An Interview with Bill Haslam and Dan Boone
“Blessed are the meek … the merciful … the peacemakers.” In the current cultural and political context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 5 might not seem like the right approach for leaders who want to get things accomplished in the face of opposition.
But Bill Haslam says it’s the best approach, and he speaks from personal experience. The former two-term Tennessee governor (2011-2019), who also has experience as a mayor and business leader, helped the state become recognized as a national leader in education and economic development. His deep Christian faith served as the foundation for his leadership.
Now, in his new book Faithful Presence: The Promise and Peril of Faith in the Public Square, Haslam draws on his experience to reiterate the importance of Jesus’ call for deep humility, love of mercy, and commitment to justice in the lives of leaders. Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, talked with Haslam about the book and the lessons it can offer Christian college and university leaders.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Dan Boone: Why this book? Why did you decide, on the other side of a governorship, that this is what you wanted to invest your time in writing and thinking?
Bill Haslam: I think one of the biggest disappointments for me from being in public life — being a mayor for two terms and a governor for two terms — was that Christians act just like everyone else in the public square. If there’s any message we should take away from the Sermon on the Mount — or really from any scriptural instruction — it’s that we’re to be different.
But the problem is that Christians aren’t any different in the public square. We’re just as likely to be hateful toward our enemies. We’re just as likely to say things on the internet that we’d never say in person. We’re just as likely to spread unbounded, unfounded rumors about things and conspiracy theories as everyone else. So this [book] was my attempt to say, “What would it look like if we actually tried to act the way that Christ calls us to act in the public square?”
You mentioned the Sermon on the Mount a lot through the book. I can tell that the meekness and humility that Jesus requires of us has significant impact in your life. What gives you hope that it can survive the rigor of the mean public square that we’re living in these days, and how do you think our Christian colleges and universities are important players in raising up a generation to do that?
That’s the fundamental question that people ask, though they don’t phrase it as quite as nicely as you do. They say, “Okay, Haslam, all that’s fine. But the stakes are too high for this kind of unilateral surrender in this big battle that’s going on. You’re asking us to bring a pillow to a knife fight, and the other side’s going to win if we act the way that you’re asking us to act.” But it’s not me asking you to act like that. That’s what Jesus asked us to act like.
I was speaking to a group of pastors recently, and one of them at the end raised his hand and said, “Well, can you tell us anywhere where that has worked before?” I remember thinking, “Well, that’s the wrong question.” The question is how do we act like a faithful presence? How do we actually be salt and light in this world? In other places in life, we don’t say, “Well, all this scriptural stuff, is that actually effective and practical?” We don’t say that in business. We say, “No, you’re supposed to act ethically, regardless.” We don’t say that in marriage. … We don’t give ourselves those waivers [elsewhere], but here we do.
So what gives me confidence? It’s this: At the end of the day, the ways that God wants us to act are because those are the true ways. The world may or may not react to those the way that we want them to, but that’s not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to be faithful in those places where he’s called us. …
Sometimes I think people believe that if you’re humble, if you’re meek, if you listen to people and you treat them with respect, for some reason that becomes an excuse for not actually getting things done or succeeding at what you’re trying to do. But the exact opposite was true in your administration. We watched Tennessee become a state that invited all kind of industries to come here. We watched the financial health of the state grow dramatically. We watched education happen in wonderful ways. … How is it that you were able to display Christian character that worked in terms of great leadership?
The answer to that is a little bit the same as answer to your first question. Probably the most widely known and most popular business book of all time is Jim Collins’ Good to Great. If you remember the basic theory, the researchers weren’t starting with any preconceived ideas about what made a leader great. They started with a blind test that said, we want to look at companies that for 10 years had matched their peers in market return and then, when they had a new leader, had [market return] results that were multiple that of their peers. So the study started with 10,000 and boiled down to a handful [that met the criteria], and then they looked at what was in common with those leaders.
After all was said and done, there were two common criteria that were true of all of these leaders. The first is they were very mission-focused people. They knew why they were there. The second was they were people who understood that the story was not about them. Well, that’s a pretty good description of what we’re supposed to be like as believers. We’re supposed to be mission-focused and understand that this story is not about us. So the way that Jesus says that we’re supposed to act — turns out that’s what’s good for us, anyway.
On our campuses, we’re trying to have conversations about issues that are as divisive and explosive as any we’ve ever seen. … As we are in this work of forming a generation of college students that know how to have the hard conversations about difficult issues, what from your leadership experience, and especially your faithful presence in those kinds of conversations, might help faculty and college leaders negotiate this?
There’s one thing that we should always bring to every discussion we’re a part of as believers. And that’s the Romans 3:23 idea, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So I’m walking into [a tough] conversation realizing I don’t get everything right. I don’t get everything right in my personal life or my relational life, and I don’t get it all right in my intellectual life, either. So when I enter into that conversation, it has to be with this sense of, “I’m here to listen because I know that I’m very capable of mistakes.” So I start with that.
I start also with the idea that God is concerned about the common good — for God so loved the world. So my objective is not to win the argument; my objective is to get to the right argument. If the story’s about me, then I need to win the argument. If it’s not about me, then I need to get to the right answer. …
And people ask me, “Well, that’s great, but don’t you end up getting run over?” I say, “How is it working out now?” Have you ever argued someone into agreeing with you? Have you ever ridiculed someone into agreeing with you? No. Nobody’s ever ridiculed me into saying, “Oh, you’re right — your clever put-down on Twitter made me realize you’re exactly right. From now on, I’m going to see the way the world the way you do.”
