Anti-SUV query: What would Jesus drive?

A Boston-area protest questioning the ethics of gas-guzzlers had unusual sponsors: clergy.

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At first glance, the half-dozen cars could pass for a wedding procession.

But look again. A hand-lettered message on the back of a green sport-utility vehicle reads: "Just married to the pump." Four empty gas cans dangle from the rear bumper, and yellow police tape serves as streamers. On one door, the words "SUV + GAS" are encircled with a heart.

Don't bother looking for the bride and groom. This eye-catching vehicle is part of an anti-SUV rally held Saturday near Boston, along a strip lined with auto dealerships.

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At a time of high gasoline prices and SUV-safety concerns, the vehicular icons of the 1990s are already taking some heat. But this SUV protest is unusual for the kind of people who participated and helped organize it: local churchgoers and members of the clergy.

Call it Harvard Divinity School takes on Detroit.

The 100 or so protesters on this rain-soaked day, with children and a golden retriever in tow, have launched a moral crusade that they hope will ultimately transform America's car-buying habits. But they are up against a formidable foe: products whose rugged, ready-for-anything image has captured legions of consumers.

"We're asking our neighbors not to buy sport-utility vehicles when they purchase their next cars. We want to let the dealers know that customers need cleaner choices," says Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature" and a fellow at Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life.

Mr. McKibben, a Methodist but not a minister, organized the event with others who tap into the theme of environmental stewardship as part of a divine plan. In this case, their religious views led to a simple, urgent message: Gas-gulping SUVs and the environment are not a marriage made in heaven.

'Prophetic role'

"The environmental movement calls communities of faith to move our prayer out of the sanctuaries and into the public square," says Fred Small, pastor of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Mass. "Certain issues are so compelling and so morally demanding, that religious leaders must exercise our prophetic role."

But are Americans ready for their car-lot consumerism to reach theological heights?

For car shoppers in Lynn last Saturday, happiness meant being left alone. Aware of the rally, several were unwilling to talk to a reporter.

Still, while the protesters here may not have won overnight converts, they do represent a fresh infusion of energy for the environmental movement.

Even as some see complacency among traditional environmentalists, "stewardship of creation ... has been emerging over the last few years as a more important piece of the agenda for many religious communities," says Robert Massie, an Episcopal priest in Boston and executive director of CERES, a national environmental coalition.

In late May, the National Council of Churches held a four-day conference in Washington completely devoted to environmental issues. More than 350 religious leaders from 40 states participated.

And several months ago, when United Church of Christ ministers gathered in Springfield, Mass., "People were eagerly signing pledges that they wouldn't buy SUVs," McKibben says.

At Saturday's rally in Lynn, rain-spattered posters bearing messages such as "Test drive your feet. Walk away from SUVs" shared sidewalk space with several signs drawing on religious themes.

Dan Smith, associate minister of Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, Mass., created a joking but provocative sign reading, "What would Jesus drive?"

"I hope it will at least encourage folks to think twice, and possibly pray about this decision, as they would about many other hard choices they make," Rev. Smith says.

Call for local engagement

Local churches, Smith suggests, could do far more in addressing the problem of global warming. Noting that his church parking lot is full of SUVs on a Sunday morning, he says, "I happen to love the people who drive them, [but] I feel we could all be better informed about the consequences of our decisions as consumers and as Christians."

To some auto dealers here, being informed should be a two-way street.

Michael Iovanna, owner of the Pride Motor Group, notes that SUVs make up 50 to 60 percent of his business. As rally participants cluster on the sidewalk beyond his showroom window, he says in a genial tone, "They're here to make a point. Personally, I think they're making the point to the wrong sector. I'm just an independent car dealer trying to feed my family."

Mr. Iovanna considers this "a federal issue." He also poses a rhetorical question about protesters: "Are they at the airport, picketing the people getting on planes?"

Carmakers not idle

As a dealer for Lincoln-Mercury, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Hyundai, Iovanna defends manufacturers. "Ford Motor Company and General Motors are doing a great job building more fuel-efficient vehicles."

Ford, he says, plans to improve fuel economy by 25 percent in the next five years. He also points to the growing presence of high-mileage hybrid and electric vehicles.

The challenge, he says, is: "How can we do it so everybody can be happy?"

For environmentalists, happiness can be measured in degrees.

"Global warming is the single largest thing human beings have ever done to the planet," McKibben says. "We're changing the planet in ways that wouldn't have been fathomable 25 years ago." Americans, he says, contribute 25 percent of the world's human-generated carbon dioxide. In January, he says, a group of leading climatologists predicted that the temperature of the planet could increase by five degrees this century.

For Rev. Massie, any happily-ever-after scenario will require all groups to accept responsibility for their decisions.

Adds Smith, "This campaign is about raising awareness, not just of the environment per se, but of God's creation and of our daily responsibility to do what we can to care for the incredible gift that God has entrusted to us."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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