Politics & Policy

“What Would Jesus Drive?”

Electrified Evangelical theological confusion.

Why is the mainstream media suddenly so interested in Evangelical views on the environment? Before 2006, you would have looked hard to find stories on the subject. This started to change in 2002, when an outfit called the “Evangelical Environmental Network” launched a campaign that asked: “What would Jesus Drive?” The mainstream media gave the campaign positive coverage.

The big publicity started in February 2006, however, when several major media outlets reported the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). The brief document was signed by 86 Evangelical leaders, who announced their support for what The New York Times called “a major initiative to fight global warming.” As part of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, they called for “federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through ‘cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.’ ” Similar stories have followed the views of Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, who is a strong believer in catastrophic, human-induced global warming.

Most of the reporting has been shallow and one sided, however. In fact, most of the reporting about Evangelical “concern” for the environment has focused only on those Evangelicals who accept the party line on catastrophic, human-induced global warming. Evangelicals who question the party line are either ignored or cast as enemies of the environment.

After the Evangelical Climate Initiative was launched in February 2006, Frank James of the Chicago Tribune described the disagreement among Evangelicals this way:

Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the Evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

This is a classic false dilemma. If you’re an Evangelical who agrees with the ECI, then you care about the environment. If you disagree with the ECI, then you don’t care about the environment because you’re expecting the Lord’s return any day now. What about Evangelicals who care about the environment but who see the ECI as misguided? Apparently, they don’t exist.

One could chalk this up to media bias, except that those who spearheaded the ECI have helped to perpetuate the false dilemma. If they take their theology seriously, these Evangelicals need to start distinguishing theological principles from prudential judgments.

With respect to the environment, the theological principles are uncontroversial: human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order. We bear a responsibility for how we treat and use it. We are part of the creation, as well as its crowning achievement. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for good purposes. Proper use is not misuse. But as fallen creatures, we can mess things up. No serious Evangelical thinker questions these basic principles.

Prudential judgments are another thing entirely. When it comes to global warming, for instance, there are at least four separate questions.

(1) Is the planet warming?

(2) If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?

(3) If the planet is warming, is it bad overall?

(4) If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, legislative restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference and, if so, would their cost exceed their benefit?

Tough questions all, and theology doesn’t provide much help in answering them. To answer (1) and (2), one must consider a wide range of scientific evidence, theorizing, and speculation, drawing on disciplines as diverse as meteorology, astrophysics, geology, and probability theory. And the very nature of the questions and the evidence means answers will always be tentative and uncertain.

To answer (3) and (4), one must do careful economic reasoning. As a result, Evangelicals who agree that we are stewards of our environment (the principle) can easily disagree on how to answer these questions (the application).

The problem with the chief defenders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative is that they haven’t thought through these four questions, at least not publicly. What they have done is label their position as the authentically Evangelical one. Other Evangelicals need to call them on this tactic, exposing the false dilemma for the piece of cheap rhetoric it is.

The same confusion was present in the 2002 initiative, which asked “What would Jesus Drive?” The campaign encouraged participants to advocate specific federal regulations. It targeted SUVs — which use more fuel than most of the smaller cars available — and the Chevrolet Corporation — for sponsoring a Christian rock concert. “Through this gospel tour,” explained Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, “Chevrolet is promoting certain vehicles that get very low gas mileage and produce significant pollution, harming human health and the rest of God’s creation.” With a stunning lack of moral proportion, Ball implied that manufacturing and driving an SUV are usually, if not always, moral evils.

“What would Jesus drive?” is clever marketing, but ultimately employs terrible moral reasoning. The question doesn’t have one right answer. What I choose to drive, like all prudential judgments, is the outcome of a compromise of conflicting goals. Fuel economy is only one of dozens of legitimate reasons that people ponder when choosing what, or whether they’ll drive a car. We also consider price, family size, occupation, local geography, quality, weather, safety, lifestyle, other available transportation options, and myriad factors beyond accounting. There’s no universal measure for comparing these factors, so every person will attribute a different significance to each.

Fuel economy doesn’t trump the other factors, especially since some cars (such as hybrids) have better than average fuel economy, but require more energy both to construct and to recycle than do other, less fuel efficient cars. So an outside observer is in no position to make a moral judgment just by observing that you drive an SUV. Such complexities make prudential judgments about transportation and energy use different from moral evils like selling child pornography or torturing a kitten for the fun of it, which are intrinsically evil.

None of this means Evangelical leaders should avoid public policy and stick to theology. It means that they have a moral obligation to distinguish their theological principles from how they apply them in any given instance.

Politically Useful

Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen any time soon, since the current political climate creates pressure for liberal Evangelicals to muddle principle and policy. There’s a reason the media are suddenly interested in reporting the views of certain Evangelicals on the environment. They’ve learned a political lesson. The Democrats have been losing to Republicans among the large bloc of Evangelical voters. Fueled by Democratic commitment to leftwing causes like abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage, many Evangelicals have come to view Democrats as a secularized party that threatens their deepest convictions. To fix this PR problem, Democratic candidates have been trying to reframe their usual policies as “moral issues.” This makes liberal Evangelicals especially useful.

The Democrats have been quite open about this new policy. Last June, several Democratic candidates for president joined “progressive” Evangelical Jim Wallis for a chat about faith televised on CNN. At one point, amidst lots of talk about values and “moral issues,” Hillary Clinton revealed: “I think you can sense how we are attempting to try to inject faith into policy.” Yes, we can sense it. And given the leftward tilt of the mainstream media, we should expect them to help with the makeover.

No one expects throngs of Evangelicals to start voting for pro-choice Democrats. But much of the media agrees with the Washington Post’s infamous description of Evangelicals as “poor, undereducated, and easily led.” If Democrats can get just a small percentage of Evangelicals to worry more about global warming and gasoline than the gay marriage and the proliferation of abortion, then they just might shift the demographics in their favor. So we should expect to see fawning coverage of liberal Evangelicals on the environment in the next fourteen months. But if, on the other hand, you’re hoping to see the mainstream media take Evangelical theology seriously, don’t hold your carbon dioxide.

– Jay W. Richards, an Evangelical philosopher and theologian, is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.


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