Church and State Collide on Highway
Rational thought is backed up for miles along South Carolina’s roadways
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
This just in: Rational thought is backed up for miles along South Carolina’s roadways, where a serious traffic collision between Church and State has left our Constitution in critical condition.
And it’s left Atheists a little cross.
The state recently approved a series of government-issued license plates bearing the words “I BELIEVE” and the image of a Christian cross in front of a stained-glass window. In addition to boasting their state-sanctioned love for square dancing, wild turkeys, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., South Carolina residents can now share their devotion to Jesus Christ with anyone lucky enough to be eating their dust.
The plate was proposed by Republican state Sen. Larry Grooms “to allow people of faith to have an expression of their belief.” Apparently ichthys fish and “God is my copilot” bumper stickers just weren’t converting heathens like they used to.
An identical license plate was considered and rejected in Florida in April. Even South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford, a Christian himself, declined to sign the bill, arguing, “The largest proclamation of one’s faith ought to be in how one lives one’s life.”
It seems the governor lives his own life by inaction: He refused to outright veto the bill. Which means the following conversation will soon be taking place on a Beaufort boulevard:
“Did you get the license number of the guy who mowed you down, ma’am?”
“No, officer. But I can tell you this: He believes.”
Secular outrage aside, I find the plates curious. Leaping onto Chevy tails along with South Carolina’s Shriners, Amateur Radio Club, and Omega Psi Phi fraternity makes Christianity seem less like a personal spiritual understanding and more like a weekend hobby. And not a cool one.
More to the point: If your faith is so strong that it would inspire you to voluntarily stand in line at the DMV-and let’s face it, that’s strong-then why do you need it stamped in cold, hard metal on your vehicle’s ass?
Practically speaking, I see the plates as a handy visual warning to other motorists that the driver in front of them may be logic-challenged. But there are greater issues at risk here.
Critics, including the ACLU, say the state-issued plates are a government endorsement of religion. South Carolina’s DMV doesn’t offer tags emblazoned with a Star of David, a Buddha, or even a pentagram. It doesn’t sell an “IT’S ALL HOOEY” plate with an evolving Darwin fish on it. And whereas motorists pay up to $70 for other specialty plates, “I BELIEVE” is offered-miracle of miracles-for fewer than six bucks.
We all know Christianity is our nation’s unofficial religion the way English is our unofficial language,-i.e., there’s nothing unofficial about it. But what about when the state endorses one political ideology over another? Those of us who worship at the Church of Reason, whose greatest faith is in Democracy, may consider that a far greater sin.
In May, South Carolina (aka the Palmetto State) approved specialty plates whose sale benefits 22 abortion-alternative health clinics across the state. The plates read, “Choose Life,” with the “I” formed by a pretty palmetto tree-the symbol on the state’s flag and seal.
“Choose Life” plates are currently available in more than a dozen states. California’s not one of them. But as long as we’re imprinting religious and political ideology onto government equipment, I saw a bumper sticker once that would make an excellent Golden State plate: “May the fetus you save be a black, gay, Wiccan Democrat.”