Faithful Presence, Bill Haslam. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2021.
Summary: The former governor of Tennessee makes the case for Christian engagement in politics, using the model of faithful presence.
Bill Haslam sees a country deeply divided by political issues. We face government gridlock in any attempt to address important issues along partisan lines. But the country itself is divided. Cities versus rural areas. Sometimes even within families. Bill Haslam also believes there has never been a time when it is vital for thoughtful, committed Christians to engage in politics. To bring hope amid despair. To build bridges across divides.
Haslam, a former mayor and then governor of Tennessee, invokes James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” to frame his vision for what Christians ought to strive for in politics. It won’t be easy because of the complexity of the problems, the divides that exist, and the media that feeds on such division. (He tells a story of building merit-based promotion and pay into civil service, and having a very short media interview, because he had worked with unions and opposition early, developing proposals meeting concerns of various stakeholders. There was no ongoing conflict!) Through story and biblical principle, he elaborates both what “faithful” and “presence” in political office might look like.
Faithfulness means attempting to “think biblically about our politics rather than thinking politically about our faith.” For example, he advocated for (and lost) the expansion of Medicaid–an unpopular act for a Republican that was rebuffed by his legislature–because he was convinced it would serve “the least of these.” It means caring for the public good even when it others play dirty. He contends for the unpopular quality of meekness, of allowing that others might have good ideas, and sometimes we might be wrong. He cites Jim Collins From Good to Great that the most effective leaders often combined humility with professional will. He contends that belief in the image of God even in those who oppose one or who are different is crucial to serve the public good–otherwise, one comes to objectify people.
“Presence” is the other part of this calling. The idea of separation of church and state does not preclude Christians from politics. One may advance legislation that reflects Christian commitments when it neither establishes religion nor impairs anyone’s right of free exercise. By the same token, some issues that reflect one’s values may be contrary to constitutional protections. Haslam shares examples of each during his tenure.
He also talks about the joy of his work. He writes, “But there was never a day as mayor or governor when I did not feel honored to get to do my job. Every day, as I walked up the steps of the state capitol, I thought to myself, I can’t believe I get to do this.” Nowhere was this more apparent than when he had the opportunity to pardon Cyntoia Brown, convicted of murder as a juvenile and not eligible for parole until she was 68. She was being trafficked. He felt that he had the chance to use his role as governor to bring gospel justice and mercy together. He concludes the book by sharing other examples both of what faithful presence looks like and the difference it can make. And in the end, it is not only the difference we can make, but how public service can be used of God to form us in Christ-likeness.
While I appreciate Haslam’s account, I found myself wondering whether what he is proposing can go very far in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of party-base politics and gerrymandered electorates. The only thing that occurs to me is that this also might be part of faithfulness–to not swerve from biblical integrity, humility, and a commitment to see all as made in the imago dei no matter how vicious it gets. Perhaps in a personal memoir it is not appropriate to speak too much about Christian courage, but this also seems to be an aspect of faithfulness.
Haslam’s book also serves as a benchmark for candidates professing Christian belief, no matter the party. His challenge of thinking biblically about politics rather than conforming our beliefs to our politics could transform politics tomorrow. The fact that it doesn’t tells us how deeply the “Christianity” of many of our politicians go, and the contempt they show for the electorate. Haslam speaks of political office as a “noble calling,” no less so than the ministry that Haslam had at one time considered. In a time when neither profession garner the respect they once did, this book is both a breath of fresh air and a prophetic word for a country and often a church consumed with our political divisions. There is a better way.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.