Should Churches Convert Drivers of SUVs? ; Churches Lobby for Fuel-Efficient Cars, but Religious Activism May Be a Tough Sell in Pews

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As America's love affair with SUVs intensifies, embracing ever less fuel-efficient models, a broad coalition of religious leaders is trying to bring the lovestruck to their senses. Or at least to a clear sense of what it sees as the full implications of their choice.

Prominent Christian and Jewish leaders called this week on the auto industry and their own congregations "to recognize that transportation choices are moral choices" because of "the extraordinary impact they have on God's creation and God's children."

In an open letter to auto executives, and in meetings Wednesday at Ford, General Motors, and the United Auto Workers union, the coalition launched what it hopes will be an ongoing conversation on building cleaner cars. It sought specific pledges from the companies.

But the toughest sell could be the people in the pews, some of whom question such activism.

While polls in recent years consistently show that Americans want moral values to find greater expression in public life, they are split about the role of religious leaders. One survey found that 51 percent believe churches should express their views, while 45 percent said they should stay out of political matters.

"The purpose of religion is the salvation of one's soul," says Phillip De Vous, of the conservative Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. "Given all the problems in the world related to the protection and dignity of the human person, campaigning to raise fuel efficiency is foolish."

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) sees it as anything but. In their letter to the industry, they based their concerns on teachings of their traditions, including the biblical call to be stewards of creation and, in the words of Genesis, to keep "the covenant I make between Me and you and every living creature ... for perpetual generations."

In the light of global warming, "we're not doing well by this covenant," says Rabbi David Saperstein, head of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"Specific religious concerns should be based on tradition, and that's not inappropriately mixing religion and politics," comments Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of political ethics at University of Chicago Divinity School. "Historically that's a central feature of American politics." But the danger comes, she explains, "when you start to get too detailed or finely tuned a policy position ... [when] it turns into a set of claims that any believer has to agree that this is the way to go."

Mr. Du Vous questions the evidence behind the insistence that this is a serious moral issue affecting the planet's future. "That is not scientifically verifiable by any objective standard," he says.

John Firor, senior scientist and director emeritus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. …


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