Carol Swain said she would never run for mayor of Nashville, but then a friend called her on Easter last year and addressed each of her objections.
So the retired Vanderbilt University political science and law professor prayed about entering the race.
“I got down on my knees that night and prayed,” she said in an interview with Christianity Today. “When I awakened, my mind was flooded with policy ideas for Nashville. So I jumped out of bed and started writing what became my blueprint for Nashville.”
Swain called her friend the next morning and told him she had changed her mind. She was in.
For Swain, change has been a recurring theme in her life. She went from low-income single mother to Ivy League academic, from Democrat to Republican media commentator, and from Jehovah’s Witness turned non-churchgoer to committed follower of Christ.
Now in her second run for mayor in as many years, change is a hallmark of Swain’s campaign. In an August 1 election, she hopes to become Nashville’s first African American mayor and its first conservative mayor in decades. Still, she wonders whether the Southern city’s Christians see her as the change agent some have long prayed for.
From poverty to Princeton
Swain, 65, grew up amid rural poverty in Virginia, with no indoor plumbing and just two beds to share with her 11 siblings. When it snowed, they skipped school for lack of money to buy boots. One year, she missed 80 days, Swain said in a profile published by the Nashville Tennessean.
She dropped out of school in eighth grade, married at 16, and became a mother before she was 20. Eventually, she found herself a twice-divorced mother of two who reported abuse in both marriages. Her third child died.
Amid those struggles, Swain worked minimum-wage jobs and pursued education—first a GED, then a bachelor’s degree from Roanoke College, a master’s from Virginia Tech, and a doctor of philosophy from the University of North Carolina. In 1990, she became a professor of politics and public policy at Princeton University.
Spiritually, however, Swain continued to flounder.
She was “not raised in a church,” she said, though her family identified as Methodists. Swain became involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a young adult but in 1975 “broke away from anything that was connected to religion and stayed in that state for 20-some years.”
That changed in 1999 while she pursued a second master’s degree at Yale Law School before assuming a new academic post at Vanderbilt.
‘I’m not the same person’
A “seeker after truth” known to have “spiritual experiences,” Swain decided she wanted to give money to a church “because God had been good to me.” On the recommendation of an acquaintance, she attended a black Pentecostal church in New Haven, Connecticut, and unexpectedly found herself sobbing and responding to the altar call three weeks in a row.
“I started really digging into the Bible and seeking God,” she recounted. “All of a sudden the gospel message crystallized for me,” and “my life has never been the same since then.”
Swain told a Vanderbilt dean who had been instrumental in hiring her away from Princeton, “I’m not the same person you hired.” But Vanderbilt accepted her nonetheless—for the time being. As Swain gained acclaim for her scholarly work—her books have won awards and been cited by US Supreme Court justices—she drew criticism for some of her socially conservative stands.
Students circulated a petition calling for Swain to be suspended when she wrote in 2015 that Islam “poses an absolute danger to us and our children.” In 2016, Vanderbilt defended her right to free speech but distanced itself from her views when she criticized the Black Lives Matter movement as “a very destructive force in America.” In 2017, the advocacy group GLAAD accused her of “anti-LGBTQ comments” for urging resistance to the “homosexual agenda.”
Swain took early retirement from Vanderbilt in 2017, becoming a conservative author, speaker, and media commentator. Her opinion pieces have appeared in CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other major media outlets. In a statement announcing her retirement, she said she would “miss the students and the rhythm of campus” but “not miss what American universities have allowed themselves to become.”
Perhaps among the state of affairs Swain was referencing, a Vanderbilt nondiscrimination policy instituted in 2012 prevented university-recognized Christian organizations from requiring their student leaders to be Christians. At the time, Swain told Fox News the measure made “no sense” and that “some people on campus believe that there is no place for religious organizations.”
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Source: Christianity Today