The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
March 2003, Volume 21, Number 3
What Would Jesus Drive?
William L. Anderson
When some left-wing acti-vists recently began their What Would Jesus Drive? campaign against sport utility vehicles, the first reaction of most folks—and especially libertarians—was a simple, "Are these people really serious?"
It turns out, unfortunately, that they indeed were serious, or at least serious enough to spend thousands of dollars in their attempts to shame people out of Chevy Tahoes and into a Volkswagen bug. Unfortunately, they want the government to make sure you cannot spend your money where you would like, at least when it comes to purchasing automobiles.
The latest salvo in this propaganda campaign comes in the January 2003 edition of Christianity Today, a magazine that represents the views of conservative to moderately liberal Christians in the United States. Sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network and signed by 13 well-known leaders in the "evangelical" Christian movement, the full-page advertisement, entitled "What Would Jesus Drive?" paints a dreary picture of the automobile, declaring in its text:
"To some, the question might seem amusing. But we take it seriously. As our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ teaches us, 'Love your neighbor as yourself' (Mark 12:30–31).
"Of all the choices we make as consumers, the cars we drive have the biggest impact on all of God's creation. Car pollution causes illness and death, and most afflicts the elderly, poor, sick and young. It also contributes to global warming, putting millions at risk from drought, flood, hunger and homelessness.
"Transportation is now a moral choice and an issue for Christian reflection. It's about more than engineering—it's about ethics. About obedience. About loving our neighbor.
"So what would Jesus drive? [Italics theirs.] We call upon America's automobile industry to manufacture more fuel-efficient vehicles. And we call upon Christians to drive them.
Because it's about more than vehicles—it's about values."
The implied answer is obvious: Jesus would never have driven an SUV, so none of us should do so, either. To do otherwise, the signers tell us, would be sin, and those who would disobey them are then responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the outright destruction of the planet.
I wish that I could be amused by the advertisement, but my reaction is a mixture of anger and sadness. As one who is a confessing Christian, I am angry because the advertisement sends a false message and condemns people who are not doing anything wrong. Yet, I am also sad that so many people of good will can be taken in by such propaganda, and that guilt manipulation seems to work.
While many, if not most readers might not be interested in ecclesiastical matters, I do believe a "doctrinal" comment is warranted here. Because they basically declare the choice to purchase and drive an SUV a "sin," the framers of the WWJD advertisement attempt to make this an issue of religious orthodoxy. Not only do I think this is a false issue of morality, but I also think it is morally wrong to present false information as truth, as shall be demonstrated in this article. While Jesus never addressed the issue of morally-correct transportation, he did condemn telling falsehoods.
Of course, one who might be inclined to defend the advertisement might ask the following questions: "Wouldn't all of us be better off if everyone—and especially Americans—drove small, fuel-efficient vehicles instead of large, polluting behemoths?" After all, it would seem that the less gasoline burned by cars and trucks, the better the air quality we would have, which would make all of us more healthy.
Those who frame these questions in such a manner are not presenting an accurate set of choices. After all, even the smallest and most fuel-efficient automobiles emit some air pollution, so if the authors of this advertisement believe that the emission of less-than-pure air into the atmosphere is a sin, then those who drive these "approved" cars are also engaged in wrongdoing, albeit of a lesser variety, a "venial" sin, if it were.
Furthermore, the real issues are much more cloudy. Modern SUVs emit much less pollution than do older cars that might get more miles per gallon of fuel, and as long as any vehicles are not properly tuned, much of their "fuel efficiency" can be lost. Therefore, if we are to take the statements of the authors to their logical conclusions, it actually may be more sinful to drive a small, albeit not well-tuned, automobile instead of the four-wheel-drive behemoths that many drivers seem to prefer.
When consumers choose their modes of transportation, fuel use is just one category that they consider. For example, my family has two vans, since we have three young children. (One van has four-wheel drive, which apparently falls into the "sinful" category, but it makes us safer, especially since we live in an area that receives moderate-to-heavy snowfall each year.) Neither van is particularly "fuel-efficient," which means they do not fall into the approved class of transportation as outlined by the signers of the WWJD advertisement.
Yet, for us, we are willing to trade some gasoline mileage for the safety and comfort that the vans provide. I do not think our choice was between sin and righteousness, but rather between one set of costs and another. I do not think it is a transgression of God's law to want to protect my family when we are on the road.
Of course, the advertisement is not simply about encouraging Christians to drive small cars. One of the signers, Ronald J. Sider, declared in his popular book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger that the only proper course for the United States to take would be to engage in near-complete deindustrialization. In that book, he condemned Western society as the cause of all poverty in the Third World and said that if the West were to destroy their entire industrial and transportation infrastructure, that such a move would ensure that Third World poverty would end. In other words, the only proper course of action for North Americans and Europeans, in reality, would be to commit mass suicide.
Sider, no doubt, would deny he ever meant such a thing, but the words of his book are much more clear than any of his denials. According to him and many others in his camp, one can increase one's standard of living only at the expense of others. Trade, he contends, is not voluntary exchange undertaken between individuals who believe such actions would make themselves better off, but rather an act of violence in which one side can benefit only to the detriment of the other.
As one reads the advertisement's text, it becomes clear that they have applied such analytical tools to fossil-fuel powered transportation. Such vehicles, they contend, only have bad effects. Cars cause pollution and kill the elderly and the young. Automobiles are responsible for warming the planet, and if the planet becomes warmer, the results can only be disastrous.
Motorized transportation has no positive benefits to society, the advertisement tells the readers. It further implies that anyone who drives a vehicle of which the signers do not approve is doing it only for selfish reasons, and on and on.
However disagreeable the advertisement might be, and however wrong it might be in its analysis of things, one could argue that the signers are encouraging individuals to engage in voluntary behavior, and are leaving it at that. Unfortunately, they will not stop there. The literature of the "Christian Left," of which the signers are part, is replete with calls for government coercion in all forms and historically has been lavish in its praise for the murderous socialist governments of the old Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and others.
In Rich Christians, Sider calls for governments to restrict all consumer choices and to be the engine of destroying the modern industrial economies of the West. (One might add that the Western governments actually are carrying out such a directive in their taxation, spending, and regulatory policies, but they claim to do it in the name of making us better off. At least Sider wants the state to make us worse off in hopes that peoples of the Third World would suddenly become wealthier.) In other words, he and the others believe that