Where Cameron Runyan is coming from

File photo of Cameron Runyan in 2011.

File photo of Cameron Runyan in 2011.

Earlier this month, Cameron Runyan happened to run across my blog post from November, when I shared with y’all his written explanation of his lone vote against same-sex benefits.

He wanted to get together and “catch up,” so I met him for breakfast on Jan. 23.

At that time, he shared with me some of the story about how he came to be a lone culture warrior on Columbia City Council, among other things. I wasn’t sure at the time that I was going to write anything about the conversation, and took few notes (so Cameron, if I remember anything wrong, please let me know and I’ll correct it). Then I decided that I would write about it, but only after talking with his likely opponent in this year’s election, Tige Watts. I spoke with Mr. Watts Friday, making a point of taking more notes this time.

But first, the incumbent, starting with his conversion experience…

Cameron Runyan’s grandparents were missionaries, but he didn’t really get deeply into religion until just over three years ago.

He and his extended family were spending the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean. On Boxing Day 2011, he and a couple of other family members went out for a run (if you recall from something I wrote earlier that year, he had “disgustingly healthy habits”).

Suddenly, he could not go on. His muscles were seizing up, and he could hardly breathe. Apparently, it was a matter of dehydration or something of that sort — in any case, his electrolytes (which plants crave) were all out of whack. “The point of dehydration where I was is 50-60% fatal,” he added in a text to me today. “You more often die than live at that point. It was extremely dire and painful.” He thought this was it; he was dying. And as he lay more or less helpless on a bed in a medical facility later, trying to recover, he concluded that he was not happy with how he had lived his life thus far. He felt himself to be lacking the proper connection to something greater than himself.

Over the coming months, he plunged into a new sort of relationship with God, one with an evangelical flavor. For a time, his wife had a hard time dealing with the new Cameron. Then one day, he came home and she had undergone a conversion of her own. From then on, the Runyans were on the same journey, bringing their kids along with them.

For a good while, they attended services presided over by Det Bowers. Det was from Hampton County, where Cameron had grown up. And his life had followed in some ways a similar trajectory. Bowers was an attorney who managed Michael Dukakis’ campaign in South Carolina in 1988, and went on to become a preacher who would run to the right of Lindsey Graham in last year’s GOP primary.

But when Mr. Bowers gave up preaching, the Runyans ended up at Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church, well known as one of the most conservative large, brand-name congregations in the city. I showed my ignorance by saying that while I knew First Pres was pretty conservative, it wasn’t as conservative as A.R.P. Cameron said it is A.R.P. (which I think maybe I once knew, but had forgotten), and in fact the biggest Associate Reform Presbyterian church around.

A word or two about the A.R.P. denomination… While the only time I can recall entering an A.R.P. church was for Lee Bandy’s funeral, it looms large in my family tree. Look up the church’s history, and you see among the founders such names as Moffatt and Pressly, which are kin to my father’s mother. Erskine College is A.R.P., as was Erskine Caldwell, in spite of the sexually titillating books for which he became famous. In the years before my grandfather died in 1957, he and my grandmother had been living in a house on the edge of Due West owned by the president of Erskine. Billy Graham was brought up in an A.R.P. church, although he was later ordained as a Southern Baptist.

Among other things, Wikipedia notes that the denomination officially calls homosexuals “to repentance, cleansing, and deliverance in the saving power of Jesus Christ.”

So it is not surprising that when Cameron Runyan gets onto the subject of same-sex marriage, there is a good bit of talk about God’s will along with his objections to moral relativism, postmodernism and so forth.

I think I’ve fairly brought you up to date on that. Some other items from our conversation:

  • When he voted as he did on the benefits issue, I recall that a number of people expressed disappointment in him as a Democrat. Well, he doesn’t consider himself to be a Democrat any longer. (Remember, city council elections are nonpartisan.) As evidence of that, he pointed to his support of Mr. Bowers in last year’s Senate primary.
  • He didn’t want to talk about his relationship with Steve Benjamin who endorsed his candidacy last time around, and with whom he has been so closely allied for quite some time thereafter. But there are indications that that relationship is at best strained, compared to what it was.
  • While he is running for re-election in November, he says he won’t run again for this seat, after this time. I did not gather from that that he was retiring from politics; he just doesn’t want to hold this seat past one more term.
  • When I mentioned that it looked as though he had opposition, he said that yes, he’d heard that Joe Azar might run against him. He did not mention Tige Watts, whose yet-to-be-official candidacy has actually been the subject of some talk in the community.

Speaking of Mr. Watts, I’d best turn to my post about him…


24 thoughts on “Where Cameron Runyan is coming from

  1. Silence

    Good idiocracy reference in this post. Runyan is what happens when stupid people vote in large numbers.
    I think Cameron’s also tied in somehow with The Reverend Jim Jones and his “not a church” Christ Central Ministries (People’s Temple, cough, cough) on the corner of Main and Elmwood.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Yes he is. He railroaded the Christ Central crew in to be the sole homeless provider a few years back, to the chagrin of many central neighborhoods and their leaders, as well as other homeless service providers.

