It is no secret that America is polarized. This is a fact that is manifested in so many different ways. Traveling down the highway to Chicago, for example, I came upon two successive billboards that I thought were striking examples of our divided culture.
The first billboard caught me by surprise: it consisted of an electrocardiogram of a heart that suddenly stops beating. The caption read: When you die, you will meet God.
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As we were passing through the snowy night, I was unable to catch more details of this billboard. I do not know who put it out or what I was expected to do. It really did not matter because for a brief moment I thought about what the Catholic Church calls the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Think of these things, Scriptures says, and you will not be lost eternally. The simple phrase served to trigger in me a gentle yet fleeting reflection upon the meaning of life. I am sure I was not the only one to make this quick reflection.
The billboard is clearly polarizing since it is directed toward that strong vein inside the American public that is turned toward things religious, spiritual and eternal. It is a sector of the American public that lives amid the fast, superficial and materialistic aspects of our pop culture yet is not entirely comfortable with them. These Americans are drawn by God, family, honor and country. On the other hand, this billboard would not appeal to other Americans who would tend to disparage the message as backward and unenlightened.
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The second billboard came immediately afterwards and struck me by how contrary it was to the former. It consisted of a massive BBQ sandwich with the caption: Happiness is a double BBQ sandwich.
There is nothing wrong with a double BBQ sandwich or even deriving pleasure from eating one. However, the message behind this billboard is clearly materialistic yet more subtly polarizing. There is no invitation to profound reflection. Rather there is the quick insinuation that happiness can be easily bought by obtaining the immediate object of our desires. In this case, gratification equals happiness. According to the same logic, life should be a long succession of gratifications.
This billboard represents a second, more commercial, vein found in America that I call in the book, Return to Order, the perception of the nation as a co-op. This perspective holds that individuals unite themselves together in society as a means to facilitate each one’s inebriating pursuit of happiness.
Under this view, an appreciation of America is tied to its ability to make everything fun and everyone happy. Like a co-op, those who hold this position expect returns on their social union in the form of constant and instant gratification. Happiness consists of participating in the excitement of a party economy that they hope will keep on going.
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Of course, we cannot generalize and say that all Americans fit neatly into one category or the other. Sometimes the two can be found in differing proportions inside the same person. Other times, the same person might gravitate toward one or later the other. We might also observe collective swings of the national mood towards one or the other category.
As our crisis deepens, this fascinating interplay of perspectives, this dramatic clash of mentalities becomes the material for a great debate now taking place in America over our future. This discussion is found everywhere—even on highway billboards.
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There are many categories that people have used to characterize the nation’s polarization. There is red and blue, conservative and liberal, or retro and metro. Perhaps it is the case to add yet another: God and the double BBQ sandwich.