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Would Jesus Buy an SUV?

Television ads running in eight cities in the Southeast and Midwest this month ask, "What Would Jesus Drive?" An organization called the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is sponsoring the ads, is drafting Jesus Christ into their campaign to get Americans to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Television ads running in eight cities in the Southeast and Midwest this month ask, "What Would Jesus Drive?" An organization called the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is sponsoring the ads, is drafting Jesus Christ into their campaign to get Americans to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The EEN website has a special pledge that the group is asking sympathizers to sign:

Pollution from cars hurts people and the rest of God's creation. Driving impacts human health, contributes to global warming, and increases our reliance on oil from unstable countries and environmentally sensitive areas. Making transportation choices that threaten millions of human beings violates Jesus' basic commandments: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk. 12:30-31); and "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk. 6:31). In making my transportation choices with the Risen Lord Jesus, I believe He wants me to travel in ways that reduce pollution and consumption of gasoline.
Confessing Jesus Christ to be my Savior and Lord, including Lord of my transportation choices, I pledge the following.
  • I will organize my life so that it is easier and more desirable to walk, bike, car pool, and use public transportation.
  • If I need to purchase a vehicle, I will choose the most fuel efficient and least polluting vehicle available that truly fits my needs.
  • I will discuss with others the moral concerns and solutions associated with transportation.
  • I will encourage automobile manufacturers to produce the most fuel-efficient and least polluting vehicles possible that truly fit the needs of the American people.
  • I will urge government leaders to support public transportation, a significant increase in fuel economy standards, and research and development for promising new transportation technologies that reduce pollution and increase fuel efficiency.

Other groups have attempted to make similar connections between Christianity and fuel economy. One of the more recent efforts is an Episcopal resolution on energy policy, adopted in February of this year. It advocates extensive government intervention to achieve energy conservation and reduce pollution. The resolution urges government to:

  • Raise CAFE fuel economy standards and require SUVs and minivans to meet the same standards as passenger cars
  • Require or subsidize the production and purchase of "clean" vehicles
  • Fund inter-city and intra-city mass transit
  • Fund "renewable energy" research and development
  • Include carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and thereby subject it to EPA regulations
  • Apply the "strongest feasible" energy efficiency regulations to consumer goods
  • Ban drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge
  • Subsidize energy consumption by low-income households

Certainly, pollution has an impact on human health. It might be worth asking, however, if reducing pollution from automobiles would save more lives than it costs. One of the easiest ways to make vehicles more fuel-efficient is to make them smaller and lighter. Of course, smaller and lighter generally means that safety is being sacrificed. Economists Robert Crandall and John Graham found that diminished vehicle crashworthiness resulting from the CAFE fuel economy standards may have resulted in 2,200 to 3,900 excess fatalities and 11,000 to 19,500 excess serious injuries in the year of their study. Fuel-efficiency can mean human-life-inefficiency.

Smaller and lighter also means less passenger space, cargo space, and comfort. Less passenger space means more vehicles are necessary when carrying more people — and two econoboxes cost more in fuel and maintenance (read: used oil and tires!) than a gas-guzzling SUV. Since most cars are not carrying more than one or two people most of the time, it would seem that a smaller car would do. But people have to consider the 5 percent of the time that they might need more passenger or cargo space for family trips, towing, or taking the lawnmower to the shop. Even if the capacity is infrequently used, it is expensive to buy or rent a separate vehicle large enough for those occasions. As economist Tom DiLorenzo noted recently, SUVs may actually have caused a reduction in gasoline use by substituting one big vehicle for several smaller ones.

There are other ways to increase fuel efficiency apart from reducing size and weight. More expensive, technologically sophisticated engines would be one possible solution. So far, the expense of electric or hybrid cars has meant that people are still buying gasoline-powered cars. Mandatory efficiency-increasing or pollution-reducing gizmos on gasoline-powered cars could backfire. If they make the vehicle more expensive, which they almost always do, they could worsen pollution because people would keep their older cars longer — and older cars generate more pollution than newer ones.

Expensive. Well, if it is immoral to drive an SUV, what does it matter what the expense is? Except that we are called to be good stewards of all that we are given. That means we have to balance our transportation expenses with our expenses on other things like housing, food, charity, clothing, education, medical services, communication, and entertainment. Choosing high-tech engines or a separate economy car for commuting means more expense, and a sacrifice of other valuable things. Preferring more fuel-efficiency means, to some extent, less living space, less charitable giving, more ignorance, and less medical care. Some evangelical environmentalists prefer to think that good things can be had without giving up other good things. Only God does not have to economize.

Smaller engines would increase fuel economy, too, though that means less power for acceleration, uphill driving, or towing. Acceleration can be "fun," of course. Perhaps the WWJDrive people think Jesus was opposed to fun, at least if it wasn't free. Then there are the more "practical" benefits of acceleration — like merging into 70 mph traffic when the entrance ramp is short and sloped uphill. There, a lack of power can be positively unsafe.

When I was in the Czech Republic earlier this year, I saw the consequences of government intervention into auto decisions. There, the tax on automobiles is linked to the size of the engine. Also, thanks to more taxation, gasoline is much more expensive than it is in the United States. More powerful engines are therefore much more expensive to own than the cost of production would dictate, and engines of 3 liter displacement or more are regarded as luxuries. This simply adds to the already hazardous driving conditions on that country's highways, as cars and trucks that are incapable of maintaining a safe speed mix with cars that are traveling at normal highway speeds. Of course, the diehard interventionist will simply argue for speed governors on all cars. Everyone's time is equally valuable, after all, and therefore no one could possibly have a justifiable reason for driving faster than anyone else.

So what would Jesus drive? Of course Jesus, being omniscient, would not need gasoline price information to make a good decision. But, in the spirit in which the question was asked, one would have to admit that factors like passenger capacity (for the disciples), cargo room (for leftover baskets of bread and fish), and power (for those uphill drives from Jericho to Jerusalem) would be important. Tom DiLorenzo thinks he has a good idea about what his choice would be: "since [Jesus] was a carpenter he would be driving a Dodge Ram pickup truck with a V8 engine and one of those silver tool chests in the back. Probably with extra large wheels to get around the rocky terrain of the Middle East."

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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