This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Crossway, publisher of The Death of Porn: Men of Integrity Building a World of Nobility by Ray Ortlund. In this book, Ray aims to inspire men to come together in new ways to fight the injustice of porn and build a world of nobility for every man and woman. More information at crossway.org.
In former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s new book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square (Nelson Books), he asks, “Do our political actions match our theology, or has our theology been taken captive to our political beliefs?”
A political book that’s driven by theology, Faithful Presence offers a stirring call to justice and mercy with humility. Gov. Haslam sees the “image of God” as the foundational truth that can bridge the gap in our polarized political culture. He says humility is the key to overcoming these differences—when you listen to others, and admit your faults, others will be more likely to listen to you.
The only biblical way for us to walk into the public square is the way Jesus walked toward the cross. He was motivated by love for a broken and hurting people—not to be proven right, or to win the argument, or to gain power for himself.
Gov. Haslam joined me on Gospelbound to discuss political theology, intolerance, his ideal congregation, and why Christians shouldn’t give up on politics.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: I know the answer to the question that guides former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s new book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, published by Nelson Books. But I don’t want to face the consequences of that answer. Governor Haslam asks this, “Do our political actions match our theology or has our theology been taken captive to our political beliefs?”
Well, you probably know the answer too. But Governor Haslam was known as a problem solver. First as two-term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, then as a two-term governor. When he was re-elected in 2014, it was the largest margin of victory in any gubernatorial election in state history.
He’s written a political book that’s driven by theology. He sees the image of God as foundational truth that can bridge the gap that most of us despair of ever bridging in our polarized political culture. He says, “Humility is the key to overcoming these differences. When you listen to others and admit your faults, others will be more likely to listen to you. Faithful presence offers a stirring call to justice and mercy with humility.”
Governor Haslam writes this, “Pursuing justice without mercy will lead only to self-righteousness. Mercy without justice leaves unaddressed, many of the inequalities that plague us today. And justice or mercy without humility results in a destructive pride about how just and merciful we are.”
Governor Haslam believes Christians are uniquely equipped to address the seemingly impossible problems of racism, economic opportunity, equity, and education, care of creation and long-term debt. And he roots his argument explicitly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, his example as well as his sacrifice, as Governor Haslam writes:
“The story of Jesus coming to live and die is the story of a God of justice who knew we needed mercy. His justice demanded that a price be paid for our rebellion against him. His mercy was not without costs. His mercy meant that in the greatest love story ever told, it was his own son who had to be sacrificed. The only biblical way for us to walk into the public square is the way Jesus walked toward the cross. His motivation was his love for a broken and hurting people. It was not to be proven right or to win an argument, or to gain power for himself.”
Governor Haslam joins me on Gospelbound to discuss political theology in tolerance, his ideal congregation, and why Christians shouldn’t give up on politics? Governor Haslam, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Bill Haslam: Well, thanks. I’ve been looking forward to the conversation and I appreciate the good intro there. You did a nice job of summarizing.
Collin Hansen: Well, Governor Haslam, what’s the biggest difference between when you became governor of Tennessee and now in politics?
Bill Haslam: You hate to hit on the easy target, but social media really has changed everything. And I say that in this sense that it’s… By the way, it’s true in politics. It’s even dangerously true in the church, right? We all know it’s easy to go get a lot of likes or a lot of hits by saying that thing that everybody will say, “Yeah, that’s what I think too.”
It’s a lot harder to actually go out and solve a problem, but our culture today and the way we communicate encourages us to say those things that will get a lot of people clapping for us. It doesn’t encourage us to actually solve problems. And when I became governor in 2010, we were kind of on the front edge of that. Social media wasn’t playing nearly the dominant role in society and in politics that it does today.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Certainly, we see a lot of those same trends within the church, and we talk about them often here on the Gospelbound podcast. Why do you think, Governor Haslam, that most Christians don’t have a developed political theology beyond a few issues such as abortion, religious freedom, and gay marriage?
Bill Haslam: Well, think about it this way. Think about, if you’ve been around the church for any portion of your life, you’ve been to… And say you’re in business, you’ve been to lots of meetings and seminars, and retreats all focused on, “Here’s what it looks like to be a Christian in the business world.”
Or if you’re a student, like, there’re student ministries galore, all talking to us about, “Here’s what it looks like to walk faithfully with Christ as a high school student or college student, or wherever you are.” We haven’t really done that with our politics. Nobody has really said, “What’s it look like to walk faithfully in this world?”
