The Road to Perdition

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The
Road to Perdition leads straight to the Heights of Folly when you're
driving on Route 491 in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. This route
can't be found on roadmaps yet, nor are their any bullet-pocked
signs along it that designate this federal highway, because until
recently (May 31, 2003), this particular road was known as Route
666. No more. Governmental wisdom – state and federal – has decreed
that the "Devil's Highway" will no longer bear the number
of the beast. Taxpayers not consulted will bear the expense of this
egregious and truly nonsensical change in designation. Based on
what was reported in a Friday the Thirteenth (cross your fingers
and face the wall!) story in the New York Times, one might conclude
that superstition has won the day in the hallowed halls of government.

The
77 year old, 191 mile long Route 666 has ceased to exist as such
because the number is believed by some to be "the number of
the beast," per a literal interpretation of the New Testament
book of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, chapter 13, verse
18: "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count
the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and the
number is Six hundred three score and six" (Authorized
King James Version).

Extrapolating
from this Biblical text, a New Mexico state legislator (per a citation
in the Times article) took it upon himself to proclaim in a resolution
that Route 666 was not likely to be used "because of the fear
that the Devil [sic] controls events along 666."

The
amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America begin
with the words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion…." Judicial interpretation of this amendment (Article
I) has led to a prohibition of prayer in public schools and the
banning of religious holiday displays in public places, but it seems
that it is permissible to spend a large amount of taxpayer money
to allay fears based on what some taxpayers might regard as rank
superstition rather than sound Biblical exegesis. This is an unconscionable
abuse of state power and does nothing to serve the cause of religion,
individual beliefs notwithstanding. One can only hope that the ACLU
will bestir itself to file a suit in this matter, for if ever a
case could be made for activism against a state-religion issue,
this preposterous usurpation of legal powers is ideal for the purpose.

This
issue at hand is decidedly not whether or not the literal interpretation
of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine is theologically "correct."
The issue revolves around whether or not a governmental agency may
order a costly change to the numeration of a long-designated federal
highway without the consent of the taxpayers. Also at issue is the
right of the legislatures of states to lobby the federal government
to effect a change without first having put the issue to the voters
of the states through which the highway passes, though it is hard
to imagine that even were they to have voted for said change it
would allow for the spending of federal tax dollars in a manner
affecting all U.S. taxpayers, not just those of the states
involved.

One
might easily be tempted to laugh off the issue were it not for the
precedent set by such a bizarre action taken by no small number
of governmental officials. What possessed them? It is easy to imagine
the 60s comedian Flip Wilson in drag squealing: "The
devil made me do it," but in this case… No, it seems the folks
in the federal government and various state legislatures take the
devil too seriously for that.

What
next?

It
may be worth noting that the bright red (the devil's color!) numbers
666 which glowed from atop the Tishman building (located at 666
Fifth Avenue in New York City) since its construction in 1957 have
been replaced the with the perhaps less bestial "Citi,"
though the building has not seen fit to change its address entirely.
The NBA has a large retail outlet there, making one wonder if perhaps
Michael Jordan's seemingly superhuman talent on the basketball court
may in fact derive from a Faustian bargain. Is Mayor Bloomberg going
to stand idly by, or can we expect measures to be taken? Why has
Hillary Clinton not spoken with someone? And Al Sharpton, the Reverend
Al Sharpton…? Oh, well, it's New York, after all.

Would
that this were indeed a laughing matter. But it is not.

There
has been a marked encroachment into American political life of a
particular form of Christianity that may be said to be far from
representative of Christian beliefs in general and utterly alien
to those of a large segment of the community of believers, not to
mention the beliefs of many citizens of other religious faiths or
of no faiths at all. This of late particularly vocal minority makes
no secret of its intent to influence governmental policy. The United
States Supreme Court, rightly or wrongly from particular moral standpoints,
has handed down decisions in matters which make clear its supralegislatorial
intent to bar any law perceived to interfere with the presumed secular
intent of the Constitution of the United States. That it has done
so with what many believe to be "bad law" (Roe vs. Wade
springs to mind) is not at issue here; that it may do so selectively
would be. Federal agencies spurred on by state legislatures influenced
by what is tantamount to superstition masquerading as religious
doctrine should be checked by the courts as soon as possible; the
voters of the several states should then make their views known
and voted into law (or not) by the ballot, removing from office
any official who presumes to cause to be spent public funds gathered
by federal taxation for purposes related to interstate commerce
rather than "religious" numerology.

