I will be the first to admit that I have probably spent too much time worrying about Christian Exodus. Two years ago, I was the first journalist in South Carolina to write about this strange group of true believers who are emigrating to our state with the idea of taking over local and state government and turning us into a Bible-based utopia. I have written and spoken on the subject several times since, in rather dire and prophetic tones.
But since I met Mike Altman, I no longer lie awake at night wondering if my new neighbors are Christian Exodus agents infiltrating the 'hood. Christian Exodus will likely be remembered as a momentary media lark, which enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame and disappeared.
In fact, garnering media attention is Christian Exodus' only real genius, Altman told me. Aside from that, they have a pretty good business and marketing plan, and leader Cory Burnell gives a great PowerPoint demonstration. But the group has attracted only about seven families to South Carolina and claims about 500 indigenous adherents. Hardly the revolution they had advertised.
Allow me to introduce Mr. Altman, a graduating senior in the Department of Religion at the College of Charleston. His senior thesis, recently presented at the southeastern regional conference of the American Academy of Religion, was a study of the origins and motivation of Christian Exodus and its leaders. Among his findings:
• The leaders of Christian Exodus (www.ChristianExodus.org) chose South Carolina for their new theocracy because, as Burnell explained, "the voters of South Carolina already agree with us on the issues that are motivating us as an organization."
• Christian Exodus is targeting two super-conservative, heavily white counties for the first phase of their grand scheme: Greenville and Dorchester.
• Burnell uses his MBA training to market Christian Exodus to followers as if it were a product. It rewards participants with political hegemony for their participation in the Christian Exodus system.
• Christian Exodus puts total authority in the will of the majority, with little regard for the rights or sensibilities of minorities.
• Christian Exodus is closely allied with the Constitution Party and the League of the South. (The latter has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.)
Despite these right-wing religious trappings, Christian Exodus is not so easily pigeonholed, Altman said. They denounce Republican evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for their focus on national politics, saying true political power ultimately comes from the grassroots. In keeping with their strict constitutional interpretation, they denounce the war in Iraq as unconstitutional and illegal.
"Simplistic labels like 'right-wing' and 'fundamentalist' sort of fall apart" when describing Christian Exodus, Altman said. "They are libertarian without abortion, pot, or gay rights." (Altman does not say as much, but they seem to be 18th century libertarians, oblivious to the power of modern corporations to corrupt our government, economy, society, or environment.)
Every intellectual movement has a unifying mythos, Altman said. The Christian Exodus vision is wrapped in the myth of "Christian America," with Christian founders, and a Manifest Destiny. It is just one vision of many in a multicultural society — a society that Christian Exodus would not tolerate.
Mike Altman is a lanky, six-foot-two-inch, 21-year-old, with a boyish grin and a thick shock of unruly brown hair. He is a self-described Christian, the son of a Christian and Missionary Alliance minister, whose pastoral duties took the family to several towns in the Carolinas. When I met him recently at Millennium Music, he carried his primary transportation — a Sector 9 longboard — under his arm.
"I've gotten through four years of college without owning a car or a computer," he said, sipping a Newcastle.
Next fall he begins grad school in religion at Duke University; his fiancée begins her grad studies a few miles away, at N.C. State. They plan to marry in July. He intends to get his Ph.D. in religious studies, with a view toward studying religions in conflict.
"Religion is a cultural phenomenon, like any other part of culture," he told me. "I'm not interested so much in the transcendent aspect of religion, but how is religion a construct of the human imagination, like literature or art? Once we understand how these constructs are built, we can understand what to do with them."
I'm still trying to understand what to do with religion — my own and a lot of other people's. But I think I know what to do with Christian Exodus. Thanks to Mike Altman, I can put it in the back of my closet and go to sleep.