Fletcher Crossman assesses the chances of the Christian Exodus movement
South Carolina is a state of palm trees, antebellum homes and genuine Southern charm. The majority of South Carolinians are regular church goers, although this is not the South of the biblethumping TV evangelists. Churchgoing here is just what good people do, and getting too passionate about it would be to show poor taste.
But South Carolina may be in for a surprise, especially if a group called Christian Exodus has its way. Christian Exodus are the shock troops of a growing movement in America which believes that their nation has lost its faith in God. They cite the number of abortions, the advance of alternative religions, and now the possibility of gay marriage as evidence that America is no longer the Christian country it once was.
Their solution is dramatic, imaginative and scarcely believable. Christian Exodus plan to move thousands of their members into a chosen state, and then use their sheer numbers to force legislation that would eventually lead to the secession of that state from the Union. In other words, they will create their own Christian country.
Christian Exodus considered a variety of possible states, and finally settled on South Carolina as their target location. It has a solidly Christian culture, its own port facilities that would allow for independent trade, and a history of independence: the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter, just off the coast of Charleston. In theory it would seem like a good choice, and with enough dedicated followers the plan seems feasible.
Except, of course, it isn't. The last time any state tried to secede from the Union was in 1860, and it led to the Civil War. The scale of that suffering is still bitterly commemorated in South Carolina, although with typical Southern aversion it is referred to as 'the recent unpleasantness'. South Carolina is now a strongly patriotic state, the home of military bases that have recently lost lives fighting for their country, and the idea that the state would turn its back on America is as treasonous as it is ridiculous to most South Carolinians.
What is more, in a state with a population of over four million, the sheer numbers needed to overturn the will of the majority are enormous. Christian Exodus plans to move into South Carolina in waves of 12,000 members, and although their membership numbers are unclear, they currently have 20 volunteers and four board members. They have a long way to go.
Yet the instincts behind the movement run deep in the minds of many Americans perhaps even most Americans and Christian Exodus is merely the eyecatching tip of a much larger iceberg. The 'return to basics' trend in many American churches set the moralistic agenda of George W Bush's presidency. Bitter legal battles have recently been fought over America's religious status: the words 'under God' in the pledge of allegiance, a monument to the ten commandments in an Alabama courthouse. The Christian Right are on the march, and they don't intend to watch the country they love disappear without a fight.
The passion of their position, however, is rarely matched by the coherence of their argument. Too often the Christian Right build their positions around assumptions that don't bear even the simplest scrutiny. For instance, the rationale given for placing the ten commandments monument in a courthouse (done secretly, by a chief justice, in the middle of the night) was that American law was originally based on the ten commandments. Yet this is factually untrue, and even a fleeting look at the ten commandments will show that only three of the ten were ever part of American law concerning murder, theft and false witness and those three are common to nearly all cultures and religions. But this doesn't stop the ten commandments myth being repeated so often in so many outlets that it is assumed to be true by the majority of Americans.
By the same token, it is often stated that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution based upon Christian principles. In fact, the Constitution is based on the same principle that all enlightened states throughout history have been based on: reason. The Founding Fathers apparently had a clearer grasp than their modern counterparts on the art of statehood: Reason is not an enemy of religion; it is its protector. The American Constitution established that no religion should be the basis of American law, but rather that open argument and debate would decide legislation. By so doing, America avoided the pendulous persecutions between Protestants and Catholics that had been part of established religion in Europe, and made a country where religion has flourished like no other in the Western World. It is no accident that 53 per cent of Americans say that religion is an important part of their lives, while in Europe, where established religion has been the norm, only 14 per cent make the same claim.
Yet there are many in modern America who would consider the establishment of Christianity as being a return to America's roots. Few seriously believe that the wholesale establishment of Christianity will happen any time soon, but there are some serious attempts to do it piecemeal. For instance, President Bush is currently trying to amend the Constitution so that samesex marriage is made illegal in all states for all time: the arguments presented for this amendment have always been overtly religious rather than rational.
The extremist plans of the Christian Exodus movement seem preposterous. They are certainly unworkable. But Christian Exodus are voicing feelings that run deep inside huge swathes of American society, and it is a movement that is growing in influence. America is certainly changing demographically, culturally and religiously and an army is emerging to fight a rearguard action against these changes. They have a serious obstacle to overcome if they are to force their will on the nation, and that obstacle is the Constitution of the United States. But, as Christian Exodus demonstrate, it would be a mistake to underestimate the scale and fervour of their resolve.