UNIFYING THEME: Under God: The Role of Religion in a Divided Time
The place of faith in public life has been hotly debated as promising and perilous since our nation’s founding, and the relationship of church and state remains contentious to this day—and for good reason. Too often, Christians end up shaping their faith to fit their politics rather than forming their politics to their faith. They seem to forget their calling is to be used by God in service of others rather than to use God to reach their own desires and ends. Faith can be a redemptive, healing presence in the public square—as it must be, if our nation is to flourish.
RELATED NEWS: Gov. Bill Haslam on faith in the public square:
- The Atlantic: Bill Haslam on Fixing Evangelical Politics from Within (June 8, 2021)
- Vanderbilt News: Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam leads discussion on the positive role faith can play in politics
- Tennessean: 3 takeaways from former Gov. Bill Haslam’s new book on Christianity in the public square
- CBS-8 WVLT (Knoxville, TN): How can people of faith make a difference? Bill Haslam discusses new book
Some politicians write a book to set the stage to run for another office. Others write a book to be a memoir of their time in office. While those are valid reasons to write a book, and there are many good examples of those books, I wrote Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square for different reasons.
I wrote it and agreed to co-chair the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy because, like you, I am deeply concerned about the direction of our country. I also wrote it because, though the idea might sound farfetched to some, I think people of faith can and should play a leading role in healing the wounds of this country. Unfortunately, that is not what has been happening. Too often the words and actions of Christians have done more to inflict those wounds than to heal them. But there is a better way.
It is no secret that we live in a divided nation.
The last nine presidential elections have been decided by single-digit margins—the longest streak in the country’s history. No presidential winner has received over 55 percent of the vote since 1984, and the new president has received less than 52 percent of the vote in seven out of the last eight elections. I do not see that changing anytime soon.
But we are not only divided; we are mad about it, and we cannot believe that the other side thinks the way they do. A January 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed that one in six Americans had stopped talking to a family member or a close friend because of the 2016 election.
Of course, political division is nothing new in our country. When Andrew Jackson was on his deathbed, he was asked if he had any regrets as he looked back on his life. Any who were expecting words of remorse, sympathy, or kindness would have been surprised by Jackson’s purported reply. As the Congressional Record put it, “Old Hickory said he regretted he hadn’t shot Henry Clay [the Speaker of the House] and hung John C. Calhoun [his own vice president].” Things were similar for Alexander Hamilton, now best known as the subject of a hit Broadway musical. The politics of his day were so divisive that he was shot and killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president. And this was only after Hamilton had narrowly avoided a duel with fellow founding father and future president James Madison.
But these times are different, and our divisions feel deeper. When Jackson’s protégé James K. Polk was elected president, it took almost ten days for word of his electoral success to reach him at his home in Tennessee. Today, the president’s Twitter account can reach 100 million followers at the push of the “Send” button. Protests and counterprotests can be organized in the time it takes to compose an email or a text. A virtual protest can overwhelm a business or an individual before there is even time to organize a response. Every issue quickly takes on political undertones. A case in point is the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not take long before views on who was responsible for the outbreak and opinions on how to reopen the economy after the shutdown, and even whether or not to wear masks, took on strongly partisan tones.
Along with our division, and maybe at least partly due to that division, we see a growing concern about the direction of our society. The quality of our discourse continues to decline as people get used to hiding behind the anonymity and safety of the internet. As real community becomes a smaller part of our lives, many of us feel a growing sense of disconnection and decreasing hope for the future. We can see this played out in the rates of marriage and childbirth, two leading indicators of confidence in the future. The current marriage rate (6.5 unions for every 1,000 people) is the lowest since the federal government started keeping statistics right after the Civil War. The fertility rate of 1.7 is also the lowest on record. It takes a rate of 2.1 just to replace the population. And a larger percentage of births are happening outside of marriage. In 2016, estimates showed that about 40 percent of births in the United States occurred outside of marriage. And on and on the list of items of cultural concern can go, with the only variable being who is making the list.
