Online Conversation | Faithful Presence: The Promise of Peril of Faith in the Public Square with Bill Haslam
On June 25th, we hosted Bill Haslam, former governor of Tennessee, to discuss his recently released book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square. Drawing upon his years of public service, Haslam discussed means of helpful participation in and redemption of our deeply divided public square. Against the deep divisions and angry culture-warring that characterizes so much of Christian political engagement, he advocated for a generous and confident pluralism oriented towards the common good, and offered new insights on partisan divisions, the separation of church and state, and religious freedom. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
The song is “Bring the Light” – by Abby Gunderson
Special thanks to this event’s partners:
Gif and Anna Thornton
Lawrence S. Lamb
Transcript of “Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square” with Bill Haslam
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square.” We really are grateful toward both Gif and Anna Thorton, Lawrence Lamb, and our co-host New City Commons in making today’s program possible. If this is your first time joining us—you are one of those 150 people who are new to our online conversations and perhaps new to the Trinity Forum—we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that this program will be a small taste of that for you.
And certainly some of the questions we’ve had to increasingly grapple with in the public square, as well as our personal lives, include how is it possible to discern and promote the common good, especially when we are so angry and divided? What’s our civic obligation to those whose beliefs we believe to be harmful? Or to paraphrase a question that our guest posed in his book, in a world where political discussion has turned so mean and contemptuous, and Christians have frequently acted just as mean and contemptuous, is it even possible to have a faithful presence in today’s political climate? It’s an increasingly urgent question and one to which our guest brings quite a bit of real-world experience.
So we’re delighted to be able to explore it and wrestle with it with our guest today, Governor Bill Haslam. Bill Haslam served as the 49th governor of the state of Tennessee from 2011 to 2019 after previously serving as the two-term mayor of Knoxville. As Alyssa mentioned, he has been a real friend to the Trinity Forum and helped participate and even launch our presence in Nashville, which has now been going on for 10 years, and we are just really grateful for his role in that. Before becoming both governor and before that mayor, he had worked with the Pilot Corporation for almost 20 years, eventually becoming its president, and then working as the CEO of the e-commerce division of Saks Fifth Avenue before he ran for office. He serves on the boards of Teach for America and Young Life, has been married to his wife, Crissy, for 40 years, and is the author of the new-release Faithful Presence, which we’ve invited him to discuss today. So, Bill, welcome. Great to see you.
Bill Haslam: Cherie, thanks. I have to say, it’s been fun to watch all these people on the chat roll through, friends from all around. So thanks. I’m wishing this could be a live conversation with all those names I just saw.
Cherie Harder: Oh, we wish it were live as well. One of these days, hopefully very soon. So this is your first book. Often politicians write their memoirs. It is not a memoir. You’ve written a very different kind of book. So I wanted to ask you what led you to write it? And then just looking at the title itself, what does “faithful presence” in political life mean?
Bill Haslam: Thanks. You know, like most people—I’m actually going to say, like everybody on this call—I’m concerned with the current state of our partisan divide, and not just the fact that we’re divided—everybody knows that—but the contempt that we have for people that we see as being on the other side. And I think one of the things that maybe bothered me the most while I was in office was that when I looked out at Christians and people of faith, I felt like we weren’t acting any different than anyone else. And, you know, it has become more and more apparent to me that part of the problem is we have a strong sense of, here are the things that we care about as Christians in the public square and that people know us for. Unfortunately, nobody is really taught nearly as much about, well, what should we act like in the public square? You know, all of us have been to hundreds of Sunday school classes and seminars on here’s what marriage looks like or raising children. Here’s what it’s like to be a business person or a student. But nobody’s really talked that much about what does it look like to be faithful in the public square. And so I’m sure a lot of your listeners would recognize I stole the title from James Davidson Hunter, who talked about fateful presence, and I asked if I could borrow it. But this idea of what would it look like if people of faith entered the public square in a different way, that we might be not just part of exacerbating the issue, but actually making it better?
Cherie Harder: So you mentioned the divisions as part of sort of the peril of our political situation, and one of the studies that you cited in your book I wanted to ask you about, which pertains to what you have called “motive attribution asymmetry,” which is essentially where one believes that oneself is acting out of love, goodness of heart, beneficence, and one’s opponents are motivated by, at best, stupidity and at worst, evil. And you cite another study that essentially finds that the levels of motive attribution asymmetry in the United States right now are somewhat akin to what they are between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And so I have to ask: what’s going on with that? Why are we so eager to see our political antagonists as haters and fools?
