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. [Continue reading…]