Plan calls for conservative Christians to form government in S.C.
A Texas group wants conservative Christians to move to South Carolina ó 12,000 at a time ó 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 movementís impact on South Carolinaís image.
ďDoesnít South Carolina have enough problems already?Ē asked the Rev. Joe Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME church in Charleston, when told of the group. ďGroups 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.Ē
ChristianExodus.orgís 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 countryís largest secessionist organization.
The group is basically unknown to South Carolinaís 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.
ďFor us, thereís always the danger that a group is just a man, a laptop and a dog,Ē said the centerís 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.)
ďThe fact that Burnellís working the league, which weíve designated as a hate group, suggests that the group should be taken seriously,Ē Potok said.
In its final version, Burnellís biblical state would have a legal code based on the Ten Commandments and promote Christian education, according to the groupís 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.
ďIf you read their Web site, thereís a lot of hate, particularly directed against gays,Ē said USC historian Dan Carter.
Pointing to the Amish in Pennsylvania, Carter said inwardly focused religious groups can coexist amicably with the greater world.
ďBut whereas the Amish are not concerned with whatís beyond them, this group is obsessed by it,Ē Carter said. ď(The group) is looking to transform the ungodly.Ē
He also said the movement welcomes Christians of all races, though some question that, given Burnellís 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.
ďItís a movement that appeals to us because weíre also in favor of state rule,Ē said James Layden, chairman of the S.C. League of the South. ďIf things continue to slide toward perversion, weíre going to have to do something.Ē
The alliance is a natural one, many say.
Burnellís 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 ďStonewallĒ 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.)
Burnellís program ďis very, very similar to the original Confederacy,Ē said Harry Singleton, a professor of religion and philosophy at Benedict College. ďBasically what theyíre trying to do is re-establish a reality where for them the divine and the secular mesh.Ē
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.
ďAnything that moves more Christians to South Carolina who want to live under Godís law sounds good to me,Ē said Steve Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians For Life.
But other Christians are troubled by ChristianExodus.org.
ďThis is what I would consider, even for our state, a very bizarre kind of approach,Ē said the Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, an interdenominational advocacy group. ďOur 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 donít feel any empathy for bizarre, unreal ideas like this.Ē
The Rev. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the 740,000-member S.C. Baptist Convention, the stateís largest Christian denomination, was surprised that a group would propose a secession movement here.
ďSouth Carolina is a patriotic state, with a real love of family and a clear commitment to this country in the past century,Ē Driggers said. ďI canít imagine this plan being received well at all in this state.Ē
No matter the planís reception in South Carolina, Burnellís ultimate goal of state independence is highly unlikely, say legal scholars.
ďThat was settled in 1865,Ē said USC law professor Eldon Wedlock Jr. ďItís established that the United States is a union of all its people, not a union of sovereign states.
ďTo change that would require nothing less than a constitutional amendment, and I donít see that happening. Itís a preposterous idea.Ē
Realistically, itís likely Burnellís movement will dissipate well before its first 12,000-strong migration, scholars say.
ďThatís what typically happens to these movements,Ē said Potok. ďSometimes theyíll form an isolated community. Thereís one in Moscow, Idaho, with its own college, for example.Ē
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.
ďEver since the evangelical movements of the 17th century, weíve had groups of Americans who are repulsed by worldliness and secularism. But itís only recently that weíve seen such groups spew such venom and hatred toward that world.Ē