Aug. 12, 2004 -- Cory Burnell has given up on ever seeing the U.S. government adopt a conservative Christian agenda, so he and others who share his beliefs are trying to take matters into their own hands.
Burnell, 28, is one of the founders of ChristianExodus.org, a group that hopes to gather conservative Christians for a series of mass moves to South Carolina. The goal is to bring enough voters to the state to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments and conservative Christian values.
And if the federal government doesn't like it, Burnell said he and the other members of the board have not ruled out the possibility of the state seceding from the United States.
They are hoping to have people move to the state in groups of 12,000. Though the group currently has just about 600 members, Burnell said it has been only been in existence for a few months, and he is hoping to have 50,000 to 70,000 supporters in South Carolina by 2016.
But the transformation of South Carolina won't have to wait that long, he said.
"We'll be able to begin the debate with the first wave," Burnell said.
What put them over the top, Burnell said, was seeing what the Republicans have done since they gained control of the White House and both houses of Congress, even with a supportive majority on the Supreme Court.
He pointed out that abortion is still legal, No Child Left Behind has resulted in spending on public schools "exploding," a Ten Commandments monument was ordered removed from an Alabama courthouse and there has been no progress on getting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
"About a year ago we were sitting down and we saw that the Republicans had no intention of fixing anything," he said. "They're not conservative, so we were at the end of our rope. We thought, 'We need to do something serious here.' "
It was around that time that a group of libertarians were announcing their Free State Project — a call for libertarians to move to New Hampshire, where they will work within the political system to reduce the size and scope of government.
• Read About the Free State Project.
Burnell liked the idea, and his first thought was to join them in their move to the state that decorates its license plates with the motto "Live Free or Die." But then he and the others had second thoughts.
"We can't agree with libertarians on everything — drugs, for instance," he said. "So we realized we needed to do something like that for Christians."
The group turned its attention on the Bible Belt, first narrowing the field to Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.
"On the Christian issues, we know how those states vote," he said.
To help narrow the field to one, the board of ChristianExodus.org considered other issues, though, such as the geographic size of the states and the fact that of the three, only South Carolina has an ocean coastline.
Burnell and the others also looked at a University of North Carolina study of Southerners' attitudes that said 10 percent of Southerners replied they believed the South would be better off as an independent nation, and that support for that view was highest in South Carolina — roughly 20 percent.
Of the three, South Carolina is the only one that was among the 13 original states, and is listed in the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, as a sovereign nation.
"We could lay out that it has the right to independence if it asked for it," he said.
The current leaders of the state say South Carolina has plenty to attract anyone, including the members of ChristianExodus.org, but they would rather the group not bring ideas of splitting from the United States.
"We've got a very unique quality of life here in South Carolina, so it's not surprising that folks would want to come here," said Will Folks, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford. "As for secession, we've tried that before and it didn't work out so well."
If anyone needs reminding of that, Folks said, they only have to look at the state capitol building in Columbia, where the scars from the shelling by Gen. Sherman's Union troops are still visible.
Though Burnell emphasized in an interview with ABCNEWS.com that he only sees secession as a last resort, in a posting on the Web site of the South Carolina League of the South he seems more focused on that goal.
"The only Southern nationalist organization I have found with an ETI [estimated time of independence] is the South Carolina League of the South, which, according to state director Robert Hayes, is determined to be free of the union within 20 years," the posting says. "I think we can move this date closer to the present with a managed emigration."
According to an article in a recent issue of Intelligence Report, the Southern Poverty Law Center's journal on hate groups, there are higher concentrations of "antigovernment extremists" in parts of South Carolina than anywhere else in the United States, other than parts of the Ozarks and northern Idaho.
In his interview with ABCNEWS.com, though, Burnell said the first option would be to remain within the United States, with a move to secede if Washington interferes with what the new majority of people in South Carolina want.
"Our end goal is we put people in power like Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, who really understand the Constitution," he said, referring to the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who repeatedly came into conflict with federal authorities over a Ten Commandments monument he placed in a court building. "We might be able to achieve that within the Union. I know we have plenty of supporters on the ground there and thousands of supporters in the League of the South."
That connection to the League of the South, a Killen, Ala.-based group trying to revive the values of the antebellum South, has raised questions about whether ChristianExodus.org has any racist intent — a charge Burnell flatly denies, both about his own group and about the League of the South, of which he is also a member.
"ChristianExodus.org is entirely colorblind," he said. "We have no position on race. One of the members of our research committee is of mixed race. There are members of the League of the South who are black."
The League of the South is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors extremist groups, but Burnell said that is based on a misunderstanding of what the heritage of the Confederacy is, and the identification of racism and slavery with the South alone.
"Racism and slavery are American problems," he said. "People want to defend the positive things as well. There are a lot of positive things about the South, like states' rights."
Lumping ChristianExodus.org with racist groups might be guilt by association, though, according to Jack Kay, a professor of communications at Wayne State University who has studied the radical right.
"If you really look at the rhetoric of Christian Exodus, it's not white separatist at all," he said. "On the contrary, the rhetoric is the very opposite of the white supremacist, and seems to be very inclusive."
He said, though, that he doesn't expect Burnell's group to be any more successful creating a conservative Christian state than white separatists have been trying to create an Aryan nation in parts of Idaho and Montana.
"For groups to be effective in getting their message out, they really have to be in control of the process and they have to have a clear message," he said. "This group has not developed a cohesive vision of what the future is going to be like."
But Burnell said the message has already gotten a positive response, and he believes the movement will only gain strength, especially because so much of the support ChristianExodus.org is receiving is coming from people in the Northeast and upper Midwest, he said, not the Bible Belt.
"What we found was that Southerners don't feel as persecuted for being Christians," he said. "They're not having homosexuals coming into their children's health classes and telling their kids that homosexuality is a reasonable life choice."
Burnell himself actually lives in northern California, having moved there recently from Texas. But because he believes that same-sex marriage will soon be made legal in every state, abortion will never be banned and God will not be brought back into the classroom, Burnell thinks Christians will realize that if they want to live in a state where their faith is upheld, they will have to do what ChristianExodus.org is proposing.
"We're ahead of the curve on this," he said. "There are so many changes occurring in this country so fast, that whereas it seems like an impossibility today, the political landscape we're going to see in five to 10 years is going to make it a possibility. We're not unreasonable nut cases. We're the good guys here."