Monday, July 18, 2011

License plates that sneeze

While driving along I-10 Sunday, I saw a truck with a Kentucky license plate. The name “Kentucky” was barely visible, dwarfed by the capital letters underneath: “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

Weird as that was, I was floored to later see a South Carolina license plate with the same inscription during the same trip. (To say nothing of Indiana’s current default issue.)

Why do drivers — and enabling states — feel the need to assert this on their license plates?

I have a theory: it’s not a declaration so much as a hissy fit.

Hear me out.

I don’t doubt that most people who say “God Bless America,” “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God” or any related expression mean it in an earnest, if cliched, sense. But when one of those mottos appears on something official like a license plate or coin, for me it takes on a more ulterior edge.

Just as “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance at the height of the Red Scare in 1954, so do I think that public declarations in this vein are polemic rather than patriotic. They’re intended to establish self-righteous dominance. Same goes for “In God We Trust” on our bills and coins. They got placed on our currency exactly 100 years apart, during periods of national turmoil and long after our Founding Fathers (and many of their descendants) became one with the American soil.

They’re political statements, and not particularly positive ones.

There’s no point in placing “IN GOD WE TRUST” in huge letters on a license plate any more than there’s any point in my sporting a bumper sticker that says, “I’m OK with the Internet.” Unless, in my case, I felt like someone was trying to end the Internet, and I wanted to be passive-aggressive in my opposition.

When someone feels the need to proclaim their faith as an adjunct to their patriotism, I don’t feel like we’re on the same team. Not because I don’t have deep morals and convictions of my own, but because I choose not to tie it into how good of a citizen I am. And no one, regardless of stance, should.

What makes this declaration especially insipid is what always makes this issue insipid: No one’s trying to take away anyone’s freedom of religion. In fact, the opposite is true — activism generally favors the end to government declarations/endorsement of parochial beliefs. And plastering God onto courthouses and on our license plates, etc., has the backfiring effect of making that activism more essential.

As I’ve said before, it’s ironic that the symbols that are supposed to unite all Americans are often loaded with theocratic rhetoric. Isn’t the point of standing united that we don’t have these litmus tests, no matter how weak or token they seem?

I’m extending that definition of “symbol” to include license plates. On top of those being government-issued items, I am an avid collector. I don’t want my future wall displays to look like the backdrop of a CPAC podium.

1 comment:

Mustang Bobby said...

We have TWO "In God We Trust" plates here in Florida. One is a "specialty plate" that you pay extra for; it has a graphic of something holy and the slogan in holy-looking script. Then there's the no-cost option of an IGWT plate that has the slogan stamped across the bottom of the plate in the place where you'd normally find "SUNSHINE STATE" or the name of the county.

What's funny is seeing people who paid extra for a slogan on a specialty plate when they could get it for free. It proves the axiom that there are no easier people to get money out of than religious fanatics.