      1. Silence

        Wasn’t Cameron Runyan personally responsible for running the city’s homeless services coordinator out of town?

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I got a text from Cameron a few minutes ago:

    Note: the point of dehydration where I was is 50-60% fatal. You more often die than live at that point. It was extremely dire and painful.

    I thanked him for that and said I would add that. He replied:

    Think road to Damascus and you’re close

    I hope he doesn’t think I was downplaying his experience. I fully believe that it was a horrible thing, and it obviously had a huge impact on him.

    1. John

      I appreciate Councilman Runyon’s willingness to share his personal story, but the road to Damascus conversion was not a call to orthodoxy. Saul was already orthodox. His conversion account is the story of someone who was forcibly told to adjust his message to a new reality. It was an absolute challenge to orthodoxy. Paul makes so many incendiary statements that sometimes it can difficult to see the forest for the trees in Acts, but a road to Damascus event is clearly NOT a call to persecution and inflexibility. I really don’t see how it can justifiably be used to deny fringe benefits to someone in a secular career.

  3. Barry

    I agree with him on the issue as a person.

    But I do believe, as a city council member, he can vote for spousal/partner benefits while still strongly holding his personal viewpoint.

    of course I’d extend the benefits to anyone living in a household. I see no reason to limit them to a partner/spouse.

  4. Paul

    Hilarious. As a result of dehydration, he converted to Republicanism. I know you were an opinion guy and not a true reporter, but did it ever occur to you to challenge him on this any of this? Maybe ask if it could possibly be a political calculation?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Any other explanation would be less credible, for a number of reasons.

      But the main problem with what you pose is this: If it was a political calculation, it was an amazingly bad one. He’s cut off, isolated, and his effectiveness on council is reduced.

      All of which was predictable. Also, I think he’s quite likely to lose this election — which was somewhat less predictable, until a fairly strong candidate emerged.

      This is sort of like what Sean Connery’s said about Elliott Ness being a federal agent in the film version of “The Untouchables” — Who would claim to be that who was not?

      I keep challenging when the story just doesn’t add up. Cameron’s explanation was the least incredible one in this instance. Something has happened to his worldview. He wouldn’t have acted this way four years ago. A traumatic experience fits the known facts we are able to observe.

      Somewhat tangentially, even when I was a reporter (briefly, long ago), I’ve always been very interested in how a source WANTS to be perceived, in what he wants others to believe about him. I think it reveals more about the person than almost anything else, for good and for ill.

      I think you and I and everyone have learned some things about Cameron Runyan from the story as he tells it.

      I suspect more of my readers are likely to be more skeptical toward him as a result of reading about his account, and a decided minority will like him better. I didn’t set out to make that happen; I just passed on his story…

      1. Silence

        What I’ve learned is: If I’m going to see things from Cameron Runyan’s point of view, I’m going to have to get my head fully inserted into my rectum.

        On the other hand, The counselor doth protest too much, methinks….

      2. Paul

        Your idea that it wasn’t a political calculation because it was a bad one reminds me of people who saying Tom Brady wasn’t involved in deflate-gate because he didn’t need to cheat to win. Sometimes people miscalculate the full ramifications of their choices. The jury’s out on whether his political calculation is right or not. The evidence seems overwhelming to most that he looked at the continuing republican landslides in statewide elections and realized his larger political ambitions were short-lived without a major redirection. Jesus has been telling him for some time now to run in bigger races. City council’s not big enough for the greatness that is Cameron Runyan.

        I understand that you just “passed along his story.” And I’m glad that you did. The explanation that he had a life-altering moment of dehydration is a more hilarious explanation than I could have ever imagined.

        1. Doug Ross

          Paul – do you have any religious beliefs? If so, can you share how you developed them? If not, then can you share how you made the decision to reject religion?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Which, in my view, would not disqualify it from being a genuine revelation — like near-death experiences. The fact that a physiological phenomenon opens you to an alternative mode of perception doesn’t delegitimize the experience.

        As I said here

  5. Bob Amundson

    Cameron shared his story when we met prior to his election in April 2012. He did not mention anything to me about how this life event had changed his views to a more fundamentalist Christian position. I did question him about being a Steve Benjamin “clone,” and he convinced me he was his “own man.” After our meeting, I decided to vote for him.

    Cameron, when did this “transformation” occur, before or after your election? I ask you this publicly because I believe others need to know this, as many seem to think you did a “bait and switch.” You courted voter groups that are offended by your current religious beliefs.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That’s a good question. I suppose what he would say in response would be that his new views were not fully formed at that time.

      As I recall from his account — many details of which elude me now — the dehydration incident was the moment that, for him, amounted to being “born again.” But he seems to have taken some time deciding what that meant.

      For instance, the first couple of years after he was elected, he seemed to be exactly what he had run as — and the main way that was defined, in my mind, was as a reliable vote for whatever position Steve Benjamin took. I only started seeing that change very recently.

