Driving through Middle America along Route 66 and other interstate and local highways, one is struck by the flatness of the land. Even on the edges of Ozark hills in Missouri, rising plains in Oklahoma, or rolling knolls along the mighty Mississippi at the border of Illinois, the flatness of the so-called “Bible Belt” is overwhelming. It is easy to see that the belt is so tightly drawn that it is choking America.
Nowhere will the spectacle of “We built the biggest cross!” be as evident as it is in Effingham, Illinois.
Middle America’s flatness makes it an ideal place to erect monuments of varying kinds: tourist traps featuring the largest chairs, mailboxes, and golf tees, radio towers, and…churches. Throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Oklahoma, a traveler notices the gargantuan concrete and steel crosses rising from the dry grasslands along the side of the road. In places, the crosses grow from the ground like crops planted at different times of the spring.
There is obviously a competition among the many churches collecting souls and granting the prize of everlasting salvation. Nowhere in the United States can a traveler find as many houses of worship of such zealous saving as in Middle America. And nowhere will the spectacle of “We built the biggest cross!” be as evident as it is at the intersection of I-57 and I-70 in Effingham, Illinois.
It’s called the crossroad of America for a reason…
Since 2001, the nation’s largest cross — a monolithic monstrosity of steel and concrete —has cast an eerie shadow across the interstate. At nearly 200 feet tall and 113 feet across, the 180-ton steel structure cost millions to erect. The extravagant cost aside, builders maintain the cross is worth every penny since millions of lost souls drive by it each day and will likely be inspired to Christ by its presence.
Who can argue with that kind of rationalization when millions of hungry children across America could use a hot meal or a warm coat to shield them from the wind? Apparently inspiring truckers, hitchhikers, and speeder to Jesus is a more Christian mission than feeding a hungry child. For the cost of a single mega-cross in Middle America, thousands of children could rest at night knowing they would not be starving the next day.
Middle America is a strange and eclectic nation where, in addition to giant crosses, churches line the streets in ascending order of ornateness newness. It’s as if competing congregations build bigger and fancier churches to shadow the smaller older ones, and they keep building one after another…until they come to the end lot with the local adult store.
It is a country where every police car and ambulance is emblazoned with the untoward and unconstitutional motto of, “In god we trust.” When EMS arrives in their god-mobile, we think rather than rely on a medic who trusts god; we would rather walk to a hospital where scientific practices of diagnosis and treatment might possibly prevail. Surely, there is a lawyer out there ready to represent the constitutionality of any arrest by a police officer whose cruiser sanctions religion over law.
For all the strangling reminders of Christian values in Middle America, it is a dialectic place where seedy truck stop restrooms still have vending machines with French Ticklers and Horny Goat Weed. Billboards beckon weary drivers to adult lounges, erotic massages, and X-rated movie stores in a way that must surely make any family trip rather awkward and challenging without a dose of Benadryl.
It is easy to see why Donald Trump returns time and again to Middle America to foster his international policy. It is as flat and bland as Melania’s appearance at Tuesday’s State of the Union — where she arrived sans Donald. Driving between Ohio and the desert southwest, it is as if the United States ceases to exist, and with it all the itinerant fundamentals of democracy, the Constitution, and normally accepted divisions of church and state.
Like Melania’s suits, and Trump’s preference for hookers, the crosses of Middle America are gleaming white. In a land where diversity is forgotten and ignored, they are symbols of intolerance and cultish adherence to bygone values of a nation defeated over a hundred years ago. It is difficult to imagine Middle America today as the cradle of republican tolerance and progressive values it was in 1854.
Somehow, they got the signals crossed and ended up with the mess it is today.