Auto Idolatry

America’s car culture is a form of national idolatry. The United States has prostrated itself to the automobile.

Even if you don’t believe there is a God, I invite you to bear with me as I use this spiritual analogy to make a point about what our vehicle use, built environment, and death toll say about us as a people. Though, like a prophet in the wilderness, I may be decrying this idol worship, I must also admit that I am fully embedded in this culture and am as complicit as any American. We communally bow in blind obedience to a created deity. And we suffer the consequences.

An ad for Mercedes-Benz in which snow turns to butterflies when the car comes near.
The magical power of the automobile. This print advertisement was created by BBDO, Russia for Mercedes-Benz. From AdsOfTheWorld.com.

Idolatry is misplaced worship. In Biblical terms, that meant venerating Baal, Ra, Molech, or any of the gods that were not Jehovah, the God of the Israelites. The Canaanite Baal was a fertility god who brought rain to water the crops. Ra, the Egyptian sun god, was the giver of life. Rain and sun are certainly not bad things. But the kicker with idolatry was the sacrifices that needed to be made. Molech, the Ammonite god, was well known for his insatiable appetite for child sacrifice.

When we worship, no matter who or what the object, that worship informs our lives. It organizes our days, is reflected in our spending, and weaves itself into our understanding of who we are. So whatever we worship, whether it’s God, a political party, the health of the environment or the common good of humanity, that will be reflected in who we are and how we live our lives.

The object of worship can be good, bad, or neutral. The point is that evidence of our devotion will become manifest in time. And the evidence of our devotion to automobiles has had over a century to accumulate in America.

An aerial shot of stacked lanes at the intersection of I-25 and Colfax in Denver.
The intersection of I-25 and Colfax in Denver. (From Google Maps. Somehow cars seem to disappear in Google’s aerial views, leaving abandoned asphalt a la “The Book of Eli” or “I Am Legend.”)

We Bow In Worship: Time, Money and Place

According to AAA, Americans spent close to an hour a day behind the wheel of a car. That’s only 4% of each day, but the statistic doesn’t include time spent as a passenger in a vehicle, time spent at the shop waiting on car repairs or maintenance, time spent cleaning the vehicle, nor time spent earning the money needed to pay for the gas, insurance, or even the vehicle itself.

Also according to AAA, it cost $8,558 on average to own and operate a sedan in 2016, which is a 6-year low and a 1.6% drop from 2015. The reduction in cost is largely due to lower gas prices of late. Given that the average income in an American household is $55,775/year and that the average household owns two cars, that means 31% of yearly household expenses are automobile related.

The Israelites were told to give 10% of their income to God, called a tithe. The average American household is offering up a triple tithe to their vehicles.

A neighborhood in Colorado Springs as seen with Google Maps.

The most self-evident, yet also the most often ignored, testimony of the American devotion to the Almighty Vehicle is how our communities are built. We organize our cities so that even those who don’t want to worship the car are obliged to do so because there is essentially no other option.

Among those that don’t drive but use bus transit instead, the affects of sprawl are still manifest through the lack of density that would otherwise enable easy use of the bus system and smooth transfers between bus lines (in terms of both location and timing). And both pedestrians and bicyclists are often stymied by car-centric infrastructure.

“Cars are the organizing principle of virtually every U.S. city.” — Laura Bliss, “These Cities Are Building Downtowns Safe From Vehicle Attacks.” City Lab, 2 Nov 2017.

There’s a Jewish custom of leaving an empty seat at the table for the prophet Elijah who will one day visit to announce the coming messiah. In America, we have a custom of having a minimum parking requirement for all new developments. This ensures that there will always be an abundance of parking spaces available for Elijah’s vehicle. And the coming messiah in this analogy? Most likely an electric vehicle, which will allow us to continue our auto idolatry with less environmental angst (at least until we have to figure out what to do with the spent batteries). The amount of land set aside for parking lots creates gaps between businesses, providing ease of use for car drivers and uncomfortable, even unsafe, routes for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Zoning that allows only residential development in some areas and only commercial in others removes the possibility of having small commercial centers near housing that provide comfortable gathering spaces for neighbors to meet up or enable them to grab a gallon of milk or carton of eggs without having to hop into their car.

A vast, empty parking lot with a Target building in the background.
A new Target was built in Fort Collins in the 1990s, when parking minimums were at their zenith. There’s plenty of room for Elijah to park when he comes.

We Sacrifice To Our God

We sacrifice our time, money, and land to this metal (with increasing amounts of plastic) god, but we present other offerings upon the alter as well.

We sacrifice the health of our planet.

Tailpipe emissions are the source of significant air pollutants. Burning gasoline and diesel fuel contributes particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as carbon dioxide (CO2), into the air. — The American Lung Association

Not only do cars pollute during their operation, but there’s also pollution from the mining of the materials to make them, from processing those materials, and during the building of the final product. And of course there’s issues with waste disposal at the end of their life span.

Additional pollution is generated as the fuel to power these vehicles — the nectar of the automobile gods —  is fracked, refined, and pumped.

Scrap yard (auto recycling) on Link Lane.

Though the planet is the primary victim of these pollutants, people enjoy the trickle down effect as particulates and other contaminants negatively influence our health.