Like I said, there’s a few issues we’ve engaged on, and the churches, I think we’ve engaged in all the wrong ways in politics. We’ve basically said, “Here’s the Christian position on this issue,” but we haven’t talked about, “Here’s what it looks like to act faithfully. Here’s what it looks like if… Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful.” What in the world does that mean for us in this world?
And my sense says, well, because we haven’t talked about that, what has happened instead is we’ve said in politics, these things matter so much that the stakes are so high. We have this culture war going on, and if we unilaterally disarm, the other side is going to wipe us out. And if we act like Jesus asks us to like, it’ll feel like we’re disarming, and the stakes are too big.
But as I say, we don’t give ourselves a waiver on other things according to the circumstances. We don’t say, “In business, you need to act ethically, unless you’re about to go bankrupt, in which case, you can do whatever you need to do, or in your marriage, you should be faithful to your spouse, unless there’s a really, really attractive person that works with you, in which case we’ll give you a waiver.”
We don’t do that, but we’ve done that in politics. We’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to suspend Jesus’s teaching here because we’re not certain it applies.”
Collin Hansen: Well, maybe you’ve already answered this question, but if you had the power to change just one thing about how Christians engage in politics in the United States today, what would it be?
Bill Haslam: I would say we should take seriously what the Bible says about how we act in this part of our lives, as much as we do in our marriages and our child raising, and in everything else.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Well, it seems a little odd to talk about how we’re not discipling in this area, when you consider how much time and how much money Christians do actually devote to politics. So why the disconnect? Why is there so much energy and so much attention, and so much money given to this topic, and yet so little discipleship happening?
Bill Haslam: Yeah, and I come back and blame us in the church, because there’s just not… We’re not forming Christian thinkers for the political sphere. And so Christians engage in the culture as they should, like I said, in campaigns and donating money, and oftentimes running themselves, running for office themselves, but we haven’t done a good job of…. Theology sounds like it’s too heavy of a word, like how I’m not into theology. I’m into practical Christian living, but that theology is teaching us how does what we believe impact what we do and who we are?
And we just haven’t done that in the political realm, and the result is we have lives that are disconnected… Our public arena lives are disconnected from our spiritual lives, and there’s just no other place where we say, “That’s okay.”
Collin Hansen: What do you see happen to well-intentioned Christian politicians? Because you hear a lot about how they’re bringing their faith into their politics, but politics can be a very cruel master. And it seems like you see a lot of change in those politicians.
Is there something you notice that tends to come in common with people who seem to lose the idealism, or even principled nature of their work as they get involved deeper in politics?
Bill Haslam: It’s why I talk so much in the book about humility, but I do it for two reasons. One, God’s so strong on humility. It’s kind of at the core of the gospel. I always say, if you don’t get humility, then you don’t get the gospel. You don’t get the sense of the kind of Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And so, God says repeatedly, God’s opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. So that’s the first reason.
The second is, I’ve seen what happens in these jobs. Listen, when you’re in office, you get responded to in one of two ways. People either say, “You’re garbage or trash, or you’re worse than pond scum, or you’re the greatest thing in the world.” And the reality is we know as believers, neither are true.
We’re not the greatest in the world. We’re sinful, broken people. We’re not pond scum either. We’re created in the image of God, but when that’s how you hear, you tend to say, “Well, the people are calling me pond scum, I’m going to screen out and people are telling me great, must be right.” And you have so much power in other ways that pretty soon, you start thinking that you are all that.
And I can’t tell you how many people and I was and am susceptible to it too, who really lose this idea of, “I’m called here. So in calling here, I’m going to trust God, and that means I don’t have to be out telling everybody how great I am.”
Collin Hansen: One of your gubernatorial colleagues here in Alabama, Governor Bentley, he was an example of this. And I remember, I didn’t really understand all of the amazing power that would come to a governor. And one of the ways that people talked about Governor Bentley’s situation was just how dramatic that shift was for him moving from what he’d been doing professionally into that role.
And I think if that’s what it means to be the governor of Alabama or the governor of Tennessee, then what must that possibly mean to be the president of the United States? And sometimes I wonder, is it even possible to be a healthy human being and be president of the United States? Do you ever wonder that same thing?
Bill Haslam: Well, it’s a great question, for two reasons. One, it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to even run for office. You’re from Alabama so I I’ll go ahead and use a football analogy, to like playing cornerback in football. Okay.
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Bill Haslam: You’ve got to trust that, “Hey, I’m guarding one of these world talented wide receivers. I’m out here by myself,” and it takes a certain amount of… hopefully it’s not ego, but of self-confidence to even run for office, to raise your hand and say, “I’m going to go through that vulnerable, visible process.” That’s part of it.
Then second, if you get in office, if you’re the president, everywhere you go, you’re living behind fences. Heck, even as governor, you live in a house behind a fence, you’re driven everywhere you go. When you get up to speak, everybody stands to applaud. No matter what you do, people are treating you special.
And one of the things that we should all know is that temptation toward egotism, toward narcissism, whatever it is, hey, that’s sort of the type of people that it draws towards, that are drawn toward politics. And I say that as a person that’s been in office myself. And then second, being in office just makes it worse.
Collin Hansen: You came though, from a pretty high-profile business position within your family as well. So did that help prepare you for the governor’s mansion, that you already were… Of course, you’d been a mayor as well, but what did you see as you were growing up kind of in the spotlight with your family, with your business? How did Christ meet you in those places, to be able to prepare you for the scrutiny that would come as the governor?
Bill Haslam: I do think it helped. It helped to have been in business for a number of reasons. Like you said, came from a family that a lot of people knew. So I was used to not being totally anonymous, and then had been a mayor, so I think all that, just in terms of human preparation helped.
At the end of the day, what I think makes a bigger difference, I hope, is recognizing that you’re a child of the king and seeing things totally different. And I don’t know why God allowed me to be governor. I don’t know why he allowed me to do a lot of things He’s allowed me to do, but being firmly convicted that, that’s what I was called to do, made all that feel really different.
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Bill Haslam: … called in terms of being special, but just, hey, for whatever reasons, he gave me the keys to that car at that particular point in time. And my job was to faithfully drive that car.
Collin Hansen: Right. What would you say, Governor Haslam, would be one thing that Christians could do now to prioritize the formational practices of following Jesus over the partisan ideology of today’s media and online life as you alluded to earlier?
Bill Haslam: Yeah, I think it’s such a great question. I do think it’s this. It’s that we should approach the public square with humility, I would say number one. Number two, we should realize that the public square is the place where we really can affect change. And if we believe that God cares about the world, if we believe he sends his sun on the just and unjust, the [inaudible 00:14:54] the righteous and the unrighteous, that we don’t really have, I don’t think, an alternative just to walk away and say, “I’m so over all this politics, a pox on the Republicans and the Democrats. I’m out of here.”
I don’t think that’s part of who we’re called to be. I think we’re called to engage, but we’re called to engage with humility.
Collin Hansen: One of the things you write about in Faithful Presence is the struggle for Christians with the switch from feeling as though we had been the home team, to becoming the visiting team in American culture. And I would imagine Tennessee is such a diverse state, so different in so many different parts of that beautiful state that maybe that switch has been especially pronounced in certain parts.
How should Christians adjust to this shift? Do you think there should be a demand that Christians should become the home team again?
Bill Haslam: I’d say if you look biblically, we’ve rarely been the home team, if you will, culturally, and the church, as you know, has thrived in those times, maybe the most, when we weren’t the home team, when it felt like the culture was against us. And so I think that a couple of thoughts there, again. Number one is we’ve seen the culture shift. A lot of us have reacted out of fear.
We’ve said, “Oh man, it’s everything from the way our cultural looks at sex, to is it expected that people go to church on Sunday morning has changed so dramatically from when I grew up in the ‘60s. So the word to us is number one, don’t ever react out of… Reacting out of fear, A, it’s not biblical, and B, it doesn’t bring out your best self.
The second thing is this, one of the verses that kind of inspired me to run is out of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah 29. And you should remember, the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon. And Jeremiah writes to them. He’s still in Jerusalem. He writes to them, and I always tell people, “If I’m held captive, I hope you write and tell me I’m coming to get you quick.” But he writes and tells them, “Hey, get used to it. You’re going to be there a while.”
And he says, “Plant gardens, build houses, marry your children, have your children have children.” And he says, “Seek the welfare of the place where you have been called, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.”
And you think about if you’re there like, “Whoa, first of all, the place where we’ve been called, we’re being held captive. This is a pretty bad culture that we’re here under, number one. And then number two, in its welfare, we’ll find our welfare. Well, it seems backwards, but God is clearly tell them, “Where you are right now is where I’ve called you.”
