Photography by Adam Pape
One sunny afternoon in June 2005, Jess Gollish was driving south down a Michigan highway when she suddenly lost control of her car. It was her 21st birthday and she was on her way to celebrate with friends. “I went to plug in my phone and I took my eyes off the road,” she told me over the phone last month, from her home in Ontario. “When I looked back up, my car was headed directly for the ditch, so I yanked the steering wheel and did a 360 turn on the highway.” Gollish’s car swerved and came to a stop just off the side of the empty road, avoiding a collision. In shock, she dialed 911. The emergency responder helped her assess that it was safe to continue on her way. But just as she began to drive off, she saw a black billboard with an unnerving message: “Believe in me now? — God.”
Today, Gollish likes to share that story with community members at her local church, where she’s been a parishioner for three years. The billboard wasn’t the first religious one she’d encountered in Michigan — “They call it ‘God’s Country,’” she said — but at the time, disconnected from any spirituality, she didn’t think much of its message. Years later, the memory re-surfaced as she began to find faith in Christianity. “It reminds me of when people say, ‘Can I get a witness?’ when something inspiring happens,” she said. “It’s like my little miracle.”
Christian Aid Ministries’s spending on billboards increased over 400% between 2010 and 2015.
According to reports from some of the country’s most prolific religious and atheistic billboard advertisers, thousands of billboards about God and religion have appeared along America’s roadways every year since the turn of the 21st century — and the numbers appear to be growing. (Except in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont, where billboards are banned.) Some of them encourage tolerance of non-Christian religions, and others reassure that a life without religion can still be full. But the overwhelming majority carry an evangelical Christian message. One of the biggest groups evangelizing via billboards today is an Amish-Mennonite non-profit organization called Christian Aid Ministries (CAM). Based in Berlin, Ohio, CAM has been around for 35 years but only put up its first billboard in 2006, in nearby Canton, Ohio. It brought in a total of 19 calls that year. Nearly a decade later, their 14-person hotline team fielded calls from 20,211 callers in 2015 alone; the majority, they said, came from people who were merely curious about their mission, and typically stayed on the phone for two to three minutes. By the end of 2016, CAM will have displayed 575 full and half-size billboards in 46 states. They’re seen by over 8.6 million people see daily, according to the group’s annual report. Each of CAM’s current 15 billboard designs follows a very specific formula. There’s short, attention-grabbing copy — ranging from simple questions such as “Who Is Jesus?” to foreboding declarations like “After you die, you will meet God” — plus an easy-to-remember hotline number. Over the phone, Johnny Miller, who has worked with CAM for 20 years and joined the billboard division in 2009, told me they wanted to appeal to human curiosity: “Our purpose is to point people to God through Jesus Christ.”
CAM's spending on billboards increased over 400% between 2010 and 2015 (according to its 990 tax forms and 2015 financial statement) — and it was funded by an increasing amount of individual donations. While CAM’s primary activities are aid distribution, church planting, and microloan programs in countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Thailand, and Haiti, its donors see billboard evangelism as a form of spiritual outreach that is much needed stateside. “Churches will say, ‘We’ve sent many mission offerings overseas. Let’s do one for America.’ And they’ll donate for this particular cause,” said Miller, whose soft, kind voice is one of those that may greet you if you do call.
So why the jump in support for billboard evangelism? Miller pointed to supporters living in an increasingly violent America. “I think as we look around us we see a rising violence that is taking over our society. The drive-by shootings, the mass killings, parents killing their own children, and murder-suicide cases just escalating,” he said. “Our nation needs Jesus.”
CAM’s approach is not a new one. Back in 1998 an anonymous South Floridian paid Fort Lauderdale-based advertisers the Smith Agency $150,000 to develop a billboard advertising campaign that would inspire Americans to think about God while they went about their everyday lives. The result was the GodSpeaks campaign: a series of nine billboards displayed across Florida for a month with messages like “We need to talk” and “That ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ thing, I meant that” — all were “signed” God. The Smith Agency won an advertising award for the concept and the messages appeared on billboards across the U.S. on and off for the next several years. In 2013, GodSpeaks decided to relaunch its campaign with new copy developed with a less critical, more loving God in mind. “We felt a real sense of hostility towards Christianity, both hostility and apathy towards God and Jesus,” said Bradley Burck, chairman of the GodSpeaks board. “We’re trying to communicate that there is a God, he loves you, and he wants to have a relationship with you.” And though the newest billboards aren’t being displayed in the numbers they were when the campaign was taken nationwide in1999, they have still made enough of a cultural impact to spawn a number of imitations and unauthorized cooptions, from the playful to the hateful to the seemingly legitimate, like the one Gollish encountered in 2005.
Burck and Miller’s fears of an increasingly faithless America are not entirely unfounded. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study shows that the number of self-identified Christians in the U.S. declined by 7.8% between 2007 and 2014 while the number of non-Christian, agnostic, and atheist Americans all increased — the largest growth being seen by those who identify as “nothing in particular.” Evangelical Christians, who make up only about 18 percent of the U.S. population, dominate the religious corner of the billboard market.
While CAM and GodSpeaks actively want to convert people via their billboard campaigns, many non-Christian religious organizations, on the other hand, are using billboards to try and promote understanding and coexistence. Though they don’t have nearly the exposure, or commitment to billboards, as their evangelical Christian counterparts do, they play an important role in America’s landscape.
