everybody the same way. Those who have authority should see, like we're called to see, that everybody has the same value. But today, too oftentimes, especially if you're an African-American man, you're treated differently by police. I understand that we have some very good police officers and they do a dangerous job, but I believe that our system is broken. I've proposed a police reform plan to help ensure that no matter who you are in the country, that you're treated the same by police wherever you live.
Wallis: So you want to bring a moral compass to your public service, not just a “wins and losses,” and you want to apply the best of that Catholic tradition that surrounded you when you're a child. And you'd be up against an awful lot because many feel politically homeless these days about all of that stuff. So do you have anything else you want to say to … maybe you've been in church a lot … there’s always a benediction at the end, right? So, if you're giving a benediction to people who are trying to figure out their selection, their public life and their faith and values and some sometimes get frustrated by all sides, what’s your benediction — how to go into the world in this election cycle, how do we do that as people of faith?
Castro: Number one, that people of faith can hold their head up high and not feel like they have to suppress the fact that they are part of the community of faith and to be confident in articulating those values of how they make their decision on who they're going to support and what policies they support, but to bring that to the table more fully and understand that no one side owns those values, those beliefs. Because right now, there's this sense that only one side owns those beliefs and values. It means that a lot of the people [who] are the most vulnerable, they end up not getting cared for, not getting invested in, in our budgets, but not getting attention on our news shows. So people of faith, I think, have a role to play in bringing all of those values and, and that commitment, especially to the least among us, to the floor.