Should churches convert drivers of SUVs?

Churches lobby for fuel-efficient cars, but religious activism may be a tough sell in pews.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As America's love affair with SUVs intensifies, embracing ever less fuel-efficient models, a broad coalition of religious leaders is trying to bring the lovestruck to their senses. Or at least to a clear sense of what it sees as the full implications of their choice.

Prominent Christian and Jewish leaders called this week on the auto industry and their own congregations "to recognize that transportation choices are moral choices" because of "the extraordinary impact they have on God's creation and God's children."

In an open letter to auto executives, and in meetings Wednesday at Ford, General Motors, and the United Auto Workers union, the coalition launched what it hopes will be an ongoing conversation on building cleaner cars. It sought specific pledges from the companies.

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But the toughest sell could be the people in the pews, some of whom question such activism.

While polls in recent years consistently show that Americans want moral values to find greater expression in public life, they are split about the role of religious leaders. One survey found that 51 percent believe churches should express their views, while 45 percent said they should stay out of political matters.

"The purpose of religion is the salvation of one's soul," says Phillip De Vous, of the conservative Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. "Given all the problems in the world related to the protection and dignity of the human person, campaigning to raise fuel efficiency is foolish."

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) sees it as anything but. In their letter to the industry, they based their concerns on teachings of their traditions, including the biblical call to be stewards of creation and, in the words of Genesis, to keep "the covenant I make between Me and you and every living creature ... for perpetual generations."

In the light of global warming, "we're not doing well by this covenant," says Rabbi David Saperstein, head of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"Specific religious concerns should be based on tradition, and that's not inappropriately mixing religion and politics," comments Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of political ethics at University of Chicago Divinity School. "Historically that's a central feature of American politics." But the danger comes, she explains, "when you start to get too detailed or finely tuned a policy position ... [when] it turns into a set of claims that any believer has to agree that this is the way to go."

Mr. Du Vous questions the evidence behind the insistence that this is a serious moral issue affecting the planet's future. "That is not scientifically verifiable by any objective standard," he says.

John Firor, senior scientist and director emeritus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., sees it differently. "The time for argument about whether [global warming] is true or not is long over - it's been well substantiated," he says. "Experts are beginning the difficult discussion about what the impacts are going to be and where."

Also, he says, he hasn't heard much of the argument of science and religion being at odds for two decades. "The two viewpoints are complementary - science says what we can learn about the universe, and religion says what our behavior should be."

Indeed, the National Religious Partnership was formed at the urging of prominent scientists who realized that economic incentives weren't enough to address the deepening environmental crisis. In 1991, they appealed to the religious community to bring its moral authority to bear, says Paul Gorman, NRPE director. Since then, a coalition of evangelical and mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish organizations has been educating its congregations, studying religious sources, and undertaking their own projects.

Virtually every US faith community has passed resolutions on climate change, energy conservation, and fuel economy. And they are pledging a series of new initiatives. Evangelical Christians, for example, have announced a campaign called "What Would Jesus Drive?" TV ads urging Evangelicals to ponder that question will be launched in North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana.

When the Evangelical environmental effort first started, "the message was met with some skepticism and hostility," says Dr. Ron Sider, one of the founders. "But today many leaders agree ... that environmental problems are fundamentally moral and spiritual problems." Some 50 evangelical pastors, scientists and engineers, and heads of businesses and organizations have signed a Call to Action on this issue.

A working paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research highlights a different but related issue. Economist Michelle White of University of California at San Diego calculated the effect of SUVs and light trucks on traffic safety.

Many people purchase SUVs to make their families safer, but the cost is extremely high, Dr. White said in an interview. "My calculations suggested that for every accident involving a fatality that you avoided by buying a bigger vehicle, you cause 2 1/2 accidents involving fatalities for vehicles that you hit.

To those skeptical about what can be achieved by the campaign, coalition members have ready answers. "Millions of people were buying cigarettes, just as millions are buying SUVs," Rabbi Saperstein points out. "After education, people understood about the health problems - they will respond in this instance, too."

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