It began, as many road trips do, with a stop at Wal-Mart to buy a portable DVD player.
But Mario DiMartino was planning more than a weekend getaway. He, his wife and three children were embarking on a pilgrimage to South Carolina.
“I want to migrate and claim the gold of the Lord,” said the 38-year-old oil company executive from Pennsylvania. “I want to replicate the statutes and the mores and the scriptures that the God of the Old Testament espoused to the world.”
DiMartino, who drove here recently to look for a new home, is a member of Christian Exodus, a movement of politically active believers who hope to establish a government based upon Christian principles.
At a time when evangelicals are exerting influence on the national political stage -- having helped secure President Bush’s reelection -- Christian Exodus believes that people of faith have failed to assert their moral agenda: Abortion is legal. School prayer is banned. There are limits on public displays of the Ten Commandments. Gays and lesbians can marry in Massachusetts.
Christian Exodus activists plan to take control of sheriff’s offices, city councils and school boards. Eventually, they say, they will control South Carolina. They will pass godly legislation, defying Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state.
“We’re going to force a constitutional crisis,” said Cory Burnell, 29, an investment advisor who founded the group in November 2003.
“If necessary,” he said, “we will secede from the union.”
Burnell has not moved to South Carolina himself -- he promised his wife that they would stay in Valley Springs, Calif., until the end of next year -- but believes that his 950 supporters will rally to the cause. Five families have moved so far.
Burnell said his inspiration came from the Free State Project, which in October 2003 appealed to libertarians to move to New Hampshire for limited government intervention, lower taxes and greater individual rights. By 2006, organizers had hoped to have 20,000 people committed to relocating to New Hampshire; so far, 6,600 have said they intended to make the move, and only 100 have done so.
Christian Exodus, Burnell predicted, will be more successful.
“There are more Christians than libertarians,” he said.
After scrutinizing electoral records, demographic trends and property prices, Christian Exodus members identified two upstate South Carolina counties -- they will not officially say which ones -- as prime for a conservative takeover. By September 2006, Burnell hopes to have 2,000 activists in one county and 500 in the other.
Frank and Tammy Janoski have settled into a five-bedroom house with white vinyl siding in a new subdivision in rural Spartanburg County.
“This is where God wants us to be,” he said.
Janoski, 38, a self-employed computer engineer, had been contemplating moving from his deadline-oriented lifestyle in Bethlehem, Pa., to a more conservative region with cheaper housing and lower taxes when a church friend handed him a Christian Exodus flier.
“What attracted me to the movement was the idea of calling back the country to a righteous standard,” he said.
His first six months in South Carolina have been idyllic, Janoski said. Not only do his neighbors wave as they pass by, but they also share most of his conservative Christian beliefs.
“If you’re going to secede, this is the place to do it,” he said. “A lot of the locals have that spirit.”
Although Christian Exodus members are confident that they can capitalize on evangelical disillusionment with the Republican Party, local observers are skeptical.
James Guth, a professor at Furman University in Greenville who studies the influence of religion on politics, does not think that Christian Exodus will be successful beyond a county level.
“South Carolina is a state that is dominated by Republicans,” he said. “Although there are people on the far right edge of the Republican Party ... in general, the population is a big fan of Bush.”
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, upstate South Carolina is the most conservative region of a conservative state: Bush won 58% of the South Carolina vote in 2004, and Greenville is home to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college that until recently had banned interracial dating.
Cleatus Blackmon, treasurer and director of missions at the Greer Baptist Assn., which oversees 39 Baptist churches in Janoski’s town, doubts that Christian Exodus’ focus on taking over government bodies will appeal to the majority of the region’s Christians.
“You don’t find the word ‘control’ in the scriptures,” he said. “The basic mission of the church is to proclaim God’s redeeming love through the example of Jesus Christ.”
But Christian Exodus activists insist that they will forge ahead, even if they end up polarizing the Christian community.
“We want to separate the wheat from the chaff,” DiMartino said. “There’s a lot of deception in the church. If the Republican Party says something, a lot of churches say it’s gospel.”
Despite its cynicism about the Republican Party, Christian Exodus plans to use the party’s popularity to its advantage. Rather than running for office themselves, Christian Exodus activists hope to influence which Republican candidates win local primaries.
“All we have to do is put our guy on the ballot with an ‘R’ sign,” Burnell said. “It could be a corpse and they’ll vote for him.”
Local Republicans, however, point out that they would never sit idly by while Christian Exodus took over.
“He talks about 2,000 activists, but I can easily get 4,000 activists,” said Bob Taylor, a Republican Greenville County councilman and a dean at Bob Jones University. “There’s incredible dedication to the [Republican] cause.”
While many South Carolinians may oppose abortion and gay marriage, Taylor said, few would support secession.
But DiMartino is not worried about the naysayers.
When he explained Christian Exodus to the man who sold him his home in Pickens County, he said, the salesman gave him a high-five. DiMartino looks forward to living alongside Christians who want to put local government back in the hands of what, he believes, America was really founded for.
“Whether it flies or not,” he said, “is really in the Lord’s hands.”