Bill Haslam: Yeah, actually, the study was something like six years ago, and it showed that motivation attribution asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats, left and right, red and blue, to be greater than that between Israelis and Palestinians. And that was six years ago. So we know it’s only gotten worse. So what’s going on? I think there’s a couple of things. I think, first of all, the age in which we live, where we can choose where we get our information from, and we can watch—one of the things I say in the book—is we watch the news for ammunition, not for information. I watch the news that I want to pick because it’s going to tell me that what I think is right. And today we all know you can pick your news anywhere along the spectrum. And so you watch that and you go, “Aha, see? I knew I’m right.” And we dig in further and we’re more certain that if you don’t see it my way, then it must be for bad motives. And I think there’s more of a sense, I think, unfortunately, for people of faith, we’ve reacted to that out of fear. And fear is always a bad motivator. And we’re told repeatedly in scripture not to fear, but we look around and see the world changing really fast. This one pastor I know quipped, he said, “It’s like we went from being the home team to the visiting team in one generation.” And now it’s like we’re in a foreign land and we don’t know how to act and we’re afraid of what we see happening. And so I think it’s that. It’s this sense of “We’re divided, we’re mad, we think you have bad motives. And I’m really, really worried about what is happening.”
Cherie Harder: You know, in your work, you mentioned a number of different what you call “the perils” in the public square, and you did talk about the fact that there’s a lot of young people who are becoming disillusioned and simply dropping out, withdrawing. But I wanted to ask you about, in many ways, the opposite peril of that, the trend towards freighting politics with too much significance and even taking on too much significance to politics in our own sense of identity. The sociologist Jonathan Haidt, who we talked with on one of these Online Conversations at one point, had found that one of the biggest markers of identity—which used to be faith—faith has actually become eclipsed by politics in terms of an identity marker. He talked about the fact that in 1960 it was only around 5 percent of Americans who said they’d be displeased if their child married someone of a different party. That’s now 40 percent, which is actually higher than the number of people who say they’d be displeased if their child married outside their faith. So as a person of faith as well as a politician, why do you believe that we the people in many ways are increasingly basing our identity on the political rather than either on our faith or other forms of identity?
Bill Haslam: Well, I think a couple of things. Number one, some of that’s the figure I mentioned before when people see, “Well, this world’s changing fast; we need to pass a law to stop that from happening. If we can only elect the right people, they will stop this cultural slide that we see.” So I think that’s a big piece of it. I think the second thing is I think it’s an issue of— it’s a hard issue for us as people of faith. I think the question that a lot of us who are involved in the political world should ask ourselves: are we as upset about losing our relationship with God as we are about losing an election for someone that we care about? And does it stir that same passion in you when you think about your relationship slipping with God as it does when you see the culture slipping away, that I don’t want it to happen. And so I think it’s the— again, at the end of the day, I think it’s a hard issue for us and a question of trust. And this sense that if we can just elect the right people and they pass the right laws, this will stop, and our world will look more the way that I feel like it should look.
Cherie Harder: You know, another challenge or peril that pertains to our polarization is the ways that our polarization has changed over time. As you had sort of mentioned earlier, it’s not just that we disagree with each other, but that we also really dislike each other and disrespect each other. And a newer wrinkle is the sort of things that we disagree on. There’s certainly been a long and robust history of Americans disagreeing on policy, you know, even disagreeing on ideas, even values. But increasingly, we don’t agree, not just on right or wrong or better or worse, but on true or false, real or unreal. There’s, it seems like, an increasing sense of almost customized reality that kind of falls down on political lines, as well as a rise in conspiracy theories. And one of our guests just a little while ago, David French, talked about the fact that Christians are not immune from that trend, that actually self-reported evangelical Christians are the most likely group to affirm at least part of the Q conspiracy theory. So what is going on with that kind of peril to our political process? Why have we as people of faith been just as susceptible to conspiracy and to sort of different takes on reality than any other group?
Bill Haslam: I think you put your finger on something that’s right on target, Cherie. If you think back to when Jesus is before Pilot and Jesus talks about truth and Pilot has his famous “What’s truth?” [line]. And you’re thinking is the governor there, he’s heard all sorts of people paraded in and out of his office talking about what’s true. And he becomes kind of the first postmodernist. He says, “You know, what’s truth anyway?” And I think historically, we tend to think of people maybe further from the left of saying the truth is relative idea. That what’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me. Unfortunately, I think we’ve seen that now across the political spectrum. And I’ve talked to any number of pastors recently who said, “I’m really thinking about quitting because in my church, there are so many people who have taken on to conspiracy theories and have said they believe that, ‘Well, you can have the truth, and I can have an alternate truth, and they can both be true at the same time.'” I think, again, we’ve lost this sense of we’re the people who are supposed to believe in truth. Now, the qualifier is that we’re the people who are supposed to believe in truth AND love. You know, speak the truth with love. That’s what’s hard in the world today. And, unfortunately, we’re not doing—I’m using the broad “we” of the church—we’re not doing great at the truth part or the love part, particularly the love part when we talk about truth.
