Sects on the Highway

Here in the east, it’s not unusual to see Amish buggy road caution signs. Well, not so much in New Jersey, but in my somewhat frequent trips into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania I mentioned to my mother that I’d never seen any Amish along the infamous route 322, where such a sign resides. Driving down 322 on my way home from that trip my wife and I passed three Amish carriages and one baby stroller. Religion has a way of surprising you along the highway. Roadside sects are not uncommon. Apart from the many biblical billboards I’ve been seeing lately, there are any number of indications that once you get out the urban areas of the nation, religion is alive and well. While driving to Ithaca, New York recently my wife and I simultaneously spotted a sign we’d never seen before. We have made this trip to upstate many times, mostly along Interstate 81. The sign was for a tourist attraction called “Historic Priesthood Restoration Site.”

Being hopelessly mainstream, we assumed this meant Catholic priesthood. The problem was, what was either historic about this area north of Scranton, or what might be this restoration? Once we found wifi access again, I learned that the priesthood referenced was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have to keep reminding myself that Mormonism had its start in parts of upstate New York—an area so prone to religious flare ups that it was called the Burnt Over District back in the day. So Joseph Smith and Emma Hale had lived just over the border in the area of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania while Smith was working on the Book of Mormon.

A great deal of America’s religious history may be found on roadside markers. We are an inventive people when it comes to ways of exploring what we consider the divine world. Mormonism has been one of the more successful brands of American religion and although we tend to associate it with Utah now, it was a faith that grew up here in the green hills of the mid-Atlantic states. Being inveterate seekers, Homo sapiens go after new revelations with surprising aplomb. And we’re willing to change the constitution of old religions to fit new prejudices. Religion is anything but static. To test this theory simply get behind the wheel and drive out into rural America. You’ll be surprised how much you can see even at highway speeds, if you have eyes to see.

Driving Truth

One of the problems with driving is that you can’t get pictures of billboards. Well, given the way people drive around here, I suspect that may not always be true. Nevertheless, I always think of billboards as trying to sell something. There’s sometimes fairly easy to shut out, but in long stretches of otherwise uninteresting road you fall into their trap. Now having grown up in western Pennsylvania, we always thought the people out east—Philadelphia was the largest city in the state, after all—were more sophisticated. It is around here, however, that I often see billboards selling evangelical Christianity. If you put out your wares, you’ve got something to sell. Money to make.

As I was traveling that stretch of somewhat plain highway 33 between Stroudsburg and Easton I noticed a billboard reading “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” To shore up its academic credentials the billboard footnoted Genesis 1:1. An inspirational sunrise, if I recall, shown over the Bible. Of to the left—of course to the left!—was a small “no circle” and inside the famous skeletal progression from ape to human. The message was “no evolution.” The more I pondered this, the more strange it became. Most Americans are well aware that billboards aren’t exactly the locus of truth. They are gimmicks to try to get you into the store. Like the one a few miles down that advertises the world’s largest humidor; even those with no interest in tobacco might feel just a touch curious what such a place might look like. Why would you take your most intimate personal beliefs and put them on a billboard? Does that make evolution any less likely?

A strange perception has lately taken over this country. The idea that an individual’s wants equate with the truth. Shout it loud enough and it has to be true. Billboards would never stretch the truth, would they? Is that image enlarged to show texture or what? And wouldn’t a better choice of anti-evolution rhetoric have been Genesis 2? That’s where God makes Adam from lowly dirt. Yes, Genesis 1 gives us the dramatic six-day creation, but Genesis 2 manages to say it all happened in one day—isn’t that more in keeping with capitalistic ideals? Greater efficiency leads to greater profits, after all. And profits, we all know, are the real purpose behind billboards for any product under the sun.