The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) is a grassroots American Muslim organization that has two outreach programs, Why Islam? and Gain Peace. By the end of 2016, it will have put up 143 billboards in 39 cities. “The target audience mainly is for people who are looking for accurate information about Islam and Muslims,” said Waqas Syed, ICNA’s Deputy Secretary General, who spoke to me over the phone from his office in Southern California.
Each year, ICNA centers its outreach on a theme, and this year’s was anti-violence, in the hope of combating misinformation about Islam. One billboard design, which recently went up in Kansas City, Missouri, reads, “Muslims Condemn All Violence” next to a line from the Quran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” Another, erected in the Chicago area this summer, asks viewers: “What is Islam? Who are the Muslims?” Both advertise a hotline number for curious callers to find out more. “We believe that the people should have the opportunities to make up their minds after getting information from the Muslims themselves,” Syed told me. Muslims have long faced Islamophobia in the U.S., but ICNA’s mission to dispel dangerous myths, misconceptions, and hatred of Islam has become even more acute since the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump, who has previously proposed banning followers of Islam from entering the U.S. Additionally, the FBI recently released data suggesting that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 67% in 2015. Following the election, reported hate crimes, including those motivated by Islamophobia, spiked across the country, with the Southern Poverty Law Center reporting at least 49 anti-Muslim hate incidents occurring in the 10 days after the election. ICNA uses its billboards to encourage viewers to look further in hopes they will discover Islam’s peaceful underpinnings.
“We consider American Muslims as part and parcel of America and we believe in the Constitution and we believe that it grants equal rights and opportunities to all Americans.” — Waqas Syed, Islamic Circle of North America
The non-religious, too, are attempting to assert visibility and a claim to public space through the use of regional and national billboard campaigns. American Atheists, the United Coalition of Reason (United COR), and Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) are perhaps the three most visible organizations putting their messages on billboards across the country. “There’s so much stigma and demonization of non-believers still in our culture, even though we’re increasingly a larger part of it,” Ann Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-founder and co-president, told me. “Like other minorities, we’re here too, and we’re your friends and neighbors.” FFRF launched one of its most successful billboard series, the “Out of the Closet” campaign, three years ago. It was made up of 55 billboards throughout the Sacramento area, each one featuring a local FFRF member’s photo and name. Gaylor said the campaign was an effort to not only humanize nonbelievers, but also show that they are an existing part of Sacramento’s community. The billboards these non-theistic organizations put up annually number less than 100 combined — not even a tenth of those belonging to their evangelical counterparts. And none of them have nationwide, year-round billboard campaigns, as CAM and Minneapolis-based anti-abortion organization ProLife Across America do. (Representatives from ProLife Across America declined to grant an interview to The FADER, but did disclose that they expect to end 2016 having put up between 7,000 and 7,500 billboards across 44 states.)
“There’s so much stigma and demonization of non-believers still in our culture, even though we’re increasingly a larger part of it.” — Ann Laurie Gaylor, Freedom from Religion Foundation
But unlike the Christian organizations, non-theistic organizations report facing much more resistance in getting their messages on billboards. CAM and GodSpeaks have both had ad space donated to them by billboard companies at the encouragement of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the trade organization that represents the nation’s billboard owners and operators. GodSpeaks’s landmark billboard campaign was only able to go nationwide, in 1999, thanks to the OAAA’s help in obtaining millions of dollars worth of donated billboard space that had become vacant due to a recent ban on outdoor cigarette advertising. On the other hand, FFRF, United COR, and American Atheists have all struggled to keep their ads up after getting billboard leases, with some even being taken down by the leasers in response to complaints by local residents, sometimes as soon as a day after first going up. So as CAM and ProLife Across America’s billboard presences have grown in recent years, atheist organizations have focused more on digital strategies, reporting that they draw more members that way.
2016 will be billboard evangelism’s biggest year yet and, if donations earmarked for these campaigns continue to rise, 2017 will top that. There’s no telling how the next four years under Trump could affect billboard-specific donations. CAM told me that Trump’s election isn’t likely to affect its messaging because it tries to stay away from political issues. Some of the less prolific non-Christian billboard advertisers, however, do see their messages changing to cope with the new political climate. Syed predicts that ICNA’s 2017 messaging will focus on building alliances with other minority groups and even reaching out to Trump supporters, a demographic he said the organization realized it hadn’t reached out to in the past. Still, the message of religious tolerance will remain paramount. “We consider American Muslims as part and parcel of America and we believe in the Constitution and we believe that it grants equal rights and opportunities to all Americans,” Syed told me. “We are not going to be fearful of any challenge that is going to come and we are going to face it with greater courage and greater strength than before.”
America’s billboards paint a national image that is deceptive on one hand, but telling on the other. The sheer number of evangelical billboards claim a disproportionate stake of the landscape, while the fledgling numbers of non-Christian ones belie an ever-growing number of Americans forced to prove and justify their existence. We will never know just how many converts like Gollish were helped along in their journey to Jesus by a billboard, or how many others were inspired by other roadside messages imploring them to acknowledge the reality of atheist and Islamic-American identities and communities. Either way, the intents of their broadcast messages are clear: to make us consider the presence of the divine and, less overtly, what American identity can be. Both make one think, as Gollish puts it, that “maybe there is something bigger than us.”