When you were engaged in one of those heated topics, and the table was filled with people of diverse opinions, what was happening in the back of your mind and in the heart of your soul … to hear God say, “Don’t go there; don’t respond in this way”?
Let me answer first truthfully and say there were so many times that I was at the table and every part of my brain and heart was saying, “How do I win this argument?” That’s where we all go. I have to admit there a lot of times that I’m just as frustrated in the middle of those conversations as everyone. …
But I have a couple of practical points. The first one is that in those arguments, it helps to have someone on your team who knows you, cares about you, and is for you in the best sense of the word — not just as in “I’m on Dan’s team and I want him to win this argument,” but rather “I’m on Dan’s team and I want him to end up in the right place.” The example I use a lot is the person who was my general counsel, Herbert Slatery. He’s a longtime friend and a member of a group of men that I met with every Friday morning for 25 years. There were a lot of times, when the room emptied, he’d quietly walk up to me and say, “Hey, you know where we ended up there, that’s not you.” So I think it helps to have somebody around you who cares for you enough to lovingly encourage or rebuke you — whatever needs to happen at that point in time.
The second is a practice I’ve started. In the middle of discussions, every so often within myself, I have a 15-second check. It’s to reorient myself: “What’s my heart feeling right now? Is that a good thing to be feeling?” God wants to hear our prayers that are on us in those moments: “God, right now, I’m wanting to tear off the head of the person across the table from me. Help me to see this situation in a different way.” And having those kind of periodic unspoken timeouts in your head for about 15 seconds, I found to be helpful.
One of the hopes that our Christian university presidents all over the world have is that we might give to the world graduates who know how to be respectful and loving and kind, even in the middle of heated conversation. … We’re sending students into business and medicine and education and all other kinds of places. When you think about the world that we live in, what would you say to the colleges and universities, especially the CCCU schools, about what we need to do for these graduates?
I think Christian colleges have a unique role and responsibility in terms of forming people to live in the middle of a world that’s at each other’s throats, in which there’s a whole lot of conversations that [make us want] to stay in a safer place. But we have both the challenge and the opportunity to do something when Paul tells us to speak the truth in love. People take a lot of pride in being one or the other. Some are like, “Well, I’m just a truth-teller. I tell it the way it is.” And they take great pride in that, but you never feel much love out of those folks. Other people are like, “My calling is to love those people around me,” and they do, but they get to be like willows in a hurricane — they blow over pretty easily.
And so I think our challenge is to be those people who speak the truth with love and do both of those things. We’re “And” people. We believe in justice and mercy. We believe in love and truth. What a Christian college can help people to do — because they’re certainly not going to hear that conversation many other places — is say, “Here’s what it looks like to act justly and love mercy at the same. Here’s what it looks like to speak truth with love.” To me, that’s the head start you’re giving to your graduates.
Yeah. And what’s sad is that the generation of students in college right now has been shaped by a culture that says, if someone disagrees with you, figure out a way to shame and exclude them, rather than sitting down for a cup of coffee and a conversation with them. … You had a statement in the book that I thought was great — that we would be “reasonable people in unreasonable places.” I find myself in those places all the time, but I know that … this generation is living in a world that has taught them to fight in ways that divide culture and make enemies. How do we be those reasonable people in unreasonable places? And how do we raise up a generation to do that?
I think that’s part of what calling looks like. Your graduates are going into the market in a fairly unique place in the sense that they’re looking for calling. As we know, God doesn’t always call us to places that are reasonable. He sent Paul, who was the “Jew of Jews,” to minister to Gentiles. [Paul] had the perfect background to reach out to the Pharisees and the Sadducees; he knew that world real well. But that’s not what he was called to do.
I stole that phrase from a person who used to be a New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who wrote about how [in his travels], he ends up in all these places where there are very reasonable people doing unreasonable things. … It’s all about this need to be listening to those places where God’s calling us to, even if it doesn’t exactly make sense to the rest of the world.
My guess is, you have a lot of CCCU graduates every year that could’ve done anything, and they chose to do something that the world didn’t quite expect them to do. Again, we’re living by a rule book that’s been turned upside-down by Jesus. So there are times when we’re going to do things that people are going to scratch their heads about. And I hope that’s always true. …
What’s your parting word of hope and wisdom and grace to those who are trying to lead Christian colleges these days? What do you hope we can accomplish and give to the world?
My hope is that Christian colleges can produce those graduates who say, “Given where the world is right now, how do I be a faithful presence right here?” And the verse that I use all the time is from Jeremiah 29, when the Israelites are being held in captivity in Babylon and Jeremiah is back in Jerusalem. If I’m [in Babylon,] I’m hoping he says, “Hey, we’re coming to get you; keep your head down.” But he says, basically, “Get used to it. You’re going to be there a while; build houses, and plant gardens, and marry your children. Seek the welfare of the place where I have called you.” I think that’s what we’re called to do — to seek the welfare of those places where God has called us.
And I hope some of your graduates do go into public service, because it really is a great chance to make a difference. But regardless of whether they’re called [into politics] or not, they are called to be seeking the welfare [of where they are]. Sometimes that looks like discussions around the water cooler, or in internet chat groups, or wherever you’re having discussions. Sometimes it might look like running for school board. Sometimes it might look like just helping someone else. But wherever you are called, think about what it looks like to do this the way God would want you to instead of the way you’re being pulled [by culture].