Acton Commentary

Should Religious Leaders Condemn Gas Guzzlers?


A criticism often leveled against conservative Christians is that they turn political issues, on which reasonable people can honestly disagree, into matters of doctrine and faith. The problem is even more endemic to the religious left.

If we want to look at the religious attempt to “impose their values” on others via the political process, we need look no further than the struggle over the fate of sport utility vehicles.

Some religious leaders claim that we should all ask the question: “What Would Jesus Drive?” And if you answer incorrectly (the politically correct answer being that Jesus would certainly not drive an SUV), the National Religious Partnership for the Environment is there to push automakers into making fewer of them available for you to buy. And it, along with others, is seeking legislation that would seriously curb the use of SUVs through tightened fuel economy standards or outright bans.

The reasoning of these religious activists runs this way: The Earth is the Lord’s, and we are called to environmental stewardship. Part of that stewardship involves conservation and attention to preservation and clean air. SUVs use more gasoline than is necessary and soil the environment, so it is the moral duty of those who accept the Gospel to lobby against them. In this way, we are applying faith in our lives.

Aside from the debatable contention that SUVs contribute substantially to environmental degradation (as opposed to being a marginal issue compared with other environmental concerns, and the fact that smaller cars mean more people in more cars), the theologically serious person will want to ask if such campaigns enhance the credibility of the religious message. This campaign strikes me as more of a gimmick to advance a debatable political agenda than a serious theological reflection.

In addition, the application of one policy may in fact conflict with another. The SUV and its minivan cousin are mainly used by families. Is it right that religious leaders should urge all families to stuff themselves into tiny, fuel-conserving cars that are uncomfortable, limit family size and endanger the lives of children in the case of a collision?

Yes, people can disagree on the empirical realities of these points (SUVs are safer in collisions but also more likely to tip over), but it is ill-considered to claim that driving a certain car or truck should be a matter of religious doctrine. It is a simple matter of prudence.

Indeed, this kind of politicking leads people to believe religious bodies have nothing better to do than join the chorus of conventional left-liberal political fashion. And we wonder why the culture doesn't take religion as seriously as it once did.

Politics aside, the first obligation of a Christian is to call for personal conversion and to make widely available the message and the means. This is the agenda that dominated the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Apostles. They lived in times of relentless political conflict, and given that these were the days before indoor plumbing and modern sewage, we can be confident that environmental problems were rampant.

And yet the Gospels and the writings of the church fathers contain not one account of early Christians lobbying the legislatures for change. Their attentions were focused elsewhere, on building their communities, calling people to penance and expanding the faith itself. Most of their efforts were spent on staying as far away from government authorities who, they rightly assumed, intended nothing but harm, but for whom they regularly prayed.

Ours is a highly secular age. Our world craves spirituality and sacred space.

Protesting car dealerships for selling vehicles that improve people's lives does nothing toward showing the way to transcendental truth. It is a temptation from which, I pray, the Lord will soon deliver his people.

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News , December 8, 2002.