I was driving in Indiana, and I was late. The further you get off the interstate, the slower people drive, anywhere–but it seemed especially true here. It was as if the folks who were religiously observing the speed limit in the tiny farm towns, the ones braking cautiously at the slightest Midwestern declivity as if gravity were some capricious alien force that might at any moment throw their cars out of control and into a cornfield, bore no relation whatsoever to the ten crowded lanes of vehicles treating the beltway around Indianapolis as if it were a huge version of the Speedway. But the most infuriating thing was not that these cars were making me progressively later with each town and turn, but the sanctimonious message beaming off of the back end of seemingly every one of them.
While my rational mind was trying to tell me that there’s nothing on the Indiana license plate that’s not also on every dollar bill in my wallet, the part of me that was pissed off wasn’t buying it. The message is not, as the Indiana Bureau of Motor vehicles would have you believe, a personal statement of the motorist who chose that particular plate. It doesn’t say, “In God I trust”, it says “we”. And while there’s no linking colon after the word “Indiana”, there might as well be. It seems impossible to read the plates as saying anything other than that we, the citizens and state of Indiana believe in God–and by extension, from the flag image, in Country as well. Apparently, the placement of the line between church and state is, like the line dividing Eastern from Central Time, something that is very much under local control here.
You can get all manner of issue-oriented license plates in Indiana–from “Be a Nurse” to “Volunteer Firefighters”, from “Choose Life” (though a pro-choice plate isn’t, unsurprisingly, offered) to “Celebrate the Arts”. But, as the ACLU lawyer pointed out in their lawsuit, the God Plate is the only one for which you don’t have to pay a special fee, and thus it’s the only one you are likely to see–the only one that really matters. The case was dismissed, and the legislator who authored the bill creating the plates cited the slogan as being the motto of the county, etc… But in the current socio-political climate, it’s clear that what is being referenced here is not the God, or Country, of the founding fathers.
Thomas Jefferson’s God was largely apolitical, universal–a way to refer to the eternal, the transcendent, the higher reaches of our human natures. I don’t really have a problem with the slogan on the dollar bill. But this now-Hoosier deity in whom apparently everyone in the entire State is placing their faith scares me.