If any one thing comes close to vying with dead dogs and live bait for prevalence on the Mississippi roadside, it is religion—more specifically, religious roadside signs. These signs take many forms—crude portraits of Jesus painted on plywood, elaborate religious displays marking the sites of fatal car crashes, evangelical graffiti on interstate overpasses, marquees in front of almost every church, makeshift re-creations of Golgotha, prefabricated plastic lawn signs featuring the Ten Commandments. Southern evangelical Protestants have claimed their spot on the side of the road, selling salvation through religiously themed signs that mimic and mock commercial signs that market goods and services with significantly shorter shelf lives.
Popular “sentence sermons,” as messages on religious roadside signs have come to be known, often adapt well-known commercial slogans: “Wal-Mart Is Not the Only Saving Place,” “Forgiven: This Blood’s for You,” and “Jesus Christ: Like a Rock.” Likewise, religious roadside signs frequently mix elements of biblical scripture with common colloquialisms, as in a Waynesboro, Mississippi, sign that read, “Be Ye Fishers of Men. You Catch Them, Jesus Will Clean Them.” Other signs pose clever questions such as, “You Think It’s Hot Here?,” tacitly suggesting that hell is more miserable than a Mississippi summer. Still trickier are questions such as, “If the Rapture Was Today, Would You Be in Church on Sunday?”
In all cases, these signs and their religious reworking of secular slogans are an attempt by evangelical Protestants to adhere to their de facto Eleventh Commandment, the Great Commission. In the last two verses of the book of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples before ascending to heaven, “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
This mandate, more than any other laid out in the Bible, is the reason why evangelists are evangelists. But in a spiritual climate in which individuals looking for a new place to worship are commonly said to be “church shopping,” southern evangelical Protestants looking to make good on their half of the Great Commission have turned evangelism into a form of spiritual advertising and marketing, and the most visible outgrowth of this trend is the religious roadside sign.
Attempting to lure would-be congregants from the pavement to the pew, this reworking of secular slogans and colloquialisms simultaneously attempts to add humor and levity to serious theological concepts and to add spiritual weight to mundane clichés and marketing techniques. This interplay between the vocabulary of this world and that of the perceived world to come is a hallmark of contemporary southern evangelical Protestants, who consciously and cleverly blur the lines between the real and imagined spaces of the sacred and the profane.
- Joe York, With Signs Following: Photographs from the Southern Religious Roadside (2007)