Six months after launching a media campaign asking “What Would Jesus Drive?” the Evangelical Environmental Network is taking its message on a barn-storming tour of the South.
Last fall, a group of religious leaders told a General Motors executive that if the auto industry would build fuel-efficient cars and sports utility vehicles, then people of faith will buy them.
EEN Executive Director Jim Ball and his wife, Kara, are working to back up that promise by driving their “What Would Jesus Drive?” emblazoned Toyota Prius, a gas/electric hybrid vehicle, on a tour of Bible Belt cities. Speaking in churches and on Christian radio, their message is that there is a connection between the cars Christians drive, loving their neighbor and caring for creation.
“We chose to come to the South because we knew it would be new territory for our message,” Ball said Friday (June 6) at the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn.
While the WWJDrive campaign has found strong support among evangelical churches in the North and Midwest, where there’s a long tradition of church involvement in social issues, Ball said he’s met civic leaders in the South who told him they had never before thought about there being a connection between concern for the environment and faith.
“Some folks say ‘Are you just preaching to the choir?'” Ball said. “There is no choir. There are a few soloists down south, but we haven’t been able to find a choir.”
Ball’s Evangelical Environmental Network is a group of organizations and individuals with a stated purpose of declaring “the Lordship of Christ over all creation.”
When the group started running television ads last fall asking “What Would Jesus Drive?” many thought it was nothing but a joke parodying the “What Would Jesus Do?” theme that pervaded Christian books, music and accessories.
WWJDrive organizers, however, insist it’s a serious question. For Christians, they say, the Lordship of Christ extends to every area of life, including choices about transportation.
“The Risen Lord Jesus cares about the kinds of cars we drive, because they affect his people and his creation,” said a Call to Action signed by more than 90 Christian leaders. Signers pledged to walk, bike or use public transportation more; to purchase vehicles that are fuel efficient and nonpolluting; to educate others and to push automakers and the government to move toward more fuel-efficient transportation technologies.
“When you boil down environmental arguments, they’re moral arguments,” Ball said. “This is part of loving your neighbor.”
During the tour, Ball said he is focusing his message in three areas:
–Human health impact. One in three Americans lives in an area with unhealthy outdoor air, according to a fact sheet. Children, the elderly and the poor are hardest hit. Asthma has increased 160 percent for children aged 1-4 since 1980. Black children are five times more likely to die from asthma than whites.
–Global warming as a threat to the poor. Ball said tailpipe pollution accounts for almost a third of outdoor air pollution in the United States, and is the largest U.S. source of pollution that leads to global warming. Environmentalists say global warming will hit the poor the hardest. Reduced agricultural output in poor countries would put millions more at risk of hunger and malnutrition during the 21st century. Global warming also threatens to increase flooding and infectious diseases and could wipe out entire ecosystems.
–U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Fuel economy for passenger vehicles is at a 22-year low, increasing America’s reliance on foreign oil. One reason the prospect of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction was viewed as a threat to U.S. national security was Iraq’s proximity to up to 75 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Reducing the dependence on foreign oil, Ball said, would defuse similar situations in the future.
Ball’s network describes itself as a “biblically orthodox Christian environmental organization.” While some theologians seek dialogue with Native American and other non-Christian religions in discussing the environment, Ball contends, “We don’t even need to go there.”
“First let’s figure out what the Bible has to say,” he said.
While many biblical arguments about care for the earth focus on the “dominion” vs. “stewardship” question in Genesis 1 and 2, Ball takes his main cue from New Testament teachings about compassion for the poor and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. A favorite text is Colossian 1:15-20, which Ball interprets as “a new creation text based in Christ.”
“People don’t think pollution is hurting people,” Ball said. “Transportation is the No. 1 way we impact God’s creation in terms of pollution and degradation.”
“Pollution hurts people. That will probably be my mantra until my last breath.”
The Balls kicked off the tour May 28 in Austin, Texas. From there they passed through Dallas and Little Rock. They were in Nashville Friday, to be followed by stops in Chattanooga Monday (June 9) and Atlanta June 10-11. They are scheduled to be in Columbia, S.C., June 12; Charlotte June 13; Raleigh, N.C., June 15-16; and Richmond, Va., June 18.
They travel north to have a WWJDrive booth and recycling ministry at Creation Festival, an outdoor Christian rock festival in Mount Union, Pa., June 25-28. The tour’s official end is scheduled July 7-11 in Washington, D.C., where Ball and other religious leaders plan to take their message to the Bush administration, members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates.
The Balls traded in their SUV last year for a new Toyota Prius. The hybrid-electric car gets more than 50 miles to the gallon and is a super-low emissions vehicle. It is their only automobile, and they use public transportation for their remaining travel needs.
In choosing their car, “we have made a conscious choice to select the least harmful vehicle that meets our needs,” Ball wrote in Creation Care magazine. “And we couldn’t be happier with the choice. We feel good knowing we are minimizing our gasoline consumption and pollution impact and in so doing are serving the Lord, our neighbor and the rest of God’s creation.”
Kara Ball pointed out they aren’t plugging Toyota. Honda, Ford, GM and Chrysler all have hybrid vehicles either in production or the planning stage, including the “next generation” of hybrid SUVs.
The technology required to produce lightweight and long-range batteries still makes electric-only vehicles too expensive to be practical. Hybrid vehicles combine advantages from both internal combustion and electric engines to increase mileage and reduce emissions over conventional cars.
They are comparatively inexpensive, and owners of hybrid cars qualify for a $2,000 “clean fuel” tax deduction on their federal income tax.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com