Driving south through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida last week, I enjoyed watching the changing environment along the sides of the interstate. Tree species changed, the hills fell away to farmland, and billboards sprouted along both sides of the highway. The billboards were for motels, of course, and car dealerships and eateries, but also for lawyers and doctors and a life coach. How interesting, I thought, that professionals are now advertising like used car salesmen, one more sign of the encroachment of a crass capitalism into areas of our life that had once held a sacred boundary against it.
As we traveled southwards, we saw an increasing number of billboards advertising Jesus, more anti-abortion signs, more aggressive, spit-in-your-face political billboards and more billboards for sex services and products. What an interesting combination! Did they go together, I wondered? They must, because as the towns became more conservative religiously and politically, the advertising for pornography also increased. Dozens of colorful signs enticed truckers and drivers into “Exotic Massage Spas” and “Adult Superstores” with names like Cafe Risque and The Lion’s Den.
The so-called Christian billboards were chilling, including one with Jesus watching over scenes of destruction, starvation and war with the caption. “Don’t worry. God is still in charge." Another said simply, “You’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell,” while a third showed the crucified Christ with the caption “He loves you this much.” See my recent post about the association of love and violence for my thoughts about that one!
The political billboards were also increasingly violent—it was just a few days before the election—with threats against Obama such as “Now it’s personal . . . America is coming for you” and “The Navy Seals removed one threat to America. Now voters have to remove the other one” which also used the popular conflation of Obama with terrorism. He was called a jerk and an idiot, a socialist and a loser. Boy, oh, boy. Welcome to the American South.
The anti-abortion billboards made me want to cry. They made statements about embryos alongside images of 6 month old babies. If it really was true, as the billboards said, that the heart begins to beat at 18 days, that still wouldn’t transform an embryo into a human child. (The heart actually begins to beat during the 6th week of gestation.)
The simple-mindedness of the billboard arguments only increases their power. When a beautiful baby speaks to me from the roadside and says, “My mommy wants to murder me,” my own heart misses a beat and I want to protect that child. Uneducated or unthinking people are easily swayed by these messages, all of them, the religious, the political, and the social.
And among all these other billboards, in sad testimony to the unmet human need for physical comfort and sexual release, promises of private booths and virtual lovers called out to us all along the highway.