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Conspicuous Religiosity

    For several years the wanton display of religious symbols has been making me crazy, and lately I’ve been obsessing about it. On a recent cross-country trip, hundreds of Indiana cars with “In God We Trust” emblazoned on their license plates left me in their 80 mph dust. Shortly before last Christmas a federal judge enjoined South Carolina from producing a license plate, which the state legislature had authorized, that carried an image of the Christian cross and the words “I Believe.” The memory of Sarah Palin and her prayin’ and being prayed over remains all too fresh in my mind. And I can still vividly recall the neo-rebel country singer Marty Stuart’s costume on a televised “Grand Ole Opry” show a few years ago. No modest crucifix around the neck for him, the kind you might see peeking out of the cleavage of many a female singer. He sported a jet-black Nudie suit with large, raised black crosses embroidered on the chest, back, and arms. It was the sartorial equivalent of the 190 foot stainless steel cross that towers over Interstate 40 on the high plains east of Amarillo, Texas, not far from the famed leaning water tower of Groom.

    One is generally spared intimate contact with others’ religious ideas and practices. Actual religious beliefs don’t show on people’s faces, and religious rituals are for the most part kept safely behind the closed doors of homes or places of worship. Everyday social intercourse entails only the most innocuous forms of religious talk — “Thank God!” someone might say, or more likely “God damn it!” — and the American civil religion is fairly tame, except perhaps in the eyes of Atheists or Europeans. It’s much like sex. You presume that your friends and neighbors, even your parents, have sex and that they do pretty much the same things you do. But you don’t need the details, thank you very much.

    Some religions do make their practitioners unavoidably visible. Roman Catholics cross themselves, in and out of church. Amish and Mennonite people dress differently, as do some Orthodox Jews. Perhaps even Methodists stand out in a crowd, though probably only to other Methodists. These things don’t generally bother me. Sometimes they even seem quaint and appealing, like the charming Mennonite family I saw at the Columbus, Ohio zoo, or the engaging young Orthodox rabbi from Vienna who convinced me to put on tefillin and pray with him on a busy Marais sidewalk in Paris.

    I didn’t think Marty Stuart was quaint or appealing. Here is one more country singer, I felt, shoving his religion in my face. As I am wont to do when confronted with displays of that sort, I gave my imagination license. Somewhere, I thought, there is a porno movie with a stud humping away, a large gold cross flapping his grateful lover’s face. I imagined a nicely endowed young woman with a “Got Jesus” t-shirt, bouncing down the street: Got Jesus? Got Jesus? Got Jesus? I envisioned tourists at Yellowstone watching the geysers in their religious tank-tops. Nothing like a fat hairy belly with an inspiring religious message hovering above it to get the religious juices flowing. Praise the Lord! Pass the collection plate!

    Visible religious affiliation doesn’t in itself offend me. An orthodox Jew dressed in the clothing of fifteenth century Europe has a high visibility quotient; you can’t avoid seeing the beard and the heavy black wool clothing and hat. On a hot summer day I might wonder about his discomfort, but otherwise treat him as just another inhabitant of the human zoo. Likewise for the devout Catholic with ashes on his or her face on Ash Wednesday. The first time I saw that as a kid I told a man his face was dirty, but soon learned to keep my my mouth shut. A Sikh with traditional head wrapping is pretty noticeable as well, but when I’m in New Jersey, they pump the gas and I pay and that is pretty much that.

    Nor do the people who wish earnestly to convert me really disturb me. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door displaying Watchtower and offering to share their faith with me, I smile, say “no thank you,” and send them away politely. Likewise with the Mormons, all those LDS youth in white shirts and ties who come to your house in search of converts. They’re only doing their jobs, and you have to admire them. It takes a lot more energy and commitment to walk down hot and dusty streets with the word of God than to put on a sequined Nudie suit.

    Conspicuous religiosity is in your face with attitude: I have the truth and you don’t. If you’re a Reform Jew, the Orthodox Jew would be glad if you saw his light, but otherwise he’d just as soon you kept your distance. The Roman Catholics would be delighted if you joined up, but they don’t overly exert themselves seeking you out. The Sikh doesn’t try to get you to join his religion. The Amish aren’t interested in having converts — except, perhaps, the occasional Harrison Ford with really good carpenter skills who is nice to Kelly McGillis and her son. You go your way, we’ll go ours. We’ll keep our feelings of superiority to ourselves. In public we’ll be civilized and at least pretend to respect your beliefs. Not so with the conspicuously religious, who feel conspicuously sorry for you and your conspicuously misguided, sinful, unredeemed ways.

    Conspicuous religiosity is a form of status display. No doubt the hairy tank-topped believer would be delighted if his “Jesus is Lord” message caused me to fall to my knees and declare my faith. But the real purpose may be simply to announce that “I am saved and you are not.” In this sense, conspicuous religiosity is like any form of conspicuous consumption: the display is the thing. I have a Lexus, you have a Chevrolet. Yes, I know, they say they want everybody to be saved, but I’m not convinced. Conspicuous religiosity announces the individual’s moral standing, just as the Lexus announces economic standing. The guy driving a Lexus with an “I Brake for the Rapture” bumper sticker must feel really special. And he doesn’t want everybody else to have a Lexus, either.

    Conspicuous religiosity has the same limitations as any other form of status display. The new car smell wears off. Other people acquire the same cars, or close imitations. The craving for status thus returns, like hunger after a meal, and leads to new purchases. What are the religious equivalents of newer and better status goods? Larger crosses around the neck? More outlandish public statements of thanks to Jesus for the Grammy? Bolder slogans on bumper stickers and shirts? Since the craving for theological standing is probably just as strong as the craving for social standing, it seems reasonable to expect similar kinds of status competition.

    Maybe I’m wrong, and the folks in Jesus t-shirts or wearing enormous crosses are just announcing their presence to like-minded others. In that case, I have a suggestion: find a secret sign invisible to all but the converted, or at least something more discreet. Something I can’t detect, or at least something charming. Otherwise, I’m getting a bigger evolving Darwinian fish to put on my car.