Cherie Harder: Well, I’m confident we could talk about the perils to the public square for a long time, but I definitely want to sort of dig in to what some of the promises are. And one of the things that you’ve talked about is that—and I think you put it this way—you said, “In my experience, most Christians don’t have a developed political theology except for a position on a few issues,” whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or religious freedom or the like. So what would, in your experience or perspective, a robust political theology look like in practice?
Bill Haslam: So you start with this: One of the things that’s fundamental to our faith is this sense of being broken, imperfect people, the Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So that should be our starting point. My political mentor was a man named Howard Baker, who was a senator from Tennessee and ended up being Reagan’s chief of staff and ambassador to Japan for Bush 41. But Baker was from a little country town north of Knoxville, and he said, “Always remember the other fella might be right.” OK? Now, as Christians who understand this concept of our own fallenness, our own brokenness, I mean, I’ve made 87 mistakes today or since lunch, between lunch and this conversation. OK? We just know that’s fundamentally true about ourselves. So if that’s true about ourselves in every other way, it should be true that we realize we might not have all this right in the political square. That doesn’t mean we’re mushy or that we’re, you know, we’re soft on the truth at all. But it does mean we enter with a spirit of humility. And, you know, the thing that I think scripture is the clearest on—or one of the things—is this call to humility. Both Peter and James say, “for God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.” And, you know, James writes, “Wisdom that’s from above—” So think about this: how are Christians known in the public square? And we would hope it be known for having wisdom from above. Well, James says wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits, open to reason, sincere and impartial. OK, now if we all walked out to the main street of where we lived and said, “Would you describe Christians as full of mercy, open to reason, sincere, impartial,” I don’t think you would get a lot of “Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I see Christians in the public square.” And yet that’s what we’re clearly commanded to do. So my fear is we’ve taken some things that scripture is not clear about and we’ve tried to make them fundamental truths. Meanwhile, some things that are fundamental truth we’ve ignored. And I would think beginning with this concept of humility, which should be the mark of every Christian.
Cherie Harder: You know, as clear as scripture is about humility, one can easily see why it would be a really tough sell in the public arena, in that, you know, to be— I work for a nonprofit. You know, we’re often told you can’t change the world if you can’t make the rent. In politics, you can’t change the world unless you’re elected. And there is a lot of evidence to suggest that humility does not get you votes. It does not get you donors. It does not get you retweets or attention. At one point you wrote in your book that great leadership and humble leadership looks a lot more like Socrates and Lincoln than Patton or Nero. But at the same time, Socrates was essentially executed by the state. He was forced to commit suicide. Lincoln was assassinated. And we’ve had ample evidence over the last several years that there is in many ways a real appetite for narcissism, bullying, and self-promotion. So how is a public servant to navigate what seems like the positive reinforcement and rewards of the antithesis of humility?
Bill Haslam: So that quote that “great leadership looks more like Socrates and Lincoln than it does like Nero or Patton” is actually not from me. That’s from Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, which I’m sure everybody on here has read. It’s kind of the seminal business book. And if you remember what he did is he went in and studied all these companies without a predisposition as to what it was going to show about the companies that averaged like the market did in returns for 10 years, and then had 10 years of way above normal returns. And then he went back and said, those companies that went from good to great—and he took out all the extraneous factors—and said what were the common characteristics of their leaders? And that was the conclusion. That these leaders were people of mission and purpose, but people who realized that the story wasn’t about them. And again, that’s something, again, that’s kind of fundamental to us as Christians is we know the story’s not about us.
And so one of the chapters in the book is, well, if the meek shall inherit the Earth, who’s going to run for office? And you might say, like, well, it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It feels like the arrogant and the people who are great at putting other folks down on Twitter, etc, that they’re winning. But I’d argue two things. Number one: what’s the historical record show in terms of who’s been effective. And again, I’ll take a Lincoln and obviously, unfortunately, he was assassinated. But this is somebody that people mistook his humility for weakness, and he was willing to withstand the deaths of 600,000 Americans to keep the Union together and to obliterate slavery. And then I think the other thing I’d say is, even if we say, “the world doesn’t want what we have, the world doesn’t react well to humility,” I still don’t think— Somehow we have this idea that in politics, because the stakes are so high, because it matters so much, we can suspend the normal rules. So in business, we don’t say, you know, if you’re about to go bankrupt, then you can make some unethical decisions. Or we don’t say in marriage, if the person in the next cubicle is really, really attractive, then you don’t have to worry about your marriage house. We don’t make those waivers anywhere else. Somehow in the public square, we said, “Listen, it’s a knife fight out there and we can’t bring pillows. And so we need to be in the knife fight, too.” But I don’t see anywhere scripture says, again, we get to act differently because the stakes are so high.
