What Would Jesus Drive?

What would Jesus drive?

Well, he definitely wouldn't drive a gas-guzzling, environment-polluting, planet-warming SUV. That is the message of a quirky new interfaith campaign unveiled in Motor City last week.

On Nov. 20, a caravan of nuns driving hybrid electric Toyota Priuses emblazoned with the motto, "What would Jesus Drive?" brought a delegation of religious leaders to meet with the top brass from Ford and General Motors and the United Auto Workers in Detroit. The nuns came bearing what is to many a new spin on environmentalism, and religion: the lord and savior would want cars to get at least 40 miles to the gallon.

The campaign is a project of the National Council of Churches and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), which claims to represent more than 50 million members in hundreds of thousands of denominations around the country as part of the 10-year-old National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Their main immediate goal is to get President Bush's administration to increase fuel efficiency requirements for SUVs and light trucks; specifically to implement the proposed raising of fuel efficiency standards over 10 years to a minimum 40 miles per gallon.

Now many trucks and SUVs get only 15 miles or less per gallon, and Americans currently burn eight million barrels of oil a day just powering their cars and trucks, according to COEJL. And each gallon burned releases about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, one of the primary causes of global warming, into the air.

Raising the bar to 40 miles per gallon would save two million barrels per day by 2012. And, the campaign says, it would help fulfill various spiritual mandates across the ecumenical spectrum -- world peace, economic and social justice and protection of the environment.

"People believe at various levels of literalness that God created the earth," said National Council of Churches director of development John Briscoe. "We mess it up at our own peril."

The campaign notes that the nation's hunger for oil to fuel its automobiles is wounding the globe in numerous ways. There is the environmental degradation caused by oil drilling, as well as the role oil plays in the imminent war with Iraq and other armed conflicts. And last but not least is the specter of global warming and the devastating effect that will have on the poor around the world.

"We accept that there is such a thing as global warming and that there is evidence we're causing it," said Briscoe. "There has been global warming and global cooling before, and the earth survives. But the dominant species seldom survives to the next round. The cockroaches might still be here, but the chances of humans surviving that kind of traumatic situation are not good."

In an open letter signed by more than 100 heads of denominations and delivered to the auto executives, the campaign says dirty cars are "warming the planet, contributing to the causes of war and increasing the burden on the poor ... Because automobiles are having such an extraordinary global impact, choices about what cars to build raise fundamental moral issues."

While the tighter fuel efficiency proposal is expected to draw intense opposition from car manufacturers, campaign leaders said they had positive discussions with executives from Ford and General Motors, including Ford CEO and chairman Bill Ford Jr., and representatives from the United Auto Workers.

"I think it was a very good meeting -- it provided Ford and the automakers an opportunity to share some of the realities of the technology they're talking about, and the fact that you don't do this overnight," said Ford spokesperson Francine Romine. Romine noted that next year Ford will be launching the Escape, a hybrid SUV that gets about 40 miles to the gallon, as well as a demonstration fleet of hybrid Focuses.

Along with the Detroit-area meetings, the WWJD campaign is planning television ads in North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana telling people Jesus would want them to keep their SUVs in the garage.

"Bill Ford told us that [the company's] problem is that everyone wants SUVs," noted Briscoe. "We suggested that maybe if they tithed 10 percent of the $13 billion that the auto industry spends on promotion and marketing and put that into promoting energy efficient vehicles, people would want them."

The campaign's slogan, a take-off on the ubiquitous "What would Jesus do? was coined by Rev. Jim Ball and adopted by the NCC and COEJL, which along with Evangelicals for Social Action and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops make up the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. While the other two groups haven't formally signed onto the project, Briscoe noted, they are supportive. He said they have also contacted representatives of major Islamic organizations that have expressed interest in the project.

COEJL executive director Mark Jacobs pointed out that while the actual slogan is a bit of a strange choice for a Jewish organization, the overarching theme of the campaign is that different religious groups reach out to their communities in their own ways with the same environmental message.

"That line has really captured the imagination for some people, and offended other people," Jacobs said. "Obviously, talking about what Jesus would drive doesn't speak to the Jewish community. But what brings us together is our common values and common goal. We work within our communities based on the particular languages we speak and traditions we hold."

The campaign started amid controversy over Chevrolet's sponsorship of a Christian music tour. As it has with Ford and GM, the campaign is urging Chevy to built cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles. At this point WWJD campaign leaders say that rather than making specific demands, they want to open a cordial dialogue about the issue.

"We tried to do something that would get their attention and hopefully open up a dialogue," said Briscoe. "I think we've done the first part. For the second part, we'll see."

To learn more about the campaign, visit www.whatwouldjesusdrive.org.

Kari Lydersen is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to AlterNet.

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