The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies held a webinar on April 1 with U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas of California regarding his reflection on the role of religion in public office and politics. Michael Peppard, professor of theology, conducted the webinar in conjunction with topics from his religion and American politics class.
Vargas is a California native whose father immigrated from Mexico in the 1940s. He joined the Jesuits at a young age and devoted most of his time to helping disadvantaged communities and displaced people in El Salvador. For his education, Vargas earned his master’s degree in 1987 from Fordham before attending Harvard Law School.
As a Fordham alumnus, Vargas continued to stay connected to the community. During the 2020 presidential election, he told The Financial Times that he endorsed Michael Bloomberg after a conversation with Fordham University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., who “praised the candidate’s integrity.”
In conversation with Peppard, Vargas touched upon aspects of religion and the role it has played in the time that he has served in public office. As a Democrat, Vargas noted the difference between himself and his Republican colleagues when it comes to their views on Christ’s mission.
“I wish we could change their mind on some issues with the poor and immigrants,” he said.
Peppard posed several questions to Vargas regarding life in politics and his own experiences when it comes to the integration of religion into public office. This dialogue allowed for an understanding of the ties between church and state and how public officials work while putting aside their own religious beliefs in order to serve their constituents.
“It’s not just Catholics in this society. There are other people that have different views,” Vargas said.
The webinar hosted Peppard’s religion and American politics class along with other students who expressed interest in the topic. At the end of the session, three students were able to ask Vargas questions. The first asked about his decision to attend and his experience at law school.
“The work that I do is because I believe deeply in the Bible. I do believe deeply in our mission to try to make the world a better place and to honor it and so that’s why I do it.”Rep. Juan Vargas
Vargas provided insight into what sparked his political career after earning his juris doctor (J.D.) from Harvard in 1991 and how he became a member of Congress.
“I started practicing law and then really decided that I wanted to do something more than just practice law, so I got into politics,” he said. “I lost an election first. I ran the clean campaign and got my clock cleaned, so next time I ran the not-so-clean campaign.”
Regarding his humanitarian work in El Salvador, one student asked Vargas whether or not his work is guided by his biblical principles.
“The work that I do is because I believe deeply in the Bible,” he said. “I do believe deeply in our mission to try to make the world a better place and to honor it and so that’s why I do it.”
In response to a question about the relationship between politics and religion, Vargas admitted that the two intersect. However, he added that it is harder to come to an agreement when there is a difference in views on issues that are profoundly personal.
“I take an oath to defend the Constitution and I really do try to do that, and there are some instances, I think, where the Constitution doesn’t live up to what it should be but again, those are the rules that we live on.”
The event closed with Vargas reminiscing on his years at Fordham and asking Peppard to keep Congress in his prayers.