EPA Concludes Fine Particle Pollution Poses Serious Health Threats
*  Causes early death (both short-term and long-term exposure)
*  Causes cardiovascular harm (e.g., heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, congestive heart failure)
*  Likely to cause respiratory harm (e.g., worsened asthma, worsened COPD, inflammation)
*  May cause cancer
*  May cause reproductive and developmental harm.
The American Lung Association

Over 30,000 people die each year in America due to respiratory illnesses caused or exacerbated by fine particulate matter that’s released into the air from combustion engines.

We sacrifice our own health.

Sitting in a car robs us of an opportunity to move — either by walking or bicycling (even if it’s just walking to the bus stop). A sedentary lifestyle can lead to depression, greater risk of cancer, forgetfulness, spiking blood sugar, reduced sexual function, difficulty sleeping, and backaches according to Men’s Health magazine.

We sacrifice our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

In addition to dying from pollution and dying from the effects of being sedentary, we’re also just plain dying. The U. S. Department of Transportation released a report last month that stated, “37,461 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016, an increase of 5.6 percent from calendar year 2015.”

In other words, in 2016, just over 102 people died, on average, each and every day of the year as a result of traffic violence. Paired with the number of people dying from automobile pollution, that’s 185 people dying daily because of our religious devotion to motor vehicles.

Just to put that into perspective, the president recently declared opioid abuse to be a public health emergency. According to US News, approximately 91 people a day are dying from overdosing on these drugs. “As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” Trump said on October 26th. “It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge.” Though he was speaking about drug addiction, he could as easily have been remarking on our addiction to the automobile when he said, “Addressing it will require all of our effort, and it will require us to confront the crisis in all of its real complexity.”

A large bush in a cement planter blocks the sidewalk on Meldrum Street.
Moving vehicles to the left and parked vehicles to the right get priority. Pedestrians, on the other hand, must circumnavigate the bush planted right in the middle of the walking path along Meldrum Street.

Our Identity In Our God

There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the sun and the rain. It’s only natural to want to live a life of plenty with children and crops — relationships and provisions. But when it goes beyond that, to the point that we are utterly immersed in the culture, calendar, and cult of the entity to which we have prostrated ourselves, and that entity is nothing but mindless parts that have no benevolent will or righteous plan, then we have turned ourselves over to the mercy of a force that does not love, does not care, that has no compassion or wisdom or guidance.

Is your identity in the automobile? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you ever been in a car crash and your first concern was for your vehicle?
  • When talking about the traffic along I-25, is your only, or at least your primary, thought that we need a third lane in each direction?
  • When someone suggests that light rail should be installed before any additional lanes are added on I-25, or when it it suggested that the third lane be a toll lane, does that get your dander up?
  • When another apartment building, office block or retail store is constructed, is your first thought “Did they include enough parking?”
  • When you’re getting ready to go somewhere, is it assumed that you’ll be using a car as transportation?
  • Do you decide where you will eat and shop based on whether parking will be found immediately and whether it will be within sight of the front door of the establishment?
  • Have you ever driven a car while drunk?
  • Do you get frustrated while driving if a slow moving car, truck, or bicyclist impedes your travel?

If you answered yes to these questions, then it’s quite likely that you have drunk the car-culture kool-aid. But even if your identity is not embedded in an unwavering devotion to the car, do you still fear the wrath of the vehicular gods?

  • Do you forego bicycling as a means of transportation because you fear riding in the proximity of moving cars?
  • Are you afraid that when you grow old, giving up your driver’s license will result in social isolation, heavy reliance upon others, and possibly even starvation or untreated medical conditions because of lack of ability to reach grocery stores or medical providers?
  • Do you pray for safe travel before starting out on a long road trip?
  • When someone is killed or injured in a vehicle related crash, do you shrug your shoulders and think, “Ah, such is life. There’s nothing to be done.” We must simply accept the fate of the gods.

It may feel like these are reasonable responses to honest fears, and yet they shine a light on an acceptance that the car-fates are real and cannot be challenged. The vehicle gods hold power over us that we have bent our will to. Our displeasure is in angering the gods, not that the gods treat us with contempt.

The newly renovated Foothills Mall has plenty of room for Elijah’s vehicle.

Repent

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. — Jeremiah 32:35 (From the New International Version of the Old Testament Bible.)

We don’t turn to illicit gods because we want to be complicit in a culture that degrades human life. We turn to these gods because we think exactly the opposite, that through them we will gain the life that we seek for ourselves and our loved ones. We’re so caught up in the pervasive world view that what we follow is good, that it is difficult to take a step back and see it for what it is, a jealous god that is consuming us and those we love.

We don’t have to give up our cars entirely. It’s not the car that is bad. It is our unquestioning allegiance to a vehicular life that pours federal, state, and local tax dollars, as well as a significant portion of our own incomes, into the perpetuation of a car-bound culture. It is our whole hearted belief that car ownership brings life. It is our willingness to support zoning, parking, infrastructure and development codes that result in well over 100 deaths a day in America as a sacrifice to this insatiable god. These are the things that are wrong. These are things we must repent of.

An abandoned gas station.

We can abandon this idol. We can walk away from this life of subjugation.

A powerful first step in breaking the bonds this god has over us would be to commit, as a nation, to Vision Zero. That means that as a country, we will stand and say “No loss of life is acceptable. We will not sacrifice ourselves and our children any more to this malevolent god.” This will require not just education and careful driving, but a whole new way of life as we rewrite our land use codes, reshape our communities, and rebuild our roads as thoroughfares for people, no matter what vehicle they choose to use.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. — Deuteronomy 30:19 (NIV)