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Keep Jesus out of SUV debate

BLINDING headlights reflect in your rearview mirror. You can't see over the vehicle in front of you, and can't predict when you'll need to brake. You're just waiting for the guy on your left, who thinks he owns the road because his vehicle is three times the size of yours, to cut you off. The scene is an increasingly familiar one to all the small-car drivers of the world.

Over the past few weeks, thanks to the work of a coalition of churches known as the Evangelical Environmental Network, the rift between SUV and non-SUV drivers has been forced even further apart. But, instead of simply taking up the already existing arguments over environmental concerns and aggressive driving issues associated with sport utility vehicles, the group adds a theological twist to the debate. An ad campaign to raise awareness of the problems associated with the increasing popular variety of light trucks on the market is a great idea. To be effective, though, such a drive should have universal appeal and present accurate and reliable information. The EEN's anti-SUV ads fail on both these counts.

An advertisement appearing in the Jan. 2003 issue of Christianity Today asks the question, "What Would Jesus Drive?" Sponsored by the EEN, this ad and its supplementary television ad turns the issue of automotive choice into a matter of theology and ethics. The ad cites the Golden Rule of loving one's neighbor as oneself, and in effect implies that SUV owners are guilty of disregarding this maxim. The coalition of churches spearheading the ad campaign focus on the environmental problems associated with certain vehicles, namely pollution from less fuel-efficient vehicles. Summing up the point, the ad reminds its readers, "Because it's about more than vehicles -- it's about values."

Although the EEN never speaks outright against SUVs, the group's focus on encouraging Christians to choose safer, more environment-friendly and more courteous cars makes it clear that the EEN is pointing its finger at SUV manufacturers and owners. But bringing Jesus into the equation isn't the best way to get this message across. As Conan O'Brien so aptly pointed out on his late night talk show, Jesus, a bachelor and carpenter from a rural area, probably would've driven an SUV himself.

The campaign's Web site, www.whatwouldjesusdrive.org, provides not only links to the EEN's print and television ads, but also a number of fact sheets to support the argument for safer, smaller cars. Though the ads speak in generalities and religious jargon, the fact sheets offer specific, useful statistics about human health, the environment and transportation. For example, the site explains that, "Fuel economy for passenger vehicles peaked in 1988 and is at a 22 year low," "Federal law allows vehicles in the 'light truck' category (e.g. SUVs) to emit 75 percent more smog forming emissions than cars," and, "Asthma has increased 74 percent among children and teenagers ages 5-14 since 1980, and an astounding 160 percent for children 1-4." The statistics are effective because, unlike the rest of the campaign, they are not of a religious nature. Unfortunately, the ads are void of these figures.

Somewhere along the line, the EEN forgets that morality doesn't necessarily have to be linked with religion. The question of what Jesus would drive has little significance to the millions of Americans who are not Christian. Asking instead what is best for the environment and your fellow man is something that should concern everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. By targeting a Christian audience, the EEN is missing out on a great opportunity to get a valid message out to the broader public.

Perhaps the EEN could take some assistance from Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Over the past couple of weeks, Runge has spoken out against SUVs using the safety angle, citing a "fatality rate in rollover accidents three times as high in sport-utility vehicles as in passenger cars" and a 22.3 percent increase in single-vehicle rollovers last year with 8,400 fatalities ("Regulator assails safety of SUVs," The Washington Post, Jan. 16). Runge speaks with authority as not only a high-ranking regulator, but also as a former emergency-room physician who dealt with victims of car accidents. The authority he brings with his candid message is exactly the ammunition the EEN needs.

As they stand today, the EEN's anti-SUV advertisements sound like nothing more than a sermon that could be offensive to non-Christians and Christians alike. Though the message behind the ads is pertinent, their execution falls short of the mark by being too preachy and too generic. Still, all hope is not lost -- a new series of ads from the EEN could accomplish the same goal by taking a less religious approach, and instead consulting more experts such as Runge. Until then, the EEN's ads are just as obnoxious as the SUVs they speak out against.

(Stephanie Batten's column appears

Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at sbatten@cavalierdaily.com.)

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