The "What Would Jesus Drive?" Doomsayers


Pick up a newspaper and somewhere somehow in some way someone is ringing an alarm about some threat to our mortal existence and to life as we know it. Whether it's global warming or America's propensity for big cars, we have much to be distressed about, and we'd better take action now or we're doomed. So they say.

This doomsaying is nothing new. In 1972 the Club of Rome, an international think tank with good PR connections, expressed alarm over our accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and our deteriorating environment. This litany of concerns became a mantra for well meaning enthusiasts of the global cause.

The Ad and the EEN
A group called the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) has co-opted the popular "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan and with renewed vigor adapted it for an anti-SUV campaign titled "What Would Jesus Drive?" National talk radio appearances by spokesperson Rev. Ron Sider, staged PR events, a website, and a full page ad in the January 2003 issue of Christianity Today have helped the campaign gain at least fifteen minutes of proverbial fame.

With the bold headline "What Would Jesus Drive?" the ad succeeds in grabbing attention. Two illustrations are prominent: Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, and an aerial photo of a bustling ribbon of highways.

Beginning with a call to love our neighbors as ourselves, the ad spells out the impact of driving big cars. "Car pollution causes illness and death, and most afflicts the elderly, poor, sick and young. It also contributes to global warming, putting millions at risk from drought, flood, hunger and homelessness."

The ad ends with a call to action, for automobile manufacturers "to manufacture more fuel-efficient vehicles" and for Christians to drive them.

Before a Watching World
The caliber of Evangelical leaders who have endorsed the EEN message is impressive. Unfortunately, there are problems with the message. First, the campaign stands on a foundation of faulty premises. Second, the EEN has failed to understand the role of SUVs or the real facts about their impact. Third, the campaign trivializes the mission of Christ. And finally, inasmuch as mankind's need for hope has never been greater, campaigns like this only serve to damage our credibility before a watching world.

It might have been wise for the men who signed this ad to have first read False Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul. Ellul wrote his book at a time when French Christians were becoming stirred by political distractions in Algiers. Ellul attempted to send a wakeup call to the church not to get swept away by the spirit of the age. "Political questions," wrote Ellul, "can be burning questions in the world, but if they are burning questions, that is the spirit of the world. The One-who-divides, the Deceiver, he it is who makes them that way."

This enthusiasm for political activism on the part of Christians coincides with the very same trend in our pop American culture. Ellul's words speak precisely to our current politicized situation.
Ellul went still further, and these words strike home. "Christians allow themselves to be taken in by the prevailing vogue. They see everybody expressing his own ideas so why shouldn't they do the same? That's all right as far as I'm concerned... only let them be less pretentious about it, less authoritative, less inclined to expect everyone to follow in their wake. And let them not claim to be representing Jesus Christ!"

Faulty Facts and Other Fuelishness
This current attack on SUVs is a logical outgrowth of two assumptions. First, that SUVs are a primary cause of global warming. Second, that global warming is a fact, and it will result in great harm to humankind, especially the poor.

How serious are the consequences of global warming? According to the WWJD website, 80-90 million poor could be at risk of hunger later in the 21st century, 20-50 million could be impacted by flooding. Still more could become victims of infectious diseases and 300 million more could be at risk of malaria. As if this were not enough, many animal species will be at risk as ecosystems are destroyed.

Worst of all, according to the WWJD Global Warming Fact Sheet, U.S. transportation produces over 30 percent of this "global warming pollution." If all this were true, we should be ashamed. On the other hand, what if global warming were just a myth? The horrifying effects of global warming are vividly, and repeatedly, spelled out for us. Yet we never hear that there is a serious, ongoing debate among experts as to whether global warming is even happening.

It's not surprising to find the belief in global warming as pervasive as environmentalists make it out to be. Many academicians and much of the public behave as if an alternative belief is inconceivable. Their conclusions are a natural extension of their sincere beliefs. Sincerity, however, is not the hallmark of truth. Jonestown and Hitler's Youth Movement are but two examples of this point.

