KNOXVILLE, Tenn (WJHL) — Bill Haslam says he is concerned.
The former Tennessee Governor, who’s been out of the public spotlight since he left office in January 2019, says the deep division in America has reached a new and, he believes, perilous level of intensity.
“We’re literally contemptuous of people who think differently than we do,” Haslam told News Channel 11 during a recent one-on-one interview at his downtown Knoxville office. “We’ve gotten to the place that the other side is not just wrong, but that they have bad motives. And that’s a different place.”
Haslam said the depth and intensity of the division became evident on January 6 when people stormed the United States Capitol in response to the election of President Joe Biden.
“That’s an extraordinary moment in our nation’s history, and it shows the point that we’d gotten to,” Haslam said. “We’re just at each other’s throat and we’re not solving the big issues.”
Haslam, the businessman-turned-Knoxville mayor whose two terms as Tennessee’s Governor helped usher in a Republican legislative super-majority, said he was aware of the growing voter outrage on the left and the right when he was in office. That led him to ask a question.
“What should it look like to have a faithful presence in the public arena either as a public official or as a citizen who votes?”
That question led to a book. “Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square” was published in May by publisher Thomas Nelson.
“My book is written to people of faith who I think have a call to act differently than the rest of the world does in the public arena and everywhere else,” Haslam said. “And I don’t think we have been.”
Haslam, a Christian who quotes frequently from the Bible in his book, says Christians who are called by Jesus to be “the light of the world” are often a major part of the anger-filled back-and-forth political bickering.
“My experience in office is that Christians and people of faith were just as likely to hide behind the anonymity of the internet,” Haslam said. “They were just as likely to have the objective being winning the argument as opposed to getting to the right answer.”
“We’re supposed to be the light in the darkness, and yet we’re just like everybody else when we say, ‘I have to act that way because the stakes are too big.’ That’s how everyone’s acting.”
“I think somehow we think, ‘I won Facebook for the day, if we won the argument.’ Then that’s the ultimate outcome. But government is about how we decide to live together,” Haslam said.
In “Faithful Presence,” Haslam calls on people of faith to become aware of the ways they respond the opposing viewpoints out of fear.
“A lot of Christians look around and they see the world changing really fast and they react out of fear,” Haslam said. “The culture has changed so fast. Things that are OK now were never OK 30 years ago. And all that’s true. But the wrong thing to do is to act out of fear.”
Instead, he uses his debut book to call on people of faith to stand for what they believe in while standing with their fellow Americans who disagree.
“Wouldn’t a better answer be that we’re pretty evenly divided? Let’s sit down and try to solve a problem (in a way) that’s going to last for a while.”
“As a country, we’re putting a premium on people who want to make a point and know how to jump up and yell really well,” Haslam said. “We’re putting less of a premium on people who can actually solve a problem. And that concerns me.”
Haslam acknowledges books by politicians are often a prelude to another campaign. But that’s not the case for him, he said.
“There’s nothing on the horizon right now,” he said. “However, if the opportunity came up and it might be an elected office it might not be, being the elected person, I’d take a look at it. But I’m not lining my horse to run for anything at this time.”