The Bloomington Springs Community Center sits at a near dead-end about three miles from the Love’s just off I-40 in a far corner of Putnam County. It's the perfect venue for church revivals and chili suppers in an unincorporated area in which a little under 1,400 people reside. It’s also a place out of time, far removed from the political hijinks of Legislative Plaza and the politicos of the surrounding rural counties who have made waves in the General Assembly.
And that’s exactly why podcaster and musician Connor Buckingham chose it for the site of his “Forging Freedom: Christians in the Public Sphere” event the last weekend of January, an evening of frank talk about the intersections of politics and the church featuring Tennessee Stands founder Gary Humble and former state representative Terri Lynn Weaver.
A Washington native who moved to the Cookeville area a few years ago to work in church ministry and teach music, Buckingham is also the co-host of Forge and Anvil, a weekly podcast with the goal of “Hammering out uncomfortable conversations about culture and politics to sharpen ourselves for the race set before us.”
Since the show began in 2022, Buckingham has made a name for himself in local political discourse. He’s a young father with a passion for the church and a quiet rage over our deteriorating cultural landscape free from the stodginess of elder media personalities and the theatricality of his millennial contemporaries who profit handsomely from stoking the culture wars.
Buckingham seems quite disinterested in gunning for a larger platform, which explains the itinerary for an evening that mirrored a weekend jamboree or town meeting more than a rally. A couple of mismatched coffee pots and store-bought desserts were laid out on a table next to an endless supply of styrofoam cups. Beyond a modest booth in the back where Nashville liaisons for Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA handed out swag, the discourse of the Twittersphere was largely absent, and such was by design.
“I hope to get more people in the Upper Cumberland area involved in state and local politics,” Buckingham said after the event. “Specifically, I hope to get members of the church engaged as Christians often stay out of politics for fear of being controversial.”
Given the setting, one would expect a gathering of septuagenarians looking to kill some time on one of Fox News’s off nights. However, the audience of nearly three dozen consisted of a younger crowd than typically frequents county Republican party meetings and Reagan Day Dinners, none of whom wore the incendiary t-shirts and meme discourse of the Right’s armchair political junkies. “Politics can affect our ability to preach gospel,” Buckingham told the crowd. “The church was always in the public sphere.”
In his opening remarks, Buckingham revealed that, like so many of the renegades fighting Republican business as usual, COVID was an integral part of his political awakening and newfound calling. Such explains why the night’s featured guests were the state politician who outraged local legacy media when she declined to wear a mask during the June 2020 special session by saying, “I’m not sick,” and the guy who founded the organization largely responsible for getting the more effective aspects of 2021’s COVID Omnibus bill across the finish line.
Intending to play some praise music on the guitar resting behind her on the stage, Terri Lynn Weaver instead went off script, demonstrating her ability to take charge of a room that she honed both as a professional musician and through a decade and a half as a member of the Legislature. Her primary concern centered on recent data from the American Review Inventory that found the pandemic era was marked by a precipitous decline in Americans who believe in a biblical worldview. In response, Weaver condemned the church’s capitulation to cultural trends and insularity. “The church has to muscle and buck up,” she said. “The less government we have, the more freedom we have.”
Echoing Weaver, Gary Humble took to the stage to give insight into what led him to start Tennessee Stands at the height of the pandemic, stating his goal is to provide, “Practical ways to be salt and light where you are at.” After ridiculing feckless pastors who spent the pandemic quoting Romans 13’s call to, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” out of context, the former minister and stalwart freedom fighter shared the mantra that also served as his campaign slogan during the 2022 primary in which he nearly unseated Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson: “Honor God. Speak the truth. Do the right thing.”
For the novice politicos in the audience, Humble offered the advice that anyone running for state office as a Republican by railing against Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is as clueless about the goings on of Tennessee as they are calculated. “The Left is not the problem,” Humble said. “I don’t want to take on the Republican Party. I want to hold the Republican Party accountable.”
Citing the fact that the Republican supermajority gives lawmakers a quorum to pass anything they want without a single Democrat attending sessions, Humble reiterated that all the ills of the state are easily correctable if those we elect would do the right thing. “The failures are because of a Republican supermajority that failed to do their job.”
For Humble, Christians who sit idly by and wait for Jesus to come simply aren’t doing the Lord’s work. In pastor mode, Humble gave a quick lesson in translation related to the “Parable of the Talents.” Arguing that the story tasks Christians with “occupying themselves,” “engaging,” and “doing business” in the world, Humble revealed his call to arms: “We are in a war against the created order.”
After suggesting that attendees hoping to find an entry point into politics read Eric Metaxas’s Letter to the American Church and Erwin Lutzer’s No Reason to Hide, the trio of speakers kicked off a lively Q&A that ran half an hour past the event’s intended runtime. When asked about the persecution they have faced for holding Republicans in the state accountable, both Weaver and Humble regaled the crowd with war stories that media outlets have largely declined to cover.
Despite being routinely named the most conservative lawmaker in the Legislature, Weaver narrowly lost her seat to Michael Hale in 2022 thanks to the Legislature-approved redistricting of her county and a Republican party that financed her challenger by coordinating with out-of-state PAC money. As she told the crowd, the blowback came when she called for a caucus meeting after the Legislature wouldn’t let a bill that opposed the party line on school choice come before the people.
Likewise, Humble gave an update about a campaign audit initiated by Johnson that is now entering its second year. Though the state issued a thirty-page report that found no evidence to support allegations that Humble for Senate coordinated with the nonprofit Tennessee Stands, auditors are now looking into minuscule details like if married couples donated from accounts in both their names that far exceed the scrutiny other candidates receive. “They will find something because I have to pay a fine. That’s what has to be in the Tennessean when I do anything in the future,” Humble said. “The process is the punishment.”
Beyond a few questions about how to get involved in local politics, the majority of the Q&A focused on abortion. Though each speaker’s stance was nuanced, Buckingham made the often elided observation that those who benefit the most and welcome compromise on the issue are the pro-life activists whose lucrative salaries would end in the wake of a wholesale ban. A reading of the room revealed the consensus that Tennessee's current law does not go far enough and wouldn’t until mothers who had abortions could be charged with a crime. “We do not want Congress to touch this issue,” Humble said.
As the event concluded, it served as both a reminder of Christian political energy going into 2024 and the multiple pitfalls Republicans will have to navigate to bring together a successful coalition to create a politically effective state supermajority and end the Biden presidency. Unlike the Bush years where conservatives could count on evangelicals getting in lockstep behind their candidate, the rural churchgoers and megachurch suburbanites are fractured between the “Forging Freedom'' attendees and the activist wine moms who wear their church memberships on their charm bracelets and exploit their children and the Covenant tragedy to achieve minor notoriety in leftist circles.
In its place is a ragtag group that needs to unite Buckingham and Humble’s fans with jaded Gen Zers and those adopting a Bronze Age Mindset as well as feminists and gay-rights adherents pushing back against wokeness gone wild. As 2022 proved, Dobbs served as more a wedge than catalyst for change with even Ron Desantis delaying his abortion ban until months after his impressive election victory.
Whether or not the abortion issue becomes the scapegoat for Republican defeat, “Forging Freedom” proves it has brought the apolitical into the fold. “Culture is downstream from the church,” Buckingham said, citing the institution's role in everything from the creation of hospitals to universities. “We are intact with the Creator.”