Enter the People of Faith
In the midst of this division and concern about the country stand people of faith, who increasingly feel as if they have lost their bearings in this new world. Culturally, many feel as if they are on the outside looking in. Politically, success at the ballot box has not translated into the changes that many believers had hoped for and expected.
As the country grows more divided, our views on religion have only increased the disagreement. Christians are more and more confused about what role they should play in the public square or whether they should even care about the public square. And there is increasing resentment from people who feel that religion has too large a role in our public life. Americans are now more likely to say that churches and other houses of faith have too much influence in politics rather than too little.
The church has not been an exception to Americans’ loss of faith in institutions of all kinds. Confidence in the church has sunk to an all-time low. And, as the church continues to lose influence on mainstream culture, more and more people think that its loss of influence might be good for the country.
Nowadays, the term evangelical is more likely to be identified as a voting block than a description of someone who desires to share the good news of grace found in the Gospels. And it is not just people outside the church who are wondering about the church’s role in politics. Among Christians, the debate about “a Christian view of politics” has grown only more contentious. The large block of evangelicals that supported the Trump presidency led to sometimes-heated conversations between Christians. In December 2019, when Christianity Today editorialized in favor of the impeachment of President Trump, battle lines were drawn within evangelical ranks. This was the magazine founded by Billy Graham taking aim at political efforts led, in part, by his son Franklin Graham.
Is a Faithful Presence Possible?
The lines within the Christian community are as divisive as they are in the rest of the population. In a world where the political discussion has turned mean and contemptuous, the political goal seems to be about keeping power rather than solving problems, Christians have frequently acted as mean and contemptuous as everyone else. Many Christians wonder if it is even possible to still have a faithful presence in the public debate. And those who still desire to be in the public square are left wondering what a faithful presence could look like in today’s world.
I have served as a mayor and a governor. I have had a front-row seat and been a participant in politics and policy on local, state, and federal levels. My faith led me to make decisions that sometimes had my conservative friends upset with me and other times caused those on the left to rail against me—occasionally in the same week.
Within the idea of “one nation, indivisible” is the reality that our lives as Americans are marked more by disagreement and difference than unity. All of us, regardless of whether we claim to be people of faith, bring our own views about truth, goodness, and purpose to the public arena. We all bring our beliefs with us as we address public issues and decisions. The challenge in America has always been in how we live together respectfully when all of us describe the common good, and even the purpose of government, in different ways.
How Do You Get Involved in the Political Process—in a Faithful Way?
Every man and woman has the right and responsibility to bring their most deeply held beliefs to the public square, where discourse, debate, and dialogue can flourish, as Lincoln said, “with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.”
How do we do that? Two leading Christian thinkers of our day, Tim Keller and John Inazu, expressed it this way:
If our culture cannot form people who can speak with both conviction and empathy across deep differences, then it becomes even more important for the church to use its theological and spiritual resources to produce such people. The Christian calling is to be shaped and reshaped into people whose every thought and action is characterized by faith, hope, and love—and to then speak and act in the world with humility, patience, and tolerance.
The idea is that Christians, people who understand truth and compassion, should be able to show the world how to maintain kindness while expressing deepest differences, and thus help heal the deep divide in our country. I realize this is a preposterous idea to many people, Christians and non-Christians alike. But Christians have been called to be people of truth and love at the same time, even if we have often been guilty of having one without the other.
These times call for us to have a sound theology of political engagement so that our politics are driven by our faith, rather than our politics shaping our faith. All of us, whether we ever run for office or not, need a clear picture of what it means to be involved in the political process in a faithful way. But it rarely happens. My experience is that most Christians don’t have a developed political theology, except for a position on a few issues like abortion, religious freedom, and gay marriage.
A Call That’s Clear
My book is not intended just for people who are in public office or thinking about running for office. Instead, the book is for Christians who long to be salt and light in the public square—people who care deeply about this country and its future and who want their political actions to be a reflection of their faith. It is also for those who don’t consider themselves Christians and have doubts about whether people of faith can contribute to the common good. Given our recent history, it’s a legitimate concern. It is for all of us who struggle to understand the right relationship between church and state, between our most deeply held beliefs and our role as citizens.