Cherie Harder: That’s really interesting. Related to that, and certainly one of the drivers of the erosion of humility in the public square, is probably social media. And, of course, anybody who’s engaged in the public square, one of the things you have to do is you have to operate within the culture of your time. And one of the defining sort of modes of our public discourse is social media, even though in many ways and according to many theorists, it does seem like many of our social media are almost perfectly calibrated to, not just encourage narcissism, but also to encourage division and enmity and confusion and alienation and everything else. So as someone who has had to have a very robust social media presence, as anyone does when they’re running for office, what does a faithful presence look like on, say, Twitter?
Bill Haslam: Yeah, I think it looks like not saying the person with the most clever quip wins. And it’s not the person with, like I said, the best putdown that wins. Here’s part of the argument I’m trying to make in Faithful Presence is this: I think the world is thirsty, so thirsty, for the life that we have been given in Christ. I’ll give an example: right now as I’m doing this, we’re at a Young Life camp in North Carolina where a friend of ours is speaking. And think about the situation. These are teenagers who have been basically cooped up, trapped, not been able to be what teenagers have historically been—social people—but they have had their phones. OK? Here they get their phones taken away from them. And it’s like there’s this sense of, “Oh, wow, I’ve forgotten what life was like. Life has been in my bedroom on my bed with my phone and now it’s, oh, I’m surrounded by real life.” And I think my point would be this: almost everybody that I know, and I bet that you know, is sick of living life through a social media filter that’s driven by, again, by who can be the most clever or who can who can portray their life in the best way. And they’re dying to see life in an abundant way. And I would argue this is our moment, when everybody is so exhausted and frustrated with the world as it is.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, I can see the questions are already piling up. But before we turn to audience questions, I’d love to ask you, just sort of extending out some of the ideas. You know, obviously, you’ve spent most of your life in business and in politics, but there’s lots of public sectors that have great cultural influence beyond those, and I would love to get your sense of what a faithful presence in other culture-shaping sectors—whether it’s the arts, entertainment, media, the university—might look like.
Bill Haslam: So, I mean, I think the basics are the same. I think, again, no matter which of those spheres you’re in, we have the same call to humility. We also bring with us something else. We’re in a world right now that can’t quite figure out justice and mercy. Right? We have people walking in the streets with signs saying “No justice, no peace.” And we understand that. But we also know the human side. We need mercy too. Like, I don’t want a world of all justice because I know what that would mean for me. Nor do I want a world of all mercy. I want to make certain the bad guys get arrested, etc. What we have, again, as people of faith, is we have a picture of what justice and mercy together look like. I mean, there’s no better picture of how we can have justice and mercy than the cross. I mean, ultimately, it’s the most beautiful story ever of a God of justice and mercy, figuring out how to have both at the same time. And so as you walk into that world of—whether it be the arts or business or medicine or education or wherever you’re called to have a faithful presence—I would argue, I hope you bring with you this sense of humility, which I would actually argue in today’s world, rather than being a turn-off, is kind of a winsome call. And this idea of justice and mercy, that we need to be people of both of those things.
And I think the last thing I’d say is this: you mentioned David French earlier, and David wrote something, he said, “It’s hard to find any institution in our country today—political, religious, cultural, social—that’s not pulling us apart rather than bringing us together.” And so I guess that part of what I’m saying is that that could be what we’re called to do. I think it is. I mean, that’s what being salt and light might look like in today’s world.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, this is the portion of our Online Conversation where we actually turn to questions from our viewers. And you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So one of our first questions comes from Emily Wittenburg. And Emily asks, “Could you comment further on the relationships between James Davison Hunter’s rather rich conception of faithful presence and the approach that you take in your book? Hunter argues that Christians have over-relied on politics for their cultural engagement and explicitly calls Christians to faithfulness in all areas of life, not just politics.”
Bill Haslam: Yes. So, I agree that that’s what James has called for and it’s the right one, by the way. I just, I think we’re all called to be faithful in the places where God has called us. You know, the verse that really led me into politics was in Jeremiah 29 when the Israelites were held captive in Babylon and Jeremiah writes to them—Jeremiah is back in Jerusalem—and he writes— And I’ve always told people, if you write to me and I’m being held captive by a horrible king, I hope you’re writing, “I’m going to come get you. Keep your head down. I’ll be there quick.” But he writes, “You’re going to be there for a while.” So he said, “Plant gardens, build houses, marry, have children, make sure your children marry.” He said, “Seek the peace of the places where I have called you into exile, for in its welfare, you’ll find your welfare.” And so what I’d say is the questioner is right on target. Wherever God has called you, those places he’s called you in exile, you should seek the welfare of that place. So if it’s in arts and culture, you should see what it looks like to be salt and light in that situation. For me, for a period of life, it was in that public arena. And the reason I wrote this book is because I feel like Christians have been particularly ineffective and inadequate and unbiblical in our approach in the public square.