The
"Devil's Highway" issue was, according to the Times article,
brought to the fore this past spring by a group of politicians in
the three states through which the road passes. The effort to force
a change in the name was spearheaded by New Mexico governor Bill
Richardson, who argued that "the New Testament's association
of 666 with Satan was impairing the economic vitality of the towns
along its route." What, pray tell, is the evidence for this
assumption? And why has it taken 77 years for this impairment to
be noticed? It would not appear that the New Testament association
of Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus Christ has contributed in any
positive way to the fortunes of Bethlehem Steel, nor that the Old
Testament association of the "land of Goshen" has done
overmuch for fortunes of the trotting race track in the New York
town of that name; perhaps the planned casino will fare better.
As for devil's food cakes: take heed, Betty Crocker!

Herein
lies the dilemma: one can't help but try and make a joke of it.
But we should not and cannot, however preposterous the numerous
examples of this sort of superstitious – one might even say "pagan" – emphasis
on names and numbers might appear.

I
do not presume to force my own religious beliefs on anyone and wish
that the same courtesy be extended to me and to the other taxpayers
whose pockets will be picked by this religiously partisan issue
utterly devoid of justifiable motive. It is not for me or for anyone
to decide whether or not "666" is an "unlucky"
number, no matter what its "associations." It is one thing
for a builder to decide to exclude a numbered thirteenth floor in
a private building; it is entirely another to require that no public
building have a numbered thirteenth floor. Imagine the uproar if
such a law were to be introduced! Yet for the majority of America's
taxpayers (or so I assume, perhaps incorrectly), no such consideration
was made when a federal agency chose to renumber a 77 year old highway
which bore its number thanks to logical historical association with
the old 2448 mile long Route 66, a highway with nearly legendary
folkloric associations (the Hank Snow song made popular by the Rolling
Stones – "Get your kicks on Route Sixty Six" –
, the 60s television program featuring two young busybodies in a
Corvette) that was itself the object of a renumbering controversy
that ended with its official decommissioning in 1985, 59 years after
it was commissioned, though it much earlier been superseded by interstate
highways (see www.historic66.com
for a wealth of info on "The Main Street of America").
Route 666, "christened [sic] as the sixth tributary off Route
66" (Times article), outlived its parent by 18 years, dying
at the hands of busybodies far less entertaining but far more officious
than Tod and Buzz, the latter replaced by Link in the Stingray years
of the television program.

It
is interesting to note that this is not the first time a Route 666
has had its number changed: New Jersey officials changed five mile
long State Route 666 two years ago, according to an Ananova (www.ananova.com)
article published March 30, 2001. The article states that "the
decision to change to another number [was] prompted by the thefts
[of the road signs bearing the number] and has nothing to do with
superstitious fears." Not surprising in a state that has an
ice hockey team named the "Devils."

What
is surprising is that a web search turns up little with respect
to the present change, a change that according to the legislators
involved had everything to do with fears ("fear that the Devil
controls events along 666"), though the word superstitious
wasn't used. Perhaps the passive taxpayer fears the government even
more than the devil.

Or
perhaps people have begun to recognize that they're one and the
same.

"If
any man have an ear, let him hear. He that leadeth into captivity
shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be
killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of saints"
(Revelation 13: 9,10).

And
as for the road to Hell? Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: "The
safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot,
without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

Here
is Wisdom.

June
17, 2003

Timothy J. Cullen (send
him mail
), a former equities trader, lives in Seville,
Spain.


     

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