      I got the sense that he gravitated toward Det Bowers because Det was also from Hampton County. And remember, it took Det a couple of decades to go from helping run the Dukakis campaign to running to the right of Lindsey Graham in a Senate primary.

      After that, he started going to First Presbyterian, part of an established denomination with established positions on a lot of issues.

      I know that when I saw his vote, and his explanation of his vote, on the benefits issue, I thought, “Here’s something new…”

      So basically, it’s not like he was already this fully-formed new person on Election Day. At least, that’s my understanding from his story.

      One of the reasons I, as a Catholic (who was Baptized a Southern Baptist), feel something of a gulf between me and many evangelicals like Cameron is the way they speak in such definite terms. They speak of moments of salvation, whereas to me faith is more like a journey, in which you have so much farther to go, and so much more to learn.

      And I suspect that’s even true of folks to speak in such cut-and-dried terms.

      I think the “born again” language creates an illusion of everything happening in a moment, but I think what happened to him that day in the Caribbean was that he was suddenly, jarringly set on a new path — not that he just suddenly had a whole new set of attitudes. And now, we see more clearly where that path has led him…

  6. Mark Stewart

    All of us at one time or another have probably found that our mind has not been the most reliable recorder of what goes on around us. Sometimes we must admit that what we view as reality maybe isn’t that construct which others see. And then there are times when we each are confronted with situations where we see things more clearly than others around us – and we are correct to have held onto our construction of “reality” and “meaning”.

    In both cases the trick is weighing whether what is in our brain or what is in the minds of others around us more accurately and appropriately describes the world and our relation to it and among ourselves.

    Cameron Runyan’s description of how his wife’s religious outlook was changed after his epiphany struck me. As a total outsider, I thought that’s spousal adaptation on display. The uncircumspectness of his righteous conviction lead me to another thought. Severe dehydration has many serious effects on our internal organs, and our brains are our most delicate and most susceptible to injury of them all. I would definitely not want to say or imply damaged in this case; but does it not seem logical that such a serious injury to the body as severe dehydration would result in changes in the brain which could explain such a fundamental shift in outlook and belief?

    I want to believe that he has found God and truth. And I hope it isn’t unempathetic to question whether Runyan is not in a place where all of us, eventually in one way or another find ourselves: needing to rely on others where are own faculties of comprehension and understanding fail us, or even just subtly undermine us?

    Regardless, it would seem that Cameron Runyan would not share this story in this way were his transformation to have been an act of political cynicism. We see enough of that around Columbia to know that this is not like the others.

    1. Doug Ross

      “but does it not seem logical that such a serious injury to the body as severe dehydration would result in changes in the brain which could explain such a fundamental shift in outlook and belief?”

      Surely a neurologist would have made a diagnosis that would confirm that? I can see a temporary change in outlook and belief based on dire physical circumstances, but to maintain that belief beyond the event would suggest that he truly had a life changing epiphany. That happens all the time. It did for me in my late 30’s. And I don’t think I have brain damage (other opinions may vary).

      Note – I don’t agree with his position on same sex benefits. I think it’s myopic and a non-Christian way of interpreting what should be a clear choice… but I won’t question his conversion until he demonstrates behaviors that are hypocritical to his beliefs.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      This brings me back to a theme I’ve raised before — the idea that Cameron’s experience was a medically-explainable physical phenomenon in no way disqualifies it as divine intervention.

      As I wrote before, why can’t a hallucination be an actual revelation?

      I think God uses the actual, physical world to get our attention. If something happens to throw our brains into a different mode of perception, why can’t that be God throwing open a previously closed door?

      As Pope Francis says, God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” He works through the world He created. (He said that with regard to evolution, which to me seems exactly the way God would create the world, rather than in a six-day “abracadabra” process.)

      I definitely am in NO position to judge the validity or invalidity of Cameron’s religious experience. I’m just saying that the idea that his brain chemistry was in an abnormal state in no way guarantees that it wasn’t an actual “road to Damascus” experience…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Anymore than a diagnosis of “hysterical blindness” would disqualify that of Saul in Acts. An extreme experience of perception is just that. I don’t expect them to happen when the brain is in ordinary, everyday mode…

        1. Mark Stewart

          And yet most people would probably be more apt to say that a sober, present state is necessary before one can call one’s thoughts perceptive.

          Maybe that’s what he did: had an experience which lead to a revolutionary way of thinking, which then lead him to ponder this new way of thinking over a long period of “normal” living as he slowly, rationally processed this new reality he found for himself. If that’s the case, maybe it’s time to give life and it’s meaning some more reflection.

          To be charitable, his present incarnation is anything but Christian. To call it so is just double-speak.

  7. Silence

    I have another question for Cameron. The S&P 500 is up 15% annually over the last 3 years. How has your clients’ money performed, relative to the S&P 500 after fees and commissions? Have they outperformed the major indexes, or even an appropriate benchmark index?


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