Cherie Harder: Thanks for that. So another question comes from Brenda Berman and Brenda asks, “As a believer in your roles as mayor and governor, how did you walk the balance between being an authentic follower of Jesus Christ on one hand and bringing your faith to bear on policy/legislative issues without seeming to overstep a separation-of-church-and-state boundary? Did any particular scriptures give you helpful guidance on that?”
Bill Haslam: Yes, it’s a great question. So we begin with the recognition that we live in a pluralistic society and country where our Constitution says we’re not going to give precedence to any one faith or even to faith at all over another. And I think the beauty of what our founders did—and I think you have had Ben Sasse on on here before, and Ben has a line in one of his books that says, before 1783, there was this idea that religion had to be a part of establishing a government. And our founders and framers, their brilliance was about saying faith is so important that we’re not going to let the government play any role. We’re not going to let the government establish it. But we’re also, and just as importantly, not going to prohibit the free exercise thereof. And it’s both of those things. And so there was one story I tell about in the book where our state legislators had passed a bill to make the Bible the official state book, like we have a state bird and a state insect and—I can keep going—a state tree and everything else. And so I ended up vetoing that bill. And I had a lot of friends say, like, wait, you vetoed the Bible? But is because, like I said, I think the Constitution is clear, like, we’re not supposed to establish a religion. And I also thought it trivialized the Bible, by the way, by putting it on the same level as our state insect and state song, but also the sense of that’s not what’s going to change hearts. Making the Bible the official state book is not going to change anybody’s heart.
And so there’s this keen sense of what the role is and then where the church has been effective. The last thing I’d say is, if you look at anywhere the church has been associated with the state, the church has lost in the end. Right? If you look at historically, the church in Europe and some places where we had an official state religion, the church has become very cold over time. And I don’t think it would help us to establish our faith as the official state religion in any way. I think, having said that—the flip side that I think is what the questioner was, you know, very keenly observing—is everybody brings their own worldview to the public square. We all bring our most deeply-held beliefs there, no matter what they are. And we shouldn’t be afraid to bring those beliefs to the public square and say, “Here’s why we think life is so important and here’s why we think looking out for the least of these matters to us.” And I can keep going, but I think you see the point.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So our next question comes from Scott Crosby, who wants to ask about the individual work versus the institutional, and he asks, “Both James Hunter and AEI’s Yuval Levin talk about the critical role that institutions play in shaping culture. From your experience in leading corporate and political institutions, can you speak to the element of the Christian’s role in being present institutionally as opposed to just acting predominantly in an individual capacity?”
Bill Haslam: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s so many people that can answer that a lot better than I can. But I think I would get to the point—like I said, we talked about earlier—it’s hard to see an institution that’s pulling the country together. And the reality is, is that institutions do have a big sway over what we think and what we say and in the culture of the country. So, you know, we need somebody that’s a real sociologist to answer this question, not me. But I would argue that’s a little bit— I’d answer that the same way. That’s part of being faithful to those places you’re called is there are some institutions that you’re a part of and whether it be your church or your industry or the cultural place you’ve been called. And I think if we can bring, again, salt and light to those places, then we have a chance of changing those institutions, which over time have a better chance to multiply. So, again, I’m not the right person to answer what’s the relationship between the individual and the institution, except that I do believe that we have a chance to influence institutions which can multiply our impact.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So we have a few questions coming in wanting your book recommendations. And I’m going to combine a couple of those. So Fritz Heinzen asks, “I would love to know what authors and books have influenced our guests.” And then similarly, Caitlin Shelton asks, “Are there books you’d recommend for developing a rich political theology?”
Bill Haslam: Wow, great question. I always hate when people ask me about books because off the top of my head I’m thinking, oh, I’m just frantic trying to mental search. But I mean, I can think about some books and people that I have read in this, from, you know, we talked about Ben Sasse before. Ben Sasse has two books I think were both great. Michael Ware, who worked in the Obama White House, has a book called Reclaiming Hope, which I think is outstanding. I think James’s book that we’ve referred to several times is great. Pete Wehner, who I think has been on this program before. And I’m drawing a blank on Pete’s book from a couple of years ago. I’m trying to just do a little mental inventory here. I’ll try to think of some more. But I will say this: Cherie and I were talking before we came on: so many of the people that are Trinity Fellows or Senior Fellows or have a relationship [with the Trinity Forum] are people that I think about have truly influenced my thinking. So a little bit of what I’d say is, go back and look at the guests that Cherie has had and the folks who write and have association, because a lot of those are people that I’ve beg, borrowed, and stolen ideas from.
