Religious leaders a driving force behind campaign for fuel-efficient cars

November 21, 2002

Full of post-modern irony and a touch of Madison Avenue sass, the 'What would Jesus drive?' campaign launched in November by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) has already captured the attention of the media--and a broad coalition of religious leaders hopes they can capture the attention of the U.S. auto industry at the same time.

Leaders of an umbrella group known as the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign (ICEC), carrying an open letter from over 100 heads of denominations and senior religious leaders from 21 states, met with Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler executives and leadership at the United Auto Workers in Detroit on November 20 to ask the U.S. automobile industry to build more fuel-efficient cars.

Among the signers, who spanned the theological and denominational spectrum, was Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold of the Episcopal Church and Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The letter sounded some traditional environmental themes--pollution from vehicles has a major impact on human health and the rest of God's creation; it contributes significantly to the threat of global warming--but added a concern that resonates with the public mood since the attacks of September 11: that U.S. reliance on imported oil from unstable regions threatens peace and security.

'What specific pledges--in volume, timing, and commitments to marketing--will you make to produce automobiles, SUVs, and pick-up trucks with substantially greater fuel economy?' the letter asked.

You make it, we'll buy it

The delegation arrived in front of General Motors headquarters in downtown Detroit in a convoy of fuel-efficient Toyota Priuses, owned and driven by the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Michigan. Portions of the 'What Would Jesus Drive?' slogan were emblazoned on the hood, back, top and sides of each of the electric-hybrid cars.

'If you in the American auto industry manufacture and market more clean cars, we in the American religious community will not only tell our people about it, but we'll have prepared them to embrace such a change,' said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

Representatives of GM and Ford told reporters they looked forward to a dialogue with religious leaders on fuel efficiency. GM has said it hopes to have nonpolluting hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the road by the end of the decade. Ford plans to phase out one of its least-efficient SUVs (sport utility vehicles), the Excursion, and introduce a hybrid gas-electric version of its Escape small SUV designed to achieve about 40 miles per gallon (mpg).

Uphill climb

Still, the faith-based drive for fuel-efficient cars is an uphill climb.

The Environmental Protection Agency has cited the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids as the 2003 models with the highest fuel economy--over 50 miles per gallon. But minivans, SUVs and pickup trucks accounted for half the new vehicles sold in the United States last year, with the average fuel economy for all 2003 models at 20.8 mpg.

In September the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers reported that purchases of 'light trucks,' a category that includes minivans and SUVs, exceeded passenger car sales for the third year in a row. 'We already offer three dozen different models that get 30 miles to the gallon or better,' said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Washington-based alliance. 'Very few people buy them…They want cars they can multi-task in.'

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has sent a draft proposal for new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to improve fuel efficiency for light-duty vehicles, including SUVs, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The final plan is expected to be approved by April 1. But the NHTSA plan only calls for an annual improvement of half a mile per gallon over three years, raising the light-truck standard to 22.2 mpg from the current 20.7 mpg target, which has been in place for the last 20 years.

'Raising fuel economy standards for new cars, SUVs and other light trucks to an average of 40 miles per gallon over the next 10 years would save nearly 2 mbd [million barrels a day] in 2012 and nearly 4 mbd by 2020--more oil per day than we import from the Persian Gulf and could extract from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [ANWR], combined,' says a 'fact sheet' on CAFE standards produced by the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign. 'Making the Ford Explorer go from 19 mpg to 34 mpg would cost $935 in technology, but would save the owner $790 each year on gas. Raising CAFE standards for new cars, SUVs and other light trucks to 40 mpg over the next 10 years will save consumers $16 billion annually by 2012.'

Drilling in ANWR, a measure already defeated twice in Congress, is expected to be revived in the next, attached to a 'filibuster-proof' budget reconciliation bill for 2004, according to John Johnson, domestic policy analyst for the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations.

Lord of the highway, too

The WWJDrive ad campaign comes even as the Chevrolet division of GM, maker of such SUVs as the TrailBlazer, came in for both praise and criticism for its sponsorship of a Christian music tour. The television spots, which will run in a limited number of markets, ask: 'So if we love our neighbor and we cherish God's creation, maybe we should ask, 'What would Jesus drive?'' In several Boston suburbs, protestors have gathered on auto dealership 'strips' with signs urging car buyers to steer away from gas hogs.

Each page of the EEN website carries a header declaring the campaign to be 'a discussion initiated by the Evangelical Environmental Network & Creation Care Magazine…because transportation is a moral issue.' Not only is it a moral issue, for the Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of EEN, it's an issue of Christian faithfulness.

A 'Call to Action' addressed specifically to Christian leaders frames the issue in the Christ-centered language familiar to evangelicals. 'As Christians we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. The Lordship of Christ extends throughout every area of our life,' it begins. 'Nothing is excluded from His Lordship. This includes our transportation choices. The Risen Lord Jesus is concerned about the kinds of cars we drive because they affect his people and his creation.'

'Stewardship of creation ... has been emerging over the last few years as a more important piece of the agenda for many religious communities,' the Rev. Robert Massie, an Episcopal priest in Boston and executive director of CERES, a national environmental coalition, told the Christian Science Monitor. Though different groups state different reasons for participating--Jews quote the Torah, evangelical and charismatic Protestants quote the Bible, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants cite the social justice imperatives of their faiths--the consensus on this one issue is unprecedented in modern interfaith and ecumenical history.

Personal commitment

The EEN's Call to Action asks Christians to take concrete steps of their own. First, it asks for a personal commitment to walk, bike, car-pool and use public transportation whenever possible, even choosing a home with transportation options in mind, and to encourage others to do the same.

Next, Christians should 'purchase the most fuel efficient and least polluting vehicle available that truly fits their needs' and donate the fuel savings to missions. Gas-guzzling SUVs 'should be purchased only by those who truly need them, such as individuals in rural areas and those genuinely needing 4-wheel drive.'

Finally, churches and individual Christians are asked to lobby government and auto manufacturers for more fuel-efficient transportation options, including raising fuel economy (or CAFE) standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2012 and supporting research and development for hydrogen fuel cells and other alternative technologies.

'American investors know that socially responsible investments have greater returns than what are seen in their quarterly statements,' said Johnson. 'People of faith across the country get this. When will Wall Street?'

Evangelical Environmental Network & Creation Care Magazine: