Former Gov. Bill Haslam on biblical antidote to political division, role Christians play in 'changing tone'

Bill Haslam
Two-term governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam. |

In an increasingly polarized political climate, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is urging Christians to engage in the public square with the kind of humility he believes is crucial to reuniting America. 

“The animosity between Republicans and Democrats, when you measure it, is greater than that between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s how big the divide is. We’re just mad,” Haslam told The Christian Post. “In today's polarized political climate, it is really easy to start to despise the other side.” 

"What I want folks to think about is, maybe people of faith are supposed to be the salt and light in all of this. Jesus says that if the meat goes bad, it's not the meat's fault. It's the salt's fault. If the salt loses its saltiness, it's good for nothing except to be thrown out. Maybe it’s the people who understand both love and truth and justice and mercy, people who come with a humble approach, who can truly change the tone of the argument that's happening right now.”

A two-term governor who served in the Tennessee state capitol from 2011 to 2019, Haslam’s faith influenced his actions on issues ranging from capital punishment to abortion, and welfare to free college tuition.

In his recently-released book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, Haslam draws upon his years of experience to highlight the redemptive role of faith in politics while offering biblical insight into the hot-button issues of today. 

“One of the things that is fundamental to Christian belief is the idea that we're fallen, broken people,” he said, citing Romans 3:23, which reads: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

“If that’s true, and we know we’ve made a lot of mistakes in just the last two hours, then we also have to realize that we could be wrong about what we believe in some political situations.”

Stressing the importance of staying true to one’s personal convictions, Haslam clarified that there is a distinction between political issues that are biblically clear and those that are not. 

“The call to humility in the public square, for example, is very clear and not up for debate,” he explained. “The call to be concerned for the poor is not up for debate; however, how we show that concern and how we do it — you could have some legitimate disagreement about that. Jesus said, ‘Feed the poor,’ but He doesn’t tell us how."

“I think we will have a more faithful presence in the public square if we approach it with humility and with a sense of separating biblical truth from, ‘this is what I believe in terms of my own personal political opinion, but I can't necessarily come up with a biblical case for why it's right or wrong.’”

Bill Haslam
Thomas Nelson

The first step toward humility, he said, is “believing that the person who is voting differently than you is created in the image of God.”

“That changes the whole conversation,” he said. “If I think you are created in the image of God, then I have to treat you like that, whether I agree with you or not.”

To enact true change, Christians must first focus on themselves, Haslam said, noting that throughout the New Testament, Jesus "always starts with the religious types like us.” One simple way to do this, he said, is by practicing wisdom when posting about divisive issues on social media.

“First, don't do something different on social media than you would do if you were sitting in a group, face to face, with your small group from church or your college roommates,” he said. “Second, this isn’t about owning the other side with some really witty put-down, because, number one, that's not what Jesus asked us to act like. And, number two, does that work when the other side does that to you? No. You actually get more hardened in your view than you were before.”

In his book, Haslam also weighs in on the propensity of some politicians to use faith as a weapon. There’s a “real temptation,” he said, to use God either as a “beating stick” and religious faith for political gain. But faith, he stressed, can actually be a healing presence in the public square. 

“Too many of us enter the public square trying to win our point,” he said. “We go into it with the objective of winning the argument. But if we're truly concerned with the common good, then we should enter the public square with a sense of, ‘How do we get to the best answer, not just my answer.’”

At a time when many Christians — especially younger generations —  feel politically indifferent and disconnected, Haslam pointed to Jeremiah 29, where the prophet Jeremiah tells the Israelites, who are enslaved in Babylon, to “seek the welfare of the city.”

“[Jeremiah] tells the Israelites to plant gardens and marry and raise next generations, even though they are in an unfriendly place,” he said. “Jeremiah's point is that these people are called to that specific place. So if we're going to seek the peace of the places where we're called, part of that means being involved in the public square, because there's such an opportunity to really impact the common good in ways that are hard to do in many other places.”

That verse, Haslam said, is one that has guided his storied political career, along with John 3:16, which speaks of God "so loving the world."

“God so loved the world, not just those that are in the Church or those of my neighborhood,” he said. “And so that should change our whole approach. God is concerned for the world, and as Christians, we should be too.” 

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