Cherie Harder: Or perhaps they stole them from you! But if you do have others to add, we’ll just add it into the show notes later so people can see. So a question from David Vasquez who asks, “How should a Christian’s political campaign be different than one who does not follow Christ—or should it be different?”
Bill Haslam: So it’s a great question. There’s one of the scripture that says, you know, “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility, consider others greater than yourselves.” No political consultant ever gave that advice: “Do nothing from selfishness, but consider others greater than yourself.” Because a campaign is sort of about saying, “I’m the guy” or “I’m the woman.” You know, it’s “I can help the city, this state, this country.” But— and I want to also say this: campaigns are really, really, really hard. And I tend to give a lot of grace to people in campaigns because of everything I’ve ever done in my life, it might be the hardest. And both my first campaign for mayor and the first campaign for governor, I’d love to tell you that I was able to live by the “be anxious for nothing” scripture. But I was anxious most of the time because it’s just, it’s so visible and it’s so vulnerable.
But I do think that a faithful campaign what would look like talking about “here’s what I want to do” rather than “here’s why the other person is horrible.” I think it would look like the sense of “I do care about the common good. I think that government is one way to leverage your impact so much greater than most other things. And here is the way that I would like to use the leverage afforded to me by this office to impact the common good.” And I think we can run different campaigns if we run those in that way. But I do want to say, again, it’s really, it’s incredibly difficult. And I see people and I did things during my campaign and looking back, I go, “I’m not sure I should have done that or should have said that.” But I also know how hard it is in the middle. So I tend to give a lot of grace to candidates, particularly if you have the sense that they are really truly seeking to promote the common good by their candidacy.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So a question from Mark Bridgem, and Mark asks, “What role do you think the media and media narratives play into the increase of division and especially the displacement of political identity versus other forms of identity, e.g. faith?” And then he also asks, “What gives you hope?”
Bill Haslam: Those are great questions. I think the answer “what role does the media play in these things” is huge. And I think what we all have to realize up front is it’s not the media’s business to solve problems and particularly to address the polarization of the country. The media, basically— it’s a very tough business. And the business model is based on outrage. And the more outrage I can generate from you then the more you’re going to watch. And there’s a famous quote from Les Moonves, who at the time was the CEO of CBS, and this is during the Trump campaign in 2016, and pardon my French, as they say, but he said, “I don’t know if this is good for the country, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And what he was saying is the controversy that had been brought on by the campaign in 2016 made everyone’s ratings skyrocket. And as much as a lot of the media outlets beat up on Trump all the time, I think a lot of them were sad to see him go because it was such a ratings generator. But it’s never going to be in their interest to actually talk about how we’re going to solve problems. It’s going to be how do I generate outrage by pointing out this problem and stirring it up. And I think you’re right. There’s such a— Because the media is again, it’s gotten so hard, like when I first ran, there was three times as many people covering the state capitol on a political sense as the were by the time I left. And so because of that, they have to go to easy characterizations. And so it’s like, “Well, he or she is a Republican or they are Democrats, so therefore this.” And there’s not nearly the same kind of willingness to dig into the nuance of how people think and why they think that way. And so I think we should just recognize that as wary consumers and realize even that news outlet that we love, they have a perspective and an agenda. And one of those agendas is to stay in business.
Cherie Harder: So we have a couple of questions about efforts and a sense to course-correct or to improve things. Mark asks, “Can you speak to tangible efforts to address, course-correct? I have the experience of participating in several groups who are trying to reach across the divide with love. And it winds up feeling shallow or naive or just nice, though sincere, rather than a deep stand against what is awry.” And then there’s a similar question that we’re going to paraphrase from John Fritz about what it means to love our enemies in politics when we see them do anti-Christian things or things that we perceive as against our faith.
Bill Haslam: Yeah, so similar, I guess a little different, questions. I’ll try to do my best on both. I think on the first one, I understand that sense of frustration comes from— when we try to do things that are working across the aisle or to address the polarization, it all feels really nice, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel like it has much impact. And I end up in a lot of discussions that feel that way. When it’s over, I go, “OK, that’s great. But now what?” I tend to think that the answer is “let’s find some actual problems to solve,” is what I say. Are there some things that we can figure out how to get done together? And that can be on the local level, something really small, or it can be on the national level. It can be on an infrastructure bill that maybe the Republicans and Democrats can get together and actually pass something. So that’s what I would say, and, believe me, I’m in a lot of those discussions today. And I kind of leave going, “I like all those people and I’m glad, that was interesting, but I’m not certain it makes any impact.” So I tend to lean toward things that, like, let’s find a problem we can solve together.