And I think that’s a message a lot of us need to hear. I’m longing for the old days when everybody in the office went to church to, “God’s called me here. What’s it look like to be salt and light right here, right now?”
Collin Hansen: One of the things that you talk about in Faithful Presence is that Christians seemed to suffer from an epidemic of caring too much about politics. You alluded to this earlier, but given all the problems that we see, and all of the malformed Christian engagement in politics, why not just give up on the whole political process?
You said, “God cares about the world, and the public square is a way that we help to enact that love of our neighbors.” But is it worth all the trouble considering all of the problems that we see with how Christians are currently doing it?
Bill Haslam: Yeah. It’s a great question, and I’d go back to that verse in Jeremiah, where it says, “Seek the welfare of the place where you’ve been called.” One of the lessons I learned from being mayor and governor is it makes an incredible difference who leads and who serves, more than I thought.
And I say that, not to say you should elect Republicans, or like Democrats. More of you should elect people who truly want to solve problems. And I talk to folks all the time and say, “Well, I’m for this person because their position on this issue,” and I’d say, “Hey, that issue is really important to me, but I really want to have people that are there to make a difference instead of just make a point.”
And it’s really easy in politics today to make a point. It’s way harder to make a difference. And if you do elect people like that, that the ways that, that can change your community, your state, your country, are far bigger than you thought.
Collin Hansen: You’ve mentioned a number of times here, humility. One of the things you write about in your book is especially the humility of Christ himself in Philippians 2. How could we, as an electorate, encourage candidates and help candidates win, who demonstrate that kind of humility?
Because it seems pretty counterintuitive right now. It doesn’t seem to be the main way that you get ahead in politics right now.
Bill Haslam: Yeah. Like you said, the verse that you referred to, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility, consider others greater than yourselves,” said no political consultant ever, and never will. But I think part of that is, again, finding those people around who do want to serve for those reasons, and engaging to help them.
Particularly in today’s world where it feels like the social media and the way we communicate today is rewarding just the opposite kind behavior. Here’s the bottom line though, that I’d say to folks listening to your podcast is this, maybe it’s for times like right now that rather than lamenting, that the world has gone bad for us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
When you use those verses, I think what Jesus was telling us is don’t get mad at the world when the world goes bad. It’s not the meat’s fault if the meat goes bad, it’s the salt’s fault. And then we should be, I guess, humbled and challenged by the next verse. “And if the salt has lost its saltiness, it’s good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled under foot.”
So if we look at the worlds, I can’t believe how… out of despair, how horrible things are, where the culture has gone to. We first should look at ourselves because we’re the ones that are supposed to keep it from happening. And then if that’s true, then how do we do that? How do we actually engage a salt to keep the meat from going bad?
Collin Hansen: One of the things I appreciated you writing about in this book was this wave of intolerance that’s taken over so many American universities, and now certainly, also many corporations as well. Can governors or just ordinary Christians who are listening to this podcast, can they do anything about this wave of intolerance?
Bill Haslam: Yeah, I think we can. And of course, unfortunately the intolerance is kind of on both sides, right?
Collin Hansen: Right.
Bill Haslam: From the right end from the left. And I think the one thing we can do, it’s why I talk in the book so much about… I think everybody is… The world is becoming more, I guess, discontented with the fact that everybody is discontent. I don’t know that. My English teacher would probably spank me for that, I’m sure I didn’t say it right.
But I think in the midst of that, what’s being lost today is this idea of created in the image of God. And if I really do believe the person on the other side of the political argument is created in the image of God, I have to look at him or her in a different way. I can’t say, “Oh man, every time I drive by, they have a yard sign up for the wrong candidate, or a bumper sticker on their car for the wrong candidate, or I can’t look at them as if they’re the enemy.”
The other side of the political argument is not the enemy. The enemy is the evil one who prowls looking to devour, and unfortunately, we as believers have fallen like just everyone else and said, “Man, the guy on the other side of the argument, that’s what’s wrong with the world,” when I need to be saying, “The person on the other side of the argument is created in the image of God. I know that as somebody who doesn’t always get everything right, I might not have this one right.”
So when you know that I’m going to listen, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to have any convictions. I’ve stolen the phrase… Now I’ve stolen it for so long, I can’t remember who I stole it from but, “We should be firm on the inside and soft on the outside.” And we’re too much the other way. We’re hard on the outside, in the argument, but we’re soft on the inside in terms of where our convictions are.
