Introspection behind the wheel

They'll need a miracle.

A group of religious leaders is trying to get Americans to give up their gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles - and they are not alone.

The National Partnership for Religion and the Environment recently met with officials from Ford and General Motors, pressuring the automakers to produce more fuel-efficient models.

The automakers say they are just building what Americans want to drive. True enough.

So the Partnership is also working on the demand side of the equation, educating their congregations about the morality of their transportation choices. One group has even sponsored a campaign posing the question "What Would Jesus Drive?" Although it sounds like a joke, it is really a play on the "What Would Jesus Do?" morality campaign that has spread like wildfire through Christian youth groups in recent years. The purpose of that campaign was to make Christians ask themselves if what they did on a daily basis was consistent with their beliefs.

Organizers of the new campaign hope to do the same but with a more specific focus. Their goal is to highlight the environmental impacts of air pollution and global warming on the poor and on all God's creation.

The power of this simple question is that it forces us to reconcile who we think we are, with what we do.

In the US, we are what we drive. Cars are a projection of who we imagine ourselves to be. If market research is to be believed, we drive SUVs to make ourselves and our family feel safe. We buy them to show our wealth, and the vigorous outdoor life that we wish others to believe we engage in. They are status symbols, manifestations of ego rendered in metal. It's hard to imagine Jesus buying a Chevy Suburban to tow his fishing boat.

No one is suggesting that buying the right kind of car or taking public transit is going to help get you through the pearly gates.

Instead, the campaign is designed to make believers a little uncomfortable, and to make us think about how our actions ripple out through the world and affect others.

Interestingly, these groups are not the only ones calling for an intervention in our harmful addiction to the SUV. The campaign is gaining national attention and even spin-offs - particularly as more people realize US dependence on foreign oil may be responsible for funding terrorism.

"I'm sure there are plenty of Jews who send money to Israel, and then turn around and send money to its enemies, every time they fill up their SUVs with gas," Sheldon Drobny wrote recently in an article titled "What Would Moses Drive?"

The connection between terrorism and oil consumption is also being made at the secular level - by capitalizing on the patriotism that swept over the nation in the past year. Grass-roots efforts like the Patriot's Pledge and the Green Ribbon campaign are growing.

The campaigns cross partisan boundaries, calling on Americans to reduce oil consumption because oil dollars "flow to tyrannical governments that do not share our democratic values and to hateful terrorists plotting attacks on our country," according to Republicans for Environmental Protection, which distributed a buying guide for fuel efficient cars last January.

Columnist Arianna Huffington - who traded in her 13 m.p.g. Lincoln Navigator after the terrorist attacks - is even hoping to make the connection between SUVs and terrorism funding in a series of commercials being shot this week.

If such a trend continues, one has to wonder: What Would Detroit Do?

Ed Hunt is editor in chief of news service. He writes from his home in Grays River, Wash.

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