TYLER – In a small tin building on the outskirts of this East Texas town, Cory Burnell has sold cellphones, gourmet coffee and a brand of religion meant to infuse God into government.
In a soft voice far from the thunderous tones of many Southern preachers, Burnell pledges to lead throngs of Christian conservatives — 12,000 at a time — to South Carolina to either change the government or secede from the Union.
The plan, Burnell said, is to saturate the state with like-minded voters who would work to replace the U.S. Constitution with the Ten Commandments as the “foundation of law.”
And unless the U.S. government is overhauled and begins prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage, Burnell vowed to hold a “convention of the people” by 2016 in hopes of causing South Carolina to secede.
“People are going to call us crazy,” Burnell, 28, conceded recently in an interview at his modest office.
But that, he said, is because “we’re so far ahead of the curve.”
“At some point, Christians aren’t going to think this is such a radical idea anymore,” he said.
An exodus forms
Until a month ago, Burnell was an unknown, teaching math to children at a private school, attending a nondenominational church in Tyler, selling cellphones and trying to make a go of a small coffee shop called Jitters.
Then he announced the formation of ChristianExodus.org, an Internet group that claims to have recruited 600 members nationwide. Three-quarters of those members, Burnell said, have committed to uprooting their families and moving to South Carolina.
The first wave of Christian transplants is set for 2006.
As co-founder and president of ChristianExodus, Burnell has been called a “kook” and a “hatemonger,” names that he says cause him to wince.
His critics, he contends, actually hate Christianity.
While watchdog groups predict that ChristianExodus will fizzle before it can stage a serious religious revolution, it has attracted national attention as one of several groups that want to break from the rest of the country.
Burnell said his group picked South Carolina over Alabama and Mississippi because it already has a “Christian-leaning electorate” and an accessible seashore.
“If independence does become necessary, wouldn’t it be better if we had a coastal port?” Burnell said.
Several politicians in South Carolina seemed leery of talking about ChristianExodus and the prospects of their state becoming a sovereign nation under the leadership of Christian crusaders.
The press secretary for Sen. Fritz Hollings, a Democrat, refused to even give her name when told of the subject, and the spokesman for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham did not respond to a request to comment.
Will Folks, however, press secretary for Gov. Mark Sanford, suggested that the group would find South Carolina enticing.
“We’ve obviously got a beautiful state that’s open to anyone who wants to come and enjoy our quality of life,” Folks said.
“As for seceding from the Union,” he added, “we’ve tried that once already in 1861 and it didn’t work out so well for us.”
The game plan
The first stop on the exodus for Burnell and his family will be California.
Burnell, his pregnant wife and their young son plan to move there soon to be near his wife’s parents. They plan to stay until 2006, when they hope to lead the first 12,000 Christians to South Carolina.
Thousands more are expected to follow, according to the ChristianExodus Web site, with members joining grassroots political campaigns that will “overwhelmingly affect state elections” by 2014.
There would then be a call for constitutional reforms to return “proper autonomy to the state,” the Web site says.
Burnell denied assertions made by those who monitor religious zealots that ChristianExodus exhibits similarities to a hate group, promoting a white supremacist cause behind the cloak of a religious movement.
“You start using language in the Bible, and people are going to call you a hatemonger,” he said. “You can’t let that deter you.”
Burnell says that he has a foster brother who is black and that, as a youth growing up in California, “I played baseball with black fellows all the time.”
ChristianExodus’ Web site also says that it “demands that all races be treated equally as children of God” and that it “will not tolerate any racial hatred or discrimination by its members.”
It also said that, once in South Carolina, “members will work to ensure equal access to and treatment before the law for all God’s people, irrespective of color or national origin.”
Burnell, however, acknowledges that he is an active member of the pro-Confederate League of the South, a group that has drawn the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, which monitors extremist activities.
In an interview with The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Mark Potok, editor of the center’s Intelligence Report, said ChristianExodus “should be taken seriously” because its leader, Burnell, associates with the League of the South.
The center has placed the league on its “hate group” list, Potok told the newspaper.
In an interview last week, Burnell called the Southern Poverty Law Center a part of the “liberal fringe” and maintained that the watchdog group offered no evidence that the League of the South promotes white supremacy.
The league’s Web site says its policies concerning race “must be free of hatred and malice.”
But it also says “this does not mean … that white Southerners should give control over their civilisation and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants.”
To do so, the Web site says, would be equivalent to “cultural and ethnic suicide.”
Ole Anthony, a founder and president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, which also monitors religious extremism, predicted that ChristianExodus will not succeed in its ultimate goals.
Leaders of such movements, Anthony said, “may be sincere, but they’re nutty as a fruitcake.”
And while ChristianExodus organizers are calling for a religious revolt through peaceful means, they could still cause harm, Anthony said.
“They’re dangerous to themselves and to their followers [because] there are going to be people who believe this, sell everything and go down” to South Carolina, he said.
Once they do, Anthony predicted, they will realize that they have “totally disrupted their whole lives and their families in the name of God.”
Burnell said he will surprise his critics, especially as “things get worse.”
By that, Burnell says, he means that “homosexual marriage is coming to every state in the Union” and that federal hate-speech legislation would one day be levied against those who speak in “Biblical terms” against such issues as abortion.
“If we can make a debate of state sovereignty in a public square,” he suggested, “we might just find that we are able to change people’s minds.”