Collin Hansen: Now, I’m sure you’ve never done this. You’ve never sat in a congregation in the pews and ever wondered about your ideal church and what you would do as the leader of that church. Sure, you’ve never done that before. [crosstalk 00:24:30] Would your ideal congregation, would everybody agree on politics and policies, or would there be some disagreement?
Bill Haslam: I would think that ideal congregation would have some disagreement and would have some true diversity, not just in thought, but in background, and in income, and race and everything, that we would look a little more like the big church, if you will, the global church.
And I say that because, A, I think that’s the way God designed it, but B, I get better, I learn when I’m around people who don’t see the world exactly the way I do. And I think that’s true, no matter whether it’s a discussion about a book or a discussion about the best way to impact things, or where you’re going to invest your money.
Whatever it is, I grow and I’m challenged when I’m around people who see the world a little differently. And I don’t know, but I’m betting heaven feels a little like that.
Collin Hansen: Let’s say, Governor Haslam, you had another term as Governor. What’s one thing you couldn’t accomplish in your eight years that you really wish you could still do?
Bill Haslam: A couple of things come to mind. The first one is this, one of the things you do as governor is you’re involved on the back-end of the judicial process in terms you have the ability to grant clemency or pardons, or exonerations. And I thought that would be really easy to come in and weigh in on those issues.
But it’s really hard to be just and merciful at the same time. That was one of my observations. But the second was, I feel like quite frankly, we’re putting too many people in prison for too long, particularly some very young people. And I think a way to look at judicial and sentencing reform in a thoughtful, I would argue biblical way would be a place something we can do.
That’s one of those issues I didn’t really understand until I got near the end of my time, because we were doing so many other things. But that would be one of the key ones. And then the second would be, we spend a lot of time on public education just because I think it’s the biggest chance to change the trajectory of people’s lives. And we made some headway, but there’s still a lot more things we could do.
Collin Hansen: My guest on Gospelbound has been Governor Haslam, Bill Haslam, author of Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square. Governor Haslam in Gospelbound, I have a final three. So we’re going to do three last quick questions for you. First question, where do you find calm in the storm?
Bill Haslam: That’s such a great question. I’ve been married now for 40 years and there’s a certain beauty that comes with being with a person for a long period of time, and going through storms and trials, and joys of various kinds. So propped up in bed next to my wife of 40 plus years, talking at the end of the day feels like calm.
Collin Hansen: I like that, like that. Governor Haslam, where do you find good news today?
Bill Haslam: Oh boy. The easy answer is to say the gospel. I guess you won’t let me pick that one, huh?
Collin Hansen: It’s already in the title of the podcast. Let’s branch out a little bit.
Bill Haslam: There we go. I’m repeatedly encouraged. I know people look out the world and see a lot of discouraging things, but one of the things I was so impressed with as governor is how many people really are serving in a selfless way. And we can easily get caught in how many selfish people there are, or how many folks who just seem to be about themselves?
But at the end of the day, I was continually amazed that not just when something tragic would happen, but in the everyday life, the way that people were serving, that they weren’t getting any attention, but they were doing the hard stuff, and for a long time, I guess what Eugene Peterson called it, “A long obedience in the same direction.” I just was continually encouraged by that.
Collin Hansen: You had a number of opportunities to see that at work, just through the tragedies of that Nashville endured during your tenure as Governor. Many difficult moments there, especially with the flooding. Governor Haslam, what’s the last great book you’ve read?
Bill Haslam: Well, I always have a hard time with that question because so many different books come to mind. The last great book, I’m actually… This is a novel called… Not a Christian book called A Long Pedal to the Sea. It’s about the Spanish Civil War and the folks who lose the war and end up in Chile, and the lives over about a 30- or 40-year period.
It’s just a good novel I’m reading right now. If you ask me to recommend one book that I’ve read recently, Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. It was a really good transformative book for me.
Collin Hansen: Great, great choice. Great choice there. My guest on Gospelbound again, has been Governor Bill Haslam, author of Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square. And Governor Haslam, thank you for the very encouraging conversation.
Bill Haslam: Well, thanks for having me. And I’m always encouraged by folks like you who are working hard to make the truth of the gospel real in a lot of different circumstances. So thanks for allowing me to come in.
Collin Hansen: Amen. Thank you.