Green believers treat the threat of global warming as a given, an indisputable fact. As with many of today's "hot" issues, scientists in opposition to the politically correct prevailing vogue prefer to lay low and keep their jobs. They have families to support. Nevertheless, some have gone on record.

What Science Is Saying About Global Warming
Scientists have never been in agreement on the subject of global warming. There's plenty of good science calling into question this notion, but the popular media has chosen to play down or ignore these stories.
As in most disciplines, there are many different schools of thought. What's popular is not necessarily what is right. The following voices of dissent have been posted on a website developed by the Coalition for Vehicle Choice.

~ Richard Kerr of Science magazine writes that greenhouse forecasting is still cloudy, and discusses how one new model gets it right and predicts less warming.

~ William Nierenberg, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, looks at the idea of limiting energy use and greenhouse gases, and says the best action at this point in time is no action.

~ Richard Balling, director of climatology at Arizona State, says his new study finds no connection between climate change and hurricane activity.

~ Pat Michaels, environment professor at the University of Virginia, says the climate data suggest little warming.

~ Alan Cutler, visiting scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, notes that the Earth has seen many natural cycles of warming and cooling, including the "Little Ice Age" of the late 1600s and early 1700s.

~ One recent government study concluded temperatures in the U.S. over the past 30 years have shown a slight cooling trend, rather than a warming trend.

Of course, the primary arguments against SUVs begin to unravel if there is no global warming. The EEN's most pointed argument is our callous lack of concern for the hundreds of millions who will be impacted. This tendency to overstate eco-damage is typical of the environmental movement.

Forgotten Facts About SUVs
Jim Galligan, editor of Light & Medium Truck magazine, wrote in his January 2003 column that "Improvements in fuel delivery and combustion have made today's small diesels (engines) significantly cleaner and quieter than their predecessors."

He's not the only one making such observations. According to the executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, "Diesel trucks and buses built today are more than eight times cleaner than just a dozen years ago." Due chiefly to state-of-the-art engine designs, cleaner-burning fuels, and improved emissions-control systems, the future promises still cleaner and cooler air.

In a recent interview, Dr. Alan Lloyd head of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) indicated that he believed "diesel vehicles were poised to emerge as part of the solution to the problem of global warming."
A recent AAA report on VOC emissions, the kind claimed to be responsible for purported global warming, showed that such emissions have been dramatically reduced since 1970, especially in the automotive and light truck sector, even though Americans increased the number of miles per day that they drive.

The report breaks down VOC emissions on a city by city basis. Cleveland, Ohio for example, saw a decrease of 60% in VOC emissions from all sources, and an 83% drop in emissions from autos, 1970-1999. This number is anticipated to be nearly 90% by 2005. Light truck emissions dropped by more than half and will approach 60% in two years, all while vehicle mileage travelled has more than doubled. Similar improvements showed up in every study conducted.

In spite of the evidence, these improvements seldom receive the slightest acknowledgement from the environmental groups who cast dispersions on all such numbers as if they are deviously generated by wicked, cigar-chomping Detroit capitalists. Instead, the public is treated like ignorant rubes for succumbing to their manipulative pro-SUV advertising.

Why This Assault on Free Choice?
Many people want to own and plan to buy larger vehicles. Are the automakers to blame for providing consumers with a product they clamor for?

In a recent Audience Study by America On the Road, a popular radio program co-founded by two former editors of Motor Trend magazine, the program found that nearly half of their listeners expressed interest in a light truck or SUV as their next vehicle preference. More than forty percent indicated a desire to buy a full sized car or van. Only ten percent indicated their next vehicle would be a small or compact car.
Admittedly these survey results are skewed by the listenership and are unscientific, but such responses are revealing. The marketplace is speaking. Sales of light trucks and SUVs have been increasing for years, and last year for the first time equalled the sales of passenger cars.

Why have increasing numbers of motorists been purchasing SUVs and light trucks? In part it's their greater seating capacity, cargo space, hauling and towing power. Their much criticized higher ground clearance makes pickups and SUVs more suitable for driving in snow or on rough roads, as well as off-road.

