The Evangelical Politician Who Doesn’t Recognize His Faith—Or His Party

Bill Haslam, the former governor of Tennessee, is trying to figure out how religious Republicans got so extreme.

A black-and-white photo of former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Mark Humphrey / AP

Bill Haslam is not a natural fit for the Donald Trump–era Republican Party. The former Tennessee governor checks certain GOP boxes: He favors low taxes and opposes abortion rights; his background is in business, including an executive role in his family’s highly successful truck-stop chain. But during his time in office, Haslam also got in trouble with his base for vetoing a bill that would have declared the Bible Tennessee’s official state book. He successfully championed Tennessee Promise, the kind of free-college program you’d normally expect to hear about in a Bernie Sanders stump speech. And his temperament is a poor fit for Trump-style culture wars. When Haslam was elected during the 2010 Tea Party wave, a local commentator complained that “these other states have superhero action figures for their new governor, and we are stuck with Mr. Rogers.”

Historically, Tennessee has favored moderate candidates for statewide office. For many years, Democrats and Republicans rotated through the governor’s mansion, and since the mid-1990s, senators have tended to be centrist, business-minded Republicans. But like other red states, Tennessee seems to be swinging to the right: Trump won in 2020 by 23 percentage points, and the Republican margin of victory has consistently widened in every presidential election since 1996, the last time the state went to a Democrat. This hard-right trend leaves politicians like Haslam in an uncertain position. Although he declined to run for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2020 and says he hasn’t figured out whether he’s going to run for office again, it’s also not clear that he could win in today’s political environment.

Haslam is disturbed by some aspects of the national Republican Party’s recent direction—particularly the way politicians and activists have frequently used religion as a cudgel. In his new book, Faithful Presence, he laments what he describes as a tendency among Christians to conflate politics with faith. He is one of many religious conservatives who feel unsure how to describe themselves these days. While he firmly holds evangelical theological beliefs, he told me, he doesn’t feel like he fits the political image of evangelicalism at all. Haslam is willing to challenge his fellow Christians to be more Christ-like in the way they do politics, encouraging them to turn off Fox News and be more charitable toward their political opponents, but he’s squishy about naming and blaming fellow Christian political leaders for the example they’ve set. “There’s been damage to the Church by the identification with this political cause,” he said—the “cause” being Trumpism. But, he added, he’s not interested in criticizing “current political personalities.” Perhaps Haslam has another campaign in him, after all.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Green: On January 6, when hundreds of rioters breached the United States Capitol, a number of them marched under flags that bore crosses and the names of God and Jesus. How do you think it is that we’ve come to a place in our country in which people who invaded the Capitol were doing so under the banner of Christianity?

Bill Haslam: That was a moment in our history that felt more than concerning. This is a place that I never thought we would be, and I hope we never are again. One of the reasons I wrote the book is this conflation of folks’ personal views of Christianity with their personal political views. This, to me, is a sign of how far off track the Church has gone.

Green: When you say off track, are you referring to pastors around the country—including in Nashville or elsewhere in Tennessee—who were telling their people, “Yes, you should storm the Capitol”?

Haslam: Well, I certainly never heard that in any of the churches I attended. But I have heard enough pastors who are saying they cannot believe the growth of the QAnon theory in their churches. Their churches had become battlegrounds over things that they never thought they would be. It’s not so much the pastors preaching that from pulpits—although I’m certain there’s some of that—but more people in the congregation who have become convinced that theories [such as QAnon] are reflective of their Christian faith.

Green: Why do you think it is that certain churches, especially those in a conservative, Protestant, evangelical environment, are particularly primed to have gotten off track in that way?

Haslam: I think it’s fear. A lot of people in churches look around and say, “The culture is changing so quickly.” As I heard one pastor say, it feels like we went from being the home team to the visiting team in one generation. People look around and say, “The culture is slipping away from us. We have to do something,” and they think we have to change that by political means.

Green: Do you resonate at all with the narrative that Christians are being pushed out of the public square?

Haslam: I actually would come at it the other way. Scripture says that if the meat has gone bad, it’s not the meat’s fault. It’s the salt’s fault. This is a moment for us to say, “If the salt’s lost that saltiness, how did that happen?” rather than drawing up battle lines against the other side.

Green: I’m never one to discount a good Sermon on the Mount riff, but just to translate that out of Christianese: How, exactly, do you hope Christians would demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Jesus in political life?

Haslam: [A line in the Epistle of] James says wisdom that’s from above is first pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. Now, if you and I walked down Broadway in Nashville and we said, “Describe what Christians are like in the public square,” I don’t think we would get “pure, peaceable, and gentle.” We surely wouldn’t get “open to reason.” My point is, Christians are acting just like everyone else. We’re just as likely to send a nasty message on the internet. We’re just as likely to think we’ve won a battle because we have the most clever rhetoric on Twitter.

Green: You know, to be to be honest, one of the things that frustrated me about your book was that you lament this kind of bad behavior by Christians, but you don’t hold any leaders to account—particularly Republican leaders who are Christians and who hold their Christianity up as part of their politics—for insulting people on the internet and being nasty and showing poor leadership. Are there specific Republican leaders who you think bear responsibility for perpetuating that culture in the name of Christianity?

Haslam: I specifically did not want to make this a book about current political personalities. I think the issue is much bigger than our current situation. I also think it applies to people on both sides of the aisle. So while I understand your feeling, my point is that what’s needed is a more Christian approach to our public square, regardless of what your politics are.

