Acton Institute Powerblog

4 lessons on Christian vocation in politics from Gov. Bill Haslam

In our explorations of Christian vocation, the faith-and-work movement has been largely successful in reminding us of the meaning and purpose of our work, from parenting in the home to manual labor in the fields to teaching in a school to trading on Wall Street. But amid those discussions, there’s still an area we tend to forget and neglect: politics.

Can an institution that wields such power really be seen through the lens of Christian calling? Sure, we may be able to develop or implement some noble policies along the way, but isn’t the actual work of politics inevitably driven and defined by narrow self-interest, zero-sum partisan combat, and incessant moral compromise?

In a set of reflections at Comment Magazine, Bill Haslam, the Republican governor of Tennessee, argues to the contrary, reflecting on a new book, John Senior’s A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, and sharing personal stories and lessons learned from his 15 years of experience as a mayor and governor.

Some of his key points are summarized below.

1. Politics does not require choosing power over virtue

Contrary to the Machiavellian mindsets we continue to encounter among Christian political activists (on both sides of the aisle), we are not forced to choose between faithfulness and effective political tactics. Strength and power need not consume love and grace.

To find the balance, Haslam argues, we need to restore a politics that understands and pursues the common good:

As Senior summarizes the dichotomy, “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. …These elements of the common good…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.

2. Politics does require moral courage

That isn’t to say that achieving the right political framework will be easy. If we believe Lord Acton’s famous refrain — that “power tends to corrupt” — resisting such those tendencies will not only require a proper vision of human freedom and destiny, but the moral courage to defend it at the highest levels of political power.

The truth is that the political space is, as [Senior] 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…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.

3. Politics is fundamentally about the love and service of our neighbors

In business, we tend to forget that our work is ultimately about serving others, not ourselves. So it is with politics!

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… But it also means the inestimable privilege of being a part of God’s project to redeem society and serve our fellow image-bearers.

4. Politics shapes the spirit and the self

In his book, Faithful in All God’s House, Lester DeKoster explains how, in serving others, work nurtures the worker. “Merely to rise to one’s daily tasks requires an act of will, a decision to serve the community, however reluctantly, however unaware the worker may be that such is the case,” he writes. “Such willed acts of service not only make and sustain the fabric of civilization and culture, but also develop the soul.”

Haslam connects that same reality to the vocation of the politician:

Personally, nothing in my life has affected my spiritual growth as much as campaigning for election and serving in public office. The heightened visibility and multiplied consequences of serving in a public role have frequently reminded me of my own weakness. The difficulty of the decisions leaves me yearning for wisdom. And the relentless nature of problems constantly reminds me of living in a fallen world…

What I didn’t anticipate was how God would use serving in public office to change me. As Senior writes, “The idea of vocation implies a process of formation; it is about the kind of selves workers become by virtue of participating in vocational work. The idea of vocation holds that in the doing of vocational work, persons become the kind of selves God intended them to be.”

As you may have already noticed, while politics brings its own unique challenges and pressures, many of these lessons apply across our cultural stewardship.

Yet in viewing such matters through the lens of the Economy of Order, perhaps we can learn something new about the importance of vocation to the causes of freedom and justice.

“The practice of a political vocation, based on a sound theology of political vocation, has rarely been more difficult, or more critical, than it is today,” concludes Haslam. “May God send us faithful men and women to live out that calling in ways that glorify him and in making this world look a little more like the world that is to come.”

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.