On the second question in terms of, well, how do we think about the folks on the other side when they’re promoting something that feels specifically, I think the word they used was, anti-Christian? And I mean, I start here with the uncomfortable truth. And believe me, this is hard for me. But we still have the whole “love your enemies” thing to live with. And it’s not just love those— but love your enemies. Those are people who are actively trying to hurt you. And that includes this categorization, too. And, you know, we have the reality, as somebody says, we follow someone who came not to kill the bad guys, but to let the bad guys kill him. And that’s obviously, we’re not all called to that martyr role, but we are called to follow in that idea of to love that person. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we just say that we’re going to go along with everything. There’s a—I’m drawing a blank right now on the name of the book, I’ll think of it—again, I’ll try to get it into show notes—but he’s actually the president of Biola University, so somebody on this call might remember his name. But he wrote a book basically saying we should be soft on the outside and firm on the inside. In other words, firm about our convictions, but soft on the outside to where we are approachable and relatable in those conversations. And I, again, we believe in truth, but we also believe in love. And so our mandate is to figure out how to be people of both.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So we have an interesting question from Isaac Lassetter, who asks, “How should we talk with Christian friends who are susceptible to conspiracy theories?”
Bill Haslam: Yeah, wow, because we all, everybody on this call or this Zoom, could raise their hand and say, “I’ve got some folks that surprise me that feel like they’ve gone down the rabbit hole in some way.” And I think you go back to those folks and say or remind them, like, “truth really does matter to us, even when the truth is uncomfortable.” And we have to kind of begin with that, like “we’re called to be people of truth. And so let’s go back and look at that conspiracy theory, like where did you get that and what’s the information show?” And unfortunately, the world has gotten so much where we’ve learned to distrust everything. So even if I say, “Well, that’s actually not true, here’s what happened,” they say, “Well, I can’t believe your source.” So I think our call is to remind us, like, whether it’s the truth we want to hear or not, we’re supposed to be seeking truth. And, you know, probably like the questioner, I have had that conversation with several of my friends, sometimes to no avail and sometimes to a little bit of progress.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So we have a question from Anne who’s a little bit more personal, and Anne asks, “How did writing this book change you? What impact did it have on your spiritual journey?”
Bill Haslam: Yeah, so two or three things. Number one, I have a new—as we talked about before this started—I have a new respect for real writers. It’s a gift that some people have. And for me, it was I realized how hard it is to write. And so every time I read a book, I go, wow, this person’s really good. But I think the second thing was the realization that, you know, you write a book in some ways for yourself as well, to put on paper what you believe, but also to remind you what you believe. I mean, I was writing this book and I was just as likely, while I’m doing this, to get mad and yell at the TV when some news came on that I disagreed with the the opinion they were asserting or to be upset when my candidate lost an election. And so one thing about it, it’s like a pastor who preaches a sermon. The next week everybody’s looking to say, well, are they living that out or not? And so for me, it’s been a good self-check. I also did— because I had never written a book before—I did the audible, the audio version, of it as well. And when I was reading it every now and then, I was like, “Oh, OK, I need to write that down,” because this realization that I’m, you know, I’m writing better than I’m living.
Cherie Harder: Wow, that’s interesting. So we have one question, I believe it’s from an anonymous source, saying, “How have you interacted with other faith traditions in government and what is your best practice or best practices for not sanitizing the public square from religion in general?”
Bill Haslam: Yes, so one kind of famous situation where I had a woman who was a Muslim woman who was working for us at the state in a big role with our economic development department, and some of our legislators decided that she was, you know, trying to push Islamic law on Tennessee and she was recruiting people to do this, etc. None of which had an ounce of truth in it. And I, you know, I really decided to make a very public stance and her support when she was under fire from people for what I felt like were, you know, illegitimate reasons. And I think it’s, again, for us, the freedom to practice our religion should be very dear to us. And if the freedom to practice our religion is dear to us, the freedom to let other people practice theirs should be dear to us as well. So I think that that’s one. In terms of the part about how do we prevent people who are trying to sanitize the public square, I think it was from our worldview, again, I would say that we have the right to come into the public square, with humility, but with our worldview, our deepest-held beliefs, just like everyone else does. And this sense of, again, carrying truth and love at the same time, that message into the public square, we should never, ever, ever be embarrassed or ashamed to do that.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, the questions keep coming in. Steve Sharkey asks, “Have you found younger generations seeking a call to politics seek you out, as you did with Howard Baker? Or has the younger generation become too jaded or disinterested?”