Christian or otherwise, red, blue, or purple, many of us are losing hope in a future that we once took for granted. There is a way for Christians to be at the center of restoring that lost hope. And it can happen in a way in which even nonbelievers will be glad to have us engaged in the public square.
As our country grows more polarized and people of faith become increasingly fearful about the growing secularization of the country, this is the right time to consider what it should look like for us to be engaged in the public square. It is my hope that Christians, in being faithful to the role God has called us to, will become people who help heal the political differences that are ripping our country apart. It is my hope that, rather than reacting out of fear of what we might be losing, we will engage as people who are committed to serving in the public square for the common good. While there will always be legitimate areas of disagreement among Christians in our political views, I am convinced that there are some things where our call is crystal clear.
Amid frustration over today’s climate of partisan fights, not only is a faithful presence what Christians are called to have, but it can also be the answer to the hopelessness so many feel about our current political challenge. I hope my book and work with initiatives like the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy will provide a vision for how Christians can become that answer – an answer shaped by the formational practices of following Jesus rather than blind partisanship and contempt for the other side all too common in today’s media and online life.
Reminding a Wounded and Weary Nation
I had been in office as governor of Tennessee about two weeks when Max Haston, the adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard, asked me to attend the Guard’s annual meeting on a Saturday morning. I arrived and was immediately taken to a holding room outside the main ballroom where the meeting was being held. Soon, a sergeant came to escort me to the back of the ballroom.
I was impressed by the sight before me. All the men and women of the Tennessee Air and Army National Guard were in the room in uniform. They were seated with their units, and at the end of each row were battle flags signifying all the nation’s battles that unit had fought in over the years. I was at the back of the room looking down a long aisle to the podium. As soon as I arrived in position, a deep voice came over the speaker, saying, “Please welcome the commander in chief of the Tennessee National Guard.” Immediately the entire group of soldiers and airmen rose to their feet and saluted as the band began playing. I was enjoying watching the pageantry of the event when the sergeant pulled on my arm and said, “Sir, that’s you.” That is when it dawned on me. I was the one who had just been announced. It was me that was being called to the front.
It is my hope that people of faith realize that we are the ones being called to bring hope to a world that feels increasingly divided. In these days of confusing situations, when the entire nation seems filled with contempt for the other side, perhaps we can model what Jeremiah was calling the Israelites to do in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). And, in doing that, we can remind a wounded and weary nation that there is One who came to rescue us from a life without hope.
- Faithful Presence: the Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square (Thomas Nelson)
- Prologue: Faithful Presence (audio): a perspective on the country after the events of January 6, 2021.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “United States Presidential Election Results,” updated February 3, 2017, https://www.brittanica.com/topic/United-States-Presidential-Election-Results-1788863.
John Whitesides, “From Disputes to a Breakup: Wounds Still Raw After U.S. Election,” Reuters, February 7, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-relationships-insight/from-disputes-to-a-breakup-wounds-still-raw-after-u-s-election-idUSKBN15M13L.
Ralph McGill, “Not a Very Wholesome Display,” Congressional Record, August 28, 1967.
Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 112.
Janet Adamy, “U.S. Marriage Rate Plunges to Lowest Level on Record,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-marriage-rate-plunges-to-lowest-level-on-record-11588132860.
Janet Adamy, “U.S. Birthrates Fall to Record Low,” Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-birthrates-fall-to-record-low-11589947260.
Elizabeth Wildsmith, Jennifer Manlove, and Elizabeth Cook, “Dramatic Increase in the Proportion of Births Outside of Marriage in the United States from 1990 to 2016,” ChildTrends, August 8, 2018, https://www.childtrends.org/publications/dramatic-increase-in-percentage-of-births-outside-marriage-among-whites-hispanics-and-women-with-higher-education-levels.
Mark Galli, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” Christianity Today, December 19, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865),” accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash-false&doc=38#.
Timothy Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020), xviii.