Green: I definitely hear that. But I want to push back, because, as you know, the brand of evangelical Christianity—specifically white evangelical Christianity—has become so tightly tied to President Trump. Evangelicals supported him widely. They helped secure his victory. And he catered to them.

I just think the reality is that we’re in a place in our politics where, for people who don’t know that much about what it means to be a Christian, the first thing that pops into their head is Trump—including his way of treating other people. Do you think that evangelicals’ widespread support for President Trump has damaged the witness of the Church?

Haslam: I do think your question is fair. There have been a lot of people, particularly younger people, whom I’ve talked with who say, “If that’s what the Church is, then I don’t really want to be a part of it.” There’s been damage to the Church by the identification with this political cause—that’s really, really fair. But, again, how did we get here, where people who claim that their faith is the most important thing in their life are having their political actions look very different from what they say they believe? I think that’s a disease that can infect people from both parties.

Green: I want to ask you about the rightward trend in Tennessee politics. Historically, Tennessee switched back and forth between Democratic and Republican governors, and the state had a centrist temperament. But pretty clearly, in the past few years, the state has swung hard to the right. Why do you think a state like Tennessee has suddenly become a mirror of the national discourse, where temperatures run high and there’s quite a bit of angry right-wing sentiment?

Haslam: When I was elected in 2010, I was the first Republican governor in state history—since Reconstruction—to have Republican majorities in the legislature. We were a swing state. Then, over a period of time, the rural Tennessee voter moved from being a Democrat to being a Republican, and that voter brought some conservative social beliefs with them. What changed? Tennessee went from being a state where, to get elected, you had to win two elections—the general election and the primary—to a state where you just had to win the primary. So the type of person who got elected changed dramatically.

Green: You recently made the choice not to run for Lamar Alexander’s Senate seat, and it seems you’ve had a lot of opportunity to reflect on the road not taken. Bill Hagerty, the Republican who won that seat, joined Tennessee’s other senator, Marsha Blackburn, in an early effort to challenge the certification of the Electoral College in the 2020 election. (They both backed off after rioters attacked the Capitol.) I have to think you wouldn’t have done the same. Did you watch what they did and say, “Man, I wish I had run for that Senate seat”?

Haslam: [Laughs] No. I really haven’t had a moment’s regret about not running for the Senate.

Green: Did you call up Senator Blackburn or Senator Hagerty and encourage them to step back from those efforts?

Haslam: I did not. No. I have a view on ex-politicians giving advice: Wait until asked, unless something feels like a moment of crisis that I have some insight into that no one else has.

Green: And you didn’t feel that January 6 was one of those moments of crisis?

Haslam: Well, I think January 6 was a moment of crisis and was a seminal moment in the country’s history. I just don’t think at that point in time I had any insight that anyone else didn’t have. If I have a really strong opinion but I’m another one of 6.6 million Tennesseans, is it my role to jump in and tell the sitting governor or a sitting senator “Here’s what you should do on that”? I don’t see that being my role.

Green: The reason why I’m pressing you on it is that it comes back to the whole point of your book. You feel strongly that Christians should be modeling a certain type of affect and leadership in politics. You’re not one of 6.6 million Tennesseans—there aren’t that many former governors of the state bopping around. You’ve built up all of this capital in the state. You still have credibility in the Republican Party. If this isn’t the moment to take your shot, when would it be?

Haslam: Well, I think that’s a good question. But again, in that moment, if this person understands both sides of the argument and they’re making one choice, I don’t think it’s my role to go in and overrule them.

Green: All right. I want to talk a little bit about the future of Tennessee. One interesting phenomenon in the 2020 election was looking next door to Georgia and seeing how a state with a booming, growing metropolitan area basically swung the state to the Democratic side. I know there are Republicans, particularly in Nashville, who see outsiders pouring in faster than the city can handle and are thinking, We could be the next Georgia. I wonder if you think Tennessee Republicans are facing a challenge in the coming years with demographic changes happening in the state?

Haslam: That’s a great question. I should start by saying that my record as a crystal-ball predictor is pretty bad. You would not want me to go to Las Vegas and make political bets.

Green: I’ll make a note of that.

Haslam: I’d say I have two observations. One of the things I’ve noticed in Tennessee is that a lot of the folks who are moving here are actually more conservative than the people who were here to begin with. We have a lot of people coming here from California and Illinois and New Jersey and New York, and they specifically came for a very different type of environment—a state with low taxes. Don’t assume that new people from traditionally liberal areas will make the state more liberal.

My second point, though, would be to agree with your premise. Republicans did a good job in the last election of reaching out to more rural voters. They even attracted a lot of people who haven’t been heavy voters in the past. What we lost was a lot of the suburban voters—particularly the female suburban voters. As a party, we’re trading high-propensity voters for low-propensity voters. That’s a concern for the Republican Party in Tennessee, and everywhere else for that matter.

Green: You seem to be open to being in politics at some point in the future, and in your book, you’re trying to get at this huge, challenging problem of shifting the way Christians approach politics—including people in your party. So what are you going to do with your days?

Haslam: You sound like my wife! I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I really did love being a mayor and love being a governor. But as I told you, I’ve had zero minutes of regret about not running for the Senate. I don’t know that I will run for office again. I might. But I certainly don’t have a plan to do that anytime soon.

Green: Well, you know, the only executive office that’s a bump up from governor is president.

Haslam: I didn’t know that. Thank you.