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.”
An answer to prayer?
Concurrent with Swain’s conversion to faith in Christ, she shifted away from the Democratic Party, identifying first as an independent and then as a Republican when she “started getting to know Republicans in Nashville.” And in 2008, President George W. Bush appointed her to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission.
Previously, Swain had thought of Republicans as “rich” and “the party of race and racism, because that is what I had been taught.” But she had also been “struggling over the direction of the Democratic Party, especially when it came to abortion and families,” she said.
For several years, Swain sensed “that the call on my life was to hold politicians accountable and not to be one,” she said. At the same time, she expressed openness to God’s leading by praying from Isaiah 6:8, “Here am I. Send me.” That prayer eventuated in her two mayoral campaigns.
Though Nashville’s mayoral elections officially are nonpartisan, Swain identified as a conservative in the 2018 special election to replace former mayor Megan Barry, who resigned and pleaded guilty to felony theft related to an affair with the head of her security detail. Swain finished second with 23 percent of the vote, but more than 30 points behind then-acting mayor David Briley’s 54 percent.
This year, Swain is running against Briley and nine other candidates for a full term as mayor and has drawn endorsements from conservative evangelicals including James Dobson, Dick Bott, and Eric Metaxas along with some Nashville pastors and business owners. Swain said she stands “a pretty good chance of getting elected” despite Briley’s decisive margin last year.
She calls herself “the most conservative” and “the only Republican” among the top tier of candidates, which includes Briley and two others joining her in debates.
Like many Southern cities, Nashville is an increasingly progressive metro area in the middle of a deeply conservative state. Though Republicans have carried Tennessee in the last five presidential elections, Nashville’s mayors all have been Democrats over that span.
The city is a hub for Christian publishing houses, the Christian music industry, and several Protestant denominations. The metro area, with nearly 2 million residents, is seeking to grow its reputation as a mid-sized business hotspot as well, with Amazon set to open a 5,000-job operations center there.
Swain supporter Henry Coles, pastor of Faith Life Church in Nashville, said, “The thing that brought me into a strong relationship with Carol is her unwavering stance for Christian values, both in higher academia as well as in the issues that impact people.” I want “to assist her in fulfilling the love of Jesus Christ” in Nashville.
Swain has attended a variety of churches during her two decades in Nashville. Since 2015, she has been a member of Forest Hills Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation.
Micah 6:8 is framed on Swain’s office wall, and she compared her stand on moral issues to the declarations of Old Testament prophets. “I love the Old Testament,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time reading it.”
Yet Coles, an African American, said some Nashville Christians, including fellow black churches, see Swain as too conservative because of her fiscal policies and her unwillingness “to compromise the integrity of the Word of God” on social issues like marriage and abortion.
The city is 78 percent white, 15 percent black, and 7 percent Hispanic, according to the US Census Bureau. In this year’s campaign, Swain has made outreach to African American voters a priority. It’s not working with them all.
Forrest Harris, president of the predominantly black American Baptist College in Nashville, said he does not support Swain’s candidacy. Affirming the past several mayoral administrations, he suggested Swain’s calls for change are unnecessary.
“The political climate in Nashville is one of positive growth,” said Harris, who also teaches at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. It is “a city experiencing unparalleled growth for the last 10–15 years, and that’s been due to Nashville’s selection of mayoral leadership and consistently selecting the kind of leader that builds on the success” and “vision of the previous.”
As Swain enters the final stretch of campaigning, she said she feels like the apostle Peter in Acts 12, when a group of Christians wouldn’t let him into their house because they couldn’t believe God had answered their prayers and freed him from prison.
“I feel like God is using me, a person that never wanted to run for office, as an answer to the prayers of thousands of Christians [in Nashville] that have been praying over the years” for “God to move, for God to raise up righteous leaders,” Swain said. “I don’t know that all of them recognize that he’s trying to answer their prayers.”
David Roach is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.