Public Office as a Spiritual Discipline

by Bill Haslam

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Jan. 11, 2019 in Comment, a publication of CARDUS: Read the full version in Comment.

Today, many Christians on both sides of the aisle seem to have come to the conclusion that Machiavelli was right. They’ve concluded we have to choose between being faithful and being political. As Senior summarizes the dichotomy [in his book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office], “One can be a good Christian or a good republican (small r), Machiavelli seems to be saying, but one cannot be both.” Humility, grace, sacrifice, and forgiveness must take a back seat to strength and power and “above all, assertion of one’s proper claims in the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction.” Thus a candidate who will support our view of abortion, or the expansion of health-care coverage, or any other issue that we deem worthy is to be supported at all costs. In that view, the ends of power make it worth it to abandon those Christian virtues in order to be elected and thus able to effect change. Lost in the discussions about specific issues is the concept of the “common good.” In our hyper-partisan era, the idea that there even might be a common good is up for debate. One of the joys of serving in office has been seeing the impact of various initiatives that contribute to the common good. A program to provide free community college has changed countless life trajectories. New drug courts can provide alternatives to incarceration for people struggling with drug addiction. Job training for adults with disabilities allows them to enter the work force. These elements of the common good, and many more, rarely make the list on a voter’s guide describing critical issues for people of faith. Add to this the historical difficulty of governing in a pluralistic society, and it is understandable that most potential office-holders would just throw up their hands and declare politics hopelessly broken.

Senior refuses this Machiavellian false dichotomy, but with eyes wide open. The truth is that the political space is, as he describes it, morally perilous. It is hard to find encouraging examples. But I would argue that most spaces are morally perilous. Politics is just more visible and more frequently involves higher stakes since the decisions that elected leaders make have consequences for so many people beyond themselves. Senior discusses the all-too-real problems of political spaces forcing good people to act in problematic ways. When one is forced to make difficult decisions, with no clear-cut answers, in front of a watching public that will be affected by that decision, the tendency is to find the easiest, most politically popular landing place. This is exactly why a proper theology of political vocation is so important. Courage to make a hard political decision comes from the assurance that God has called us to this position and this challenge. Rarely is the decision as easy as it sounds on Fox or CNN. I remember having a conversation with one of President Obama’s senior aides near the end of Obama’s term in office. I asked the aide what he knew now that he wished he had known eight years ago when the Obama team was getting ready to assume the White House. His response was that the issues and problems were so much more difficult on the inside than they appeared from the outside. He told me, “While I still don’t agree with many of his policies, I have a lot more empathy for President Bush than I did when we were campaigning to replace him. This is hard stuff with big consequences and I see that now.” My experience has been that former office-holders are the ones who tend to give current office-holders the most grace because they uniquely know the pressures and difficulties of serving. My hope for the church is that we would be people that cling to the truth while still understanding the complexities of the challenges that face our elected leaders.

For those of us in elected office, the challenge of political vocation means taking seriously Paul’s call to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). As a candidate and as an office-holder, I experienced powerfully the pull to conform in order to succeed. The best way that I have found to counteract that magnetic pull is to remind myself that I am here because I truly believe that this is where God called me to be. As a matter of fact, nothing in my life has felt as much like a calling as serving in a public role. A campaign for office can either be an exercise in pushing Christ to the side, or a crucible for the formation of Christ in us. There is nothing like a campaign to force you to constantly remind yourself that your opponent and your opponent’s supporters are created in the image of God! It was more than a little bit helpful to keep the phrase “created in the image of God” in the back of my mind as I listened to someone criticize me or my policies. It has also been beneficial to remind myself that as a cross-bearer, we are inevitably called on to bear pain. Max DePree, the late CEO of Herman Miller, reminded us that “leaders are called to bear pain, not inflict pain.” Bearing pain can frequently mean being misunderstood or publicly chastised for a vote or an action. But it also means the inestimable privilege of being a part of God’s project to redeem society and serve our fellow image-bearers.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Jan. 11, 2019 in Comment, a publication of CARDUS: Read the full version in Comment.

Hear more from Gov. Bill Haslam at "The Politics of Neighborly Love" on September 17th.

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Bill Haslam

BILL HASLAM is the 49th Governor of Tennessee. On November 4, 2014, Haslam secured the largest re-election victory in modern Tennessee history. Under his leadership, Tennessee is recognized as a national leader in education, economic development, efficient government and fiscal strength.

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