The (bus) signs of the times

A group wanted to advertise. They went to the Chicago Transit Authority and bought some ads. The ads began to appear on buses. None of this was in itself unusual.

What was unusual, indeed jolting, was the content of the ads. As Manya Brachear reported in a Nov. 15 Chicago Tribune article:

The controversial ads unveiled on the back of 10 CTA buses Wednesday [Nov. 14] read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” They conclude with the words, “Support Copts. Defeat Jihad,” referring to friction between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Within hours of the buses’ first runs, messages appeared on Facebook and Twitter denouncing the campaign. Many said that degrading a spiritual tenet of Islam — one that refers to a Muslim’s personal quest to become a better person — amounts to hate speech.

Defeat jihad. Oppose the savages.

The ads were contracted for four weeks. They are sponsored by something called the American Freedom Defense Initiative. When New York and Washington, D.C. rejected the ads as too offensive for their public transit systems, AFDI sued on First Amendment grounds and won. Chicago felt bound by this legal precedent, according to the Tribune.

I have only seen the signs on Facebook; I typically ride the El and not the buses. But what I saw was sufficient to keep me devoted to the El for the expected four-week duration. As it is, I already get agitated over the endless succession of ads for Zipcar and for-profit massage schools.

Beyond that, the situation is making me reflect anew on something else, the U.S. bishops’ “religious freedom” campaign that took up so much of this year. To me, these bus ads, which I personally consider hate speech, have really put the bishops into unflattering perspective.

As many of us remember, the bishops went on and on about how marriage equality and the HHS-required coverage of birth control presaged an era of totalitarianism on the march. To oppose these items at the ballot box was to defend religious freedom, and to defend religious freedom was the great drama of this American hour. There was a whole “Fortnight for Freedom” devoted to it.

Meanwhile, the administration offered to shift birth control costs directly onto the insurance companies when religious employers frowned. Sexually active Catholics were already using birth control by a runaway majority. Most American Catholics supported gay rights. The “Fortnight” never captured the imagination the way the “Nuns On The Bus” did. And, at the finale, the Catholic vote tipped toward the President. The relationship between rhetoric and reality remained surreal to the end: we just didn’t feel as un-free as we were told we were.

My parish had signs on its lawn during October, asking passersby to “Vote For Religious Freedom.” Immediately after the election, I took a walk around the neighborhood and found that one sign had disappeared and the other was run over in the street, smudged with fall leaves, abandoned to the whistling mists and winds of the November midnight. It seemed eerily appropriate. “Religious freedom” was a term so inopportunely bruited about that much of its power had drained away.

We need to remember that power, that real power. So step back. Imagine.

Imagine you are the first or second generation of your family on these shores. Imagine not being able to assume you can walk down a few streets, or drive a few miles, and readily find a house of worship. Imagine not being able to assume that, if people ask you what your religion is and you tell them, that they will more or less understand.

Imagine that you likely, though by no means certainly, stand out because of your skin color or perhaps because of items of your clothing. Imagine that you, for more than a decade now, have been popularly associated with wars and rumors of wars.

Now stand and wait for the bus. Realize, as you are boarding and paying the fare, that the bus has a big ad on it. See how the ad bears the words “savage” and “jihad.” Know that what these words really mean is “you.”

And realize after all this that the struggle to live one’s faith, to live it unburdened by either fear or apology, is indeed meaningfully raging in America. But realize also that the heart of this struggle is not where they told you it was. Realize that we need to reclaim the language of religious freedom, that others depend on us to reclaim it.

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2 thoughts on “The (bus) signs of the times

  1. Thanks for this powerful post, for bringing attention to this hateful ad campaign, and for humanizing it. Also, I love your line about us not being as “un-free” as we were told we were. I find it particularly ironic that fighting for “freedom” was supposed to mean restricting the rights of other groups (GLBTQ people) AND locking women into the “freedom” not to have decision-making power over their reproductive choices. With associations like this, perhaps we can be relieved that the phrase “religious freedom” has lost so much of its punch.

    • Ironic “freedom” language indeed…it seemed like all year, whenever a bishop would start talking about religious freedom, I had the urge to quote from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Hopefully now we have a breathing space to take the language back, because I feel this language was in some sense stolen from people whose freedoms really are vulnerable.

      Thanks for checking in, Lacey…I know NaNoWriMo is really busy for you.

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