Plan calls for conservative Christians to form government in S.C.
A Texas group wants conservative Christians to move to South Carolina — 12,000 at a time — to form a biblically inspired government and secede from the United States.
Decrying a national tolerance of abortion and gay marriage, and the teaching of evolution, ChristianExodus.org hopes to achieve a majority of like-minded Christians in the state by 2016, the planned year of secession.
Scholars say the group is symptomatic of an alarming rise of separatist sentiment that is particularly strong in the South.
But local government and Christian leaders are less worried about the group achieving its goal of independence than by the movement’s impact on South Carolina’s image.
“Doesn’t South Carolina have enough problems already?” asked the Rev. Joe Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME church in Charleston, when told of the group. “Groups with strange opinions and strange beliefs pop up every once in a while. … I would tell these people to re-evaluate their faith and get a life.”
ChristianExodus.org’s leader is Cory Burnell, a 28-year-old who lives in Tyler, Texas, where he teaches at a local Christian school and runs a coffee shop and mobile phone store.
Previously, Burnell directed a Texas regional branch of the League of the South, the country’s largest secessionist organization.
The group is basically unknown to South Carolina’s government and religious leaders. And it is not being officially tracked by such watchdog groups as the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist activity in the country.
“For us, there’s always the danger that a group is just a man, a laptop and a dog,” said the center’s Mark Potok.
But Burnell already is coordinating with the S.C. chapter of the League of the South. (The neo-Confederate league claims 15,000 members; Potok said it is more accurate to cut that number by half.)
“The fact that Burnell’s working the league, which we’ve designated as a hate group, suggests that the group should be taken seriously,” Potok said.
In its final version, Burnell’s biblical state would have a legal code based on the Ten Commandments and promote Christian education, according to the group’s position statement.
Burnell said people of all faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics, would be free to live in the new state. His movement would have no adverse effect on people already living in South Carolina, Burnell said.
His critics disagree.
“If you read their Web site, there’s a lot of hate, particularly directed against gays,” said USC historian Dan Carter.
Pointing to the Amish in Pennsylvania, Carter said inwardly focused religious groups can coexist amicably with the greater world.
“But whereas the Amish are not concerned with what’s beyond them, this group is obsessed by it,” Carter said. “(The group) is looking to transform the ungodly.”
He also said the movement welcomes Christians of all races, though some question that, given Burnell’s relationship with the League of the South, which champions white Southern heritage.
Burnell said the first 12,000-strong migration is scheduled for 2006, which is when he will move to South Carolina with his wife and son.
The migrations will target specific conservative political districts, which have yet to be determined, he said.
Burnell is relying on local groups to help accommodate his fellow Christian secessionists, who will need jobs and homes.
“It’s a movement that appeals to us because we’re also in favor of state rule,” said James Layden, chairman of the S.C. League of the South. “If things continue to slide toward perversion, we’re going to have to do something.”
The alliance is a natural one, many say.
Burnell’s plan is an outgrowth of the Christian Reconstruction movement, a backlash against the Civil Rights advances of the 1960s, Potok said.
Such movements often combine fundamentalist theology with Confederate nostalgia, a mix that can be traced back to the writings of Robert Dabney, chaplain to Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
The creation of ChristianExodus.org is just another sign that separatist sentiment is rising in the South, said Potok. (Potok pointed out that Texas already has its own neo-Confederate secessionist movement called The Republic of Texas.)
Burnell’s program “is very, very similar to the original Confederacy,” said Harry Singleton, a professor of religion and philosophy at Benedict College. “Basically what they’re trying to do is re-establish a reality where for them the divine and the secular mesh.”
Burnell said South Carolina was chosen because it is a small, conservative state, where the group would have a head start.
His plan resonates with at least one other prominent South Carolina fundamentalist group.
“Anything that moves more Christians to South Carolina who want to live under God’s law sounds good to me,” said Steve Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians For Life.
But other Christians are troubled by ChristianExodus.org.
“This is what I would consider, even for our state, a very bizarre kind of approach,” said the Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, an interdenominational advocacy group. “Our state has its challenges, and we are a state (that) tried to secede from the Union in the past … but there are also many people in South Carolina who want to live our faith out, and we don’t feel any empathy for bizarre, unreal ideas like this.”
The Rev. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the 740,000-member S.C. Baptist Convention, the state’s largest Christian denomination, was surprised that a group would propose a secession movement here.
“South Carolina is a patriotic state, with a real love of family and a clear commitment to this country in the past century,” Driggers said. “I can’t imagine this plan being received well at all in this state.”
No matter the plan’s reception in South Carolina, Burnell’s ultimate goal of state independence is highly unlikely, say legal scholars.
“That was settled in 1865,” said USC law professor Eldon Wedlock Jr. “It’s established that the United States is a union of all its people, not a union of sovereign states.
“To change that would require nothing less than a constitutional amendment, and I don’t see that happening. It’s a preposterous idea.”
Realistically, it’s likely Burnell’s movement will dissipate well before its first 12,000-strong migration, scholars say.
“That’s what typically happens to these movements,” said Potok. “Sometimes they’ll form an isolated community. There’s one in Moscow, Idaho, with its own college, for example.”
But most peter out because of financial difficulties or internal squabbles, Potok said.
More troubling, Carter said, is what the increasing presence of such groups might mean for the South and the country as a whole.
“Ever since the evangelical movements of the 17th century, we’ve had groups of Americans who are repulsed by worldliness and secularism. But it’s only recently that we’ve seen such groups spew such venom and hatred toward that world.”
June 15, 2004
Paul Wachter and Christina Lee Knauss