While such vehicles are not for everyone, there are many for whom such vehicles are practical and even essential. Farmers and rural residents, construction firms, delivery and repair services, individuals with impaired mobility, recreation enthusiasts and campers, van pools and shuttle services -- all these rely on the features light trucks and SUVs offer.

Here's Something To Consider
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, even if our cars and trucks created zero emissions the total impact on global greenhouse gases would be negligible. Once again, how serious is the problem? Scientists are not in agreement at all, yet SUV drivers are supposed to hang their heads in shame for their callousness regarding environmental safety.

Not surprisingly one side effect of making lighter vehicles is an increase in fatalities in accidents involving small vehicles as comparded to larger vehicles. In a survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 250 people were killed in small cars (per million registered), 106 people killed in large cars and 75 people in large utility vehicles. Safety researchers in government, universities and the private sector have all been making the same observations though such obvious consequences of the push toward smaller vehicles are seldom commented on. As more motorists get shoehorned into smaller vehicles, there is a direct correlation with increased numbers of highway deaths.

Trivializing the Mission of Christ
The WWJD slogan originated with Charles Sheldon's classic In His Steps. In this now familiar story a mysterious stranger shows up in a mid-sized town and dies after pricking the consciences of a minister and several leading parishoners. The humbled church leaders commit themselves to the challenge of living their lives as Jesus lived. "What would Jesus do?" becomes a prod to re-evaluate every facet of their lives.
The book's influence has been significant, having been translated into more than thirty languages, with countless re-printings. WWJD bracelets, necklaces, pins and bumper stickers have spread throughout the culture reminding Christians that the claims of Christ pertain to all of life.

Since the original WWJD message extends to the whole of life, what's the point of downgrading this slogan to an eco-political propaganda pitch? If the campaign succeeds it will be at the expense of something higher and nobler.

Consider the image of Christ praying in Gethsemane which this organization has co-opted. Traditionally it has been associated with His Passion and the world's Redemption. It is one of the most poignant images in the panoply of Christian iconography. Does no one see this diatribe against SUVs as an affront?
Let's say the tables were turned and it was the automakers who borrowed Jesus as a spokeperson for SUVs. You turn on the TV and see a smiling Jesus facing directly into the camera, full face, close up. The camera pulls back and he leaps into a shiny red Silverado, rolls down the window and says, "Follow me." The camera pulls all the way back and we see a line of Silverados stretching into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

Outrageous? Why is the latter outrageous and the former completely acceptable?

Ethics and Advertising
Seeking to influence consumer behavior is not unethical as long as it is not coercive. While ads for Silverados, H2 Hummers and Ford F-150s may be offensive to some, they do not force money out of people's pocketbooks at the point of a gun. Consumers are free to choose and ads succeed only when the product is perceived to offer real benefits.

On their website the WWJD camp claims they are not opposed to SUvs per se, but want Detroit automakers to give consumers a choice. This lie is so tissue thin a blind man can see through it. There are ample choices available for consumers. Automakers will make the cars people buy. They make light trucks and SUVs because for a certain class of consumer they are practical. The marketplace is full of alternatives, Cavaliers, Camrys, Cruisers, Corolla and a host of brands beginning with other letters of the alphabet.

In our political age, many groups do not aim their marketing activities toward the public. They seek to influence legislators instead. With Orwellian doublespeak, the EEN claims on its website that one aim of the WWJDrive movement is to encourage automakers to give people a choice. But where is this choice being limited? Americans have complete freedom when it comes to choosng between a large or small car or light truck. In this global economy if Detroit fails to create products the public wants there are foreign automakers gladly waiting in the wings.

Summing Up
Any way you look at it, the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign is indefensible. The whole Bible, Ellul wrote, tells us that people are slaves of the political, economic, and intellectual forces of their age. "The Church is there to proclaim and to bring them freedom. But if she is an agent of those forces, and shares in them herself, she cannot be for people at all."

Ed Newman ~ Feb 2003


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