Neo-Confederate Cory Burnell Advocates South Carolina Succession

A neo-Confederate evangelical seeks the promised land — and settles on South Carolina

If South Carolina secedes from the Union again, don't come crying to Cory Burnell. He'll point you straight to the real culprit: George W. Bush.

"I thought things were going to change after Bush was elected," Burnell, a 28-year-old neo-Confederate activist, businessman and Christian school math teacher, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But last fall, three years into the Bush Administration, it struck Burnell that things hadn't changed worth a darn. Abortion remained legal, public schools were still in operation, and "sodomite marriage" was on the horizon.

After working for three decades to "return the United States to their moral foundations," it seemed to Burnell that fundamentalists had gotten nowhere. "We need to do something serious," he decided.

So when he wasn't grading calculus and geometry tests, Burnell, the former northeast Texas regional director of the white-supremacist League of the South, weighed the options. He thought about joining the Free State Project, an effort to move 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire, strip the state's government to bare essentials and establish a "Libertopia."

But while minimal taxes and unregulated firearms sounded dandy to Burnell, he wasn't so sure about legalized gambling, drugs and prostitution. "We can't agree with the libertarians on everything," he told ABC News. "So we realized we needed to do something like that for Christians."

That something became Christian Exodus, a fundamentalist effort to take control of South Carolina and, "if necessary," declare it a sovereign republic. Though Burnell had never set foot in the state, he chose it over two other finalists, Mississippi and Alabama, partly because 40% of South Carolinians already identify themselves as evangelical Christians.

It didn't hurt that, 143 years after South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter and set off the Civil War, the state still has one of the nation's biggest concentrations of antigovernment extremists. Or that, as Burnell's Web site notes, "It has coastline" and "It has mountains."

Compared to the original Exodus, when legions of Hebrews left Egypt for the promised land, traversing the miraculously parted Red Sea, Burnell's scheme sounds positively sleek and logical. No plagues or miracles — just pure math.

Beginning in 2006, evangelical Christians will load up their mini-vans and hightail it to the Palmetto State, 12,000 at a time. Each wave of incoming fundamentalists will sort into groups of 1,000 and settle in legislative districts already loaded with Christian Right voters. Subsequent groups of 12,000 will scatter across the state until "the General Assembly is squarely in the hands of Christian Constitutionalists."

The federal government will then have until 2016 to restore states' rights. Short of that, South Carolina will secede and declare itself a "Godly republic."

In July, just two months after ChristianExodus.org was up and recruiting, Burnell said he'd already found 600 evangelicals rarin' to relocate. But the scheme had hit an unexpected snag: Apparently, somebody forgot to ask South Carolinians whether they wanted to be invaded by secessionists.

"Doesn't South Carolina have enough problems already?" the Rev. Joe Darby asked the Tallahassee Democrat. Furious letters to newspaper editors compared Burnell's "un-American" group to the Taliban and suggested Afghanistan as a more promising destination. A spokesman for Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist powerhouse in Greenville, stopped just short of calling Christian Exodus downright un-Christian, noting that for true believers, "the kingdom is not of this world."

As for secession, Gov. Mark Sanford said through a spokesperson, "We've tried that before and it didn't work out so well."

Suddenly, the stubborn streak Burnell admired in South Carolinians was looking like a potential source of trouble. But he remains sanguine about the success of Christian Exodus. Given enough time, he assured Sean Hannity on Fox News, folks will come to realize that a freely fundamentalist South Carolina is all for the best.

"We're receiving E-mails from liberals around the country who can't wait to get rid of us," said Burnell. "So there's a benefit to everyone here."