Would Jesus Drive an SUV?

Christian Groups Take Aim at Gas Guzzlers

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NEW YORK, JAN. 11, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, long the bane of ecology groups, are now under attack from Christian organizations. Driving a SUV could well be un-Christian, according to the Reverend Jim Ball, who directs the Evangelical Environmental Network.



The Washington Post on Nov. 8 reported that Ball's group has launched a series of ads on Christian radio and TV, accusing SUVs of damaging the environment. It's not the only salvo fired by Christian organizations in the ecology debate. The Post noted that over the last three years the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, a project of the National Council of Churches and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, has set up groups in 21 states to promote conservation and the use of cleaner fuels.

For its part the National Religious Partnership for the Environment wrote an open letter to automobile company executives urging them to build cleaner cars, the Christian Science Monitor reported Nov. 22. The letter noted the call made in Scripture to be stewards of creation. In the light of global warming, "we're not doing well by this covenant," said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The initiative sparked off a lively debate, with some criticizing the religious groups for undue involvement in political and social issues. The Washington Times noted Nov. 29 that some critics accused the activists behind the campaign of "promoting pagan earth worship and pushing an agenda that has more to do with politics than prayer."

The article noted that Paul Gormon, founder and executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, cut his teeth as a speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy's 1968 anti-war campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Others active in founding the partnership include U.S. Senator James Jeffords of Vermont and then-Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado. Wirth is now president of Ted Turner's U.N. Foundation, which supports population-control programs.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times of Jan. 6, Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for Aspen Skiing Company, explained why people are concerned about SUVs. According to Schendler, every gallon of gasoline burned is estimated to put 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A 5-mile-per-gallon increment in improved fuel economy would keep 10 tons of carbon dioxide from being released over the lifetime of a vehicle. He also noted that SUVs emit 30% more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75% more nitrogen oxides than standard passenger cars.

Many people, he commented, don't drive SUVs "because they're bad human beings," but rather "because there are no comparably priced options with better gas mileage that offer equivalent safety, convenience, performance and comfort."

Aiding terrorism?

A more extreme form of opposition to SUVs is that espoused by the Earth Liberation Front. Members of this radical green group had claimed responsibility for a fire at a Pennsylvania auto dealership, the Associated Press reported Jan. 4. A statement on the ELF Web site said the "attack" targeted SUVs in a fight "to remove the profit motive from the killing of the natural environment."

Violence is also on the minds of those promoting a campaign scheduled to kick off Sunday, Jan. 12, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 8. On Sunday the Detroit Project, a coalition headed by columnist Arianna Huffington, is scheduled to begin airing TV ads in several U.S. cities, accusing SUVs of leading to higher U.S. imports of oil.

The oil imported by the United States, alleges the ad, comes from countries that help finance anti-American terrorists. SUV owners, says the argument, are thus guilty of indirectly supporting terror groups, by sending more money to these countries.

The Wall Street Journal observed that the auto industry loves SUVs because the profit on each vehicle sold can reach up to $10,000. One in four vehicles sold last year in the United States was an SUV, said the Journal, citing statistics from Autodata Corporation, an industry research firm.

A Christian view

Just how justified is religious-based concern over environmental problems? John Paul II has clearly (and repeatedly) expressed his worry over ecological matters. His message for World Day for Peace 1990 noted that "there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life."

Theology, philosophy and science, the Pope observed, "all speak of a harmonious universe, of a 'cosmos' endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance." "The human race," he continued, "is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity."

Ecological problems, he noted, are often due to greed and selfishness, which "are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence." Caring for the ecology should lead society to take "a serious look at its lifestyle," said the Pope. "In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause."

This concern of the Pope goes a lot deeper than ecologists' concerns about banning gas guzzlers. The ecological problem "is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual," declared the statement on ecological matters signed by the Pope and the patriarch of Constantinople last June 10.

"A genuine conversion in Christ will enable us to change the way we think and act," noted the document. We must be humble, recognizing the limits of our power, knowledge and judgment, it continued. "A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self and to creation."

In the past, some critics of Christianity have argued that its focus on the human person leads to a disregard for the environment. But, in his address to the World Summit on Sustainable Development last Sept. 2, Archbishop Renato Martino, head the Holy See delegation to the meeting, stated: "Placing human well-being at the center of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation."

Promoting human dignity will lead to defending the right to development and also the right to a healthy environment, explained Archbishop Martino. The defense of these rights will, in turn, stimulate "the responsibility of the individual toward self, toward others, toward creation, and ultimately toward God."

This responsibility will also imply, he observed, the practice of global solidarity. This solidarity among peoples involves promoting the common good and being attentive to the needs of others.

Church teaching, then, does not stipulate what sort of car we should drive. It asks a lot more than that. It asks us to defend a genuine human ecology, based on humility and respect for God and creation. In turn, each individual has to answer in his own conscience what this means for his lifestyle.