GREENVILLE, S.C. — From his rural home near Lodi, Calif., Cory Burnell keeps close watch over the news from South Carolina, and he likes what he sees.
Turning the state into a promised land for conservative Christians will be easier than he had thought, he says.
Burnell, a 30-year-old financial adviser and founder of Christian Exodus, believes thousands of religious conservatives across the USA agree with him when he says their influence on government is diluted by liberals and Republicans who have failed to do what mainstream Americans elected them to do.
The answer he came up with in late 2003: Move like-minded Christians to one state: South Carolina.
The state was a logical choice. It already is conservative, having played a major role in the rise of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan. And it’s home to 750,000 Southern Baptists and Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian institution.
Burnell’s plan is to recruit conservative Christians to move here and tip the scales further right.
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Burnell is yet to move to South Carolina himself, he says, because he is busy recruiting. But he says he is working out the logistics for his family to relocate.
With a decisive majority, Burnell says, his group would be able to pass laws that line up with their biblical principles and their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution — laws that include outlawing abortion and homosexual relations, allowing governmental displays of Christian symbols and ending state-funded education.
Considering the size of the exodus so far — only about 20 people have moved to the Palmetto State, most of them in the past year — Burnell’s optimism might seem quixotic.
Still, he believes the movement will succeed because of the support his small band of emigrants already is finding in South Carolina. Plus, he said he expects more families to move this year.
‘A very workable program’
Robert Iacomacci, a former town chairman in Hartford, Conn., is an example of what Burnell sees happening.
Iacomacci bought 5 acres near Abbeville, and plans to help Burnell and members of the League of the South, which advocates Southern secession, to “advance the cause of liberty.”
“I’ve had some friends raise their eyebrows and kind of laugh,” he said. “But that’s OK. I’ve gotten in trouble standing up for what’s right before.”
Robert Clarkson of Anderson, a disabled Vietnam vet with a law degree who heads the Patriot Network embodies the support Burnell says he is finding in South Carolina.
“Christian Exodus is a very workable program, especially in South Carolina,” Clarkson said. His group believes the federal government is overstepping its constitutional bounds.
Burnell has picked six counties as the first targets for local action. And in the ones where he once estimated it would take 500 emigrants to turn the tide, he now says it will take 100.
By 2008, he hopes to see a strong presence of Christian Exodus-backed candidates in all six counties, and he anticipates an “overwhelmingly impact” statewide elections in 2014.
The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound, said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University who studies religion’s influence on politics.
“In many states I would say no chance, but in a state like South Carolina … where lots of people are on that sort of boat to begin with, it’s the sort of thing that’s not unfathomable,” she said.
Edwin Gaustad, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of California-Riverside, on the other hand, said, “I would think it would have little chance of going anywhere unless there was a secession of South Carolina from the union.”
That’s an option Burnell and his followers would consider, although they say it would be a last resort.
‘Grave concern’ from some.
Not everybody is standing at the state line with open arms.
Xanthene Norris, a Greenville County councilwoman who just last year saw her dream of a Martin Luther King holiday passed by the council, said she has “grave concerns.”
“We welcome people coming to Greenville to live, but if you’re coming to Greenville only with the idea that you’re going to influence the people we elect for local government … I have some problems with that,” she said.
Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said much the same thing. He welcomes conservatives who want to move here, he said, but he thinks the conservative agenda is moving forward fine without outside help.
“I think someone who would attempt to try to paint President Bush in an unfavorable light down here in South Carolina would not find a cheering audience,” Dawson said.
Burnell is undaunted. He says more than 1,200 people have signed up on his website as agreeing to the group’s principles and either intending to move to South Carolina or giving money.
He’s looking for more people like Charles Lewis, a former principal of a charter school in Washington, D.C. He, his wife Nilda, and 6-year-old daughter, Vicky, moved to Greenville County, which is one of the targeted counties, in 2005.
“We’re not an extremist group,” he said. “What we are doing is reacting to the extreme marginalization of Christianity in America.”
Barnett reports daily for The Greenville News