Bill Haslam: It’s a great question. By the way, I apologize, I’m borrowing somebody’s office. I don’t know how to turn off their phones. So the phone ring you just heard, I would do something about it, except I hate to mess up somebody’s office. I actually do— It’s kind of encouraging. I have so many younger people who call or email and say, “I would love to get together and talk. I feel a real call to public service of some kind. I don’t know how to do that in a way that would be Christ-honoring. And I would love to get together and have that conversation.” So I’ve actually been really encouraged by that.
That being said, there are a lot of the younger generation who have just said kind of, “A pox on both your houses. The whole conversation frustrates me and exhausts me and I’m over it.” But we should always be about encouraging people to enter the public square. I’m going to botch this quote, but Luther said something like this—and again, the quote’s not going to be exactly right—but he said, send your very best to public office. He said, for there you have to deal with the ambiguities of life. He said, in preaching, the Holy Spirit does all the work. So my pastor friends won’t like me for quoting this, but he said, so send your best to the public arena because you’re having to deal with all the messiness. And that’s what I encourage people, is don’t let the seeming messiness and the sometimes, the grayness of it, discourage people from coming into the public square.
Cherie Harder: We’re running out of time, but there’s one more question that we will ask of you, and this comes from Hannah who asks, “What habits have you developed personally or would recommend to be a faithful presence in the public square?”
Bill Haslam: You know, the first two things that always come to my mind are the same habits for being faithful in the public square as is being faithful in business or medicine or education or anything else is: there has to be some devoted time of your day where you’re setting aside to pray and read and learn and listen. And that looks different for everyone. But I just don’t know how we grow in intimacy with God without that time that’s devoted and committed. That’s first.
The second is, for me, it’s always been about the people who have— who I’ve been able to be in intimate association with. Obviously it helps being married to Crissy. She can— when I was in the middle of a campaign, there was nobody better to give me feedback, both political and personal. But also, beyond that, I had a group of guys that we met every Friday morning at 6:30 for 20 years. Every Friday morning they pulled into my driveway. And so when I first started thinking about running for mayor, they were the ones that said, “I think you should think about that. We’ll pray about it with you.” And the same thing with governor. And they’re the same ones, though, at times, who would pull me aside and say, “Hey, Bill, that’s not you.” I would do something or say something, and they would be the ones that go, “I understand, but that’s not you.” And so, for me, those groups of people who are around you, who are for you, whether you win or lose, that they’re for you, not for you as an elected person or as somebody in the public arena.
Cherie Harder: What a gift those friendships are. Well, Governor, thank you so much. And in just a moment, I want to give you the last word. But before we do that, just a few things to share with all of you watching. First, immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending you a survey and we’d really appreciate it if you’d fill it out. We read every one. We take the council and the feedback to heart, and we use it to try to make each of these ever more valuable and rich. And as a special incentive to doing so, anyone who does fill out one of those feedback forms will get a free Trinity Forum digital Reading of your choice. There’s lots of different topics that pertain very much to the conversation we have just had, including City of God by St. Augustine, Children of Light, Children of Darkness by Reinhold Niebuhr, Politics, Morality, and Civility by Vaclav Havel, as well as Democracy in America by Tocqueville with an introduction by Senator Ben Sasse. So we hope that you will take advantage of that. And we really do appreciate your feedback.
Cherie Harder: In addition, we will be sending around to everybody who registered an email tomorrow with a video link, as well as other suggested readings and resources. If you want to read more deeply on some of the topics that have been discussed, we hope that you will do so, and we hope that you will share this video with others and start a conversation about some of the ideas that have been discussed today.
Cherie Harder: In addition, we want to invite you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the mission and the programs of the Trinity Forum, such as this one today, possible. In addition to helping us with that mission, there are many benefits of joining the society, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, our daily list of “What We’re Reading” curated reading recommendations, our podcast series, and many others. And as a special benefit for those of you who joined today or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Governor Haslam’s new book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square. So I hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation. And then as we close out our time together, Bill, I’d love to give you the last word.
Bill Haslam: Thanks, Cherie. And thanks for the honor of doing this. And to so many friends whose names I saw scrawled across, thanks for joining us. I’ll borrow from Paul’s words as we close. I know a lot of us are just frustrated and exhausted by the whole experience of the public square. But I would again borrow Paul’s words to “therefore be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your work is not in vain.” Thanks.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much for joining us. Thank you to all of you who are watching today. Have a great weekend.