Group plans national gathering here, hopes thousands move in to reshape state based on its religious values
The Exodus has begun.
It began quietly, in a house with white vinyl siding and a trampoline out back, in a subdivision between Greer and Simpsonville.
That’s where Frank Janoski, his wife Tammy, and their four children have come. They left Bethlehem, Pa., to be a part of the Christian Exodus.
South Carolina may not be flowing with milk and honey, but it looks like the promised land to the leaders of this group, which hopes to relocate thousands of conservative Christian families like the Janoskis from across America to the Palmetto State.
Their aim: to tip the political scales, which they see as already weighted heavily to the right, further in that direction.
Secession “is a valid option,” said Janoski, a “state coordinator” for the organization — but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“If it’s going to be ugly and bloody, nobody wants that,” he said.
The group is recruiting more pioneers for this journey of faith through its Web site and plans to hold a national conference in Greenville in October, which will include information booths of local real estate agents, employers and private schools — all the nuts and bolts needed for relocation.
The political strategy is to support candidates, first on the local level — school boards and county councils — and then on the state level. The Upstate has been chosen as part of the first phase of the relocation program, with a goal of having 2,500 members in two yet-to-be-named counties by Sept. 30, 2006.
They have a long way to go. Only two other families have moved here since the Janoskis came five months ago, according to the 38-year-old self-employed electrical and computer engineer.
The newcomers wouldn’t run for office themselves but would help elect candidates who think like them on abortion (outlawing it), and homosexual marriage (making sure it never becomes legal here) and Christian religious expression in government settings (taking away all restrictions).
The underlying theme, though, is not so much religious as political: “Interposing the State’s sovereign authority,” according to the group’s Web site.
Although many South Carolinians might agree with Christian Exodus’ position on social issues, the idea of moving enough people here to institute a Bible-based government sounds like political pie in the sky to Dr. James Guth, a political science professor at Furman University who studies conservative Christianity’s impact on politics.
“Most people don’t make decisions on where to live based on those kinds of considerations,” he said. “Even if some people of that sort do move here, we have lots of people moving here from other parts of the country for other reasons.”
And the group’s distrust of President Bush — they believe he’s been soft on abortion and homosexuality — also is out of step with most South Carolina voters, Guth said.
“Putting them in South Carolina is going to put them from the frying pan into the fire. Bush is pretty popular here,” Guth said.
According to the Christian Exodus Web site, the organization was founded by Jim Taylor and Cory Burnell in November 2003 “as a response to the moral degeneration of our nation and the lack of any determination by the Republican Party to return our nation to its constitutional moors.
“ChristianExodus.org seeks a return to constitutionally limited government founded upon Christian principles, and has decided that the best strategy for achieving this goal is to reform the local and state governments. To accomplish this reform, we will relocate thousands of Christian constitutionalists to one particular sovereign State (South Carolina) so that our numbers will make an effective difference in electoral politics,” the Web site says.
Burnell, who lives in California and heads the operation, was in meetings Monday and unavailable for comment.
The group’s conference is scheduled for Oct. 14-16 at the Greenville Hilton. Space is limited to 210 attendees. Christian Exodus has more than 500 members, Janoski said, but membership is basically a matter of signing up on the Web site.
The Rev. Tony Romo, pastor of South Point Baptist Church in Pelzer, said his church will hold a “leadership meeting” for Christian Exodus on Oct. 16.
“Some people think it’s some kind of whacked-out religious invasion. It’s not that at all,” he said.
“These folks who are moving in, they’re not really coming here to take over. They’re coming to augment what’s here.”
Romo said he is a contact person for people relocating to the Upstate because of Christian Exodus.
He got involved in the organization seven or eight months ago after the director of the group, Burnell, held a meeting in Columbia.
Robert B. Hayes, state director of the South Carolina League of the South, a group that supports Southern secession and state sovereignty, said he is in contact with the founder of Christian Exodus on a regular basis, and the two groups share many of the same goals.
Some League of the South members are also members of Christian Exodus, but the league has no formal connection to the group, he said.
“We’re definitely supportive of them,” Hayes said.
But the idea of targeting one state and leaving the rest of the nation to slide further into moral decay isn’t the best approach for some conservative Christians.
The Rev. Tony Beam, director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville College and host of a Christian talk show on His Radio, AM 660, said Christian conservatives should work within their own communities.
“We still have the ability to effect change by bringing pressure to bear on representatives in Washington,” he said. “It’s just that we’re not vigilant in getting that accomplished, and that’s why we’re frustrated.”
The concentration of like-minded conservatives coming here from other parts of the country has already been happening, though, whether under an organization or not, said Leola Robinson, a member of the Greenville County school board.
But history shows it can be dangerous when people organize under the banner of religion to try to impose their political will, she said.
“We’re not some backwater town that can be influenced and manipulated to achieve some goal that perhaps even the promoters don’t fully understand,” she said.
Janoski, the first settler, gathers his family around the kitchen table for Bible study daily. A cardboard cutout version of the Ten Commandments are posted nearby. Even the youngest child, Joel, 4, seems to enjoy the ritual, squirming from his chair only once or twice before being gently corrected by his parents.
Janoski’s first thoughts about relocating weren’t out of a religious impulse, though. It was because of high taxes and restrictions on home-schooling in Pennsylvania. Someone at his church showed him an e-mail about Christian Exodus, “almost as a joke.”
But he began researching the group’s Web site, Christianexodus.org, and was “very impressed by what they stood for and the kind of folks involved in it.”
He drove to South Carolina last summer to scout out the Upstate. He liked what he saw.
Because he works out of a home office, he could live in any state he chose. For those without that degree of mobility, the organization is working to develop a sort of job-placement and home-finders network.
The reaction from people he has talked with around the Upstate has been positive, he said.
“Everybody we talk to says that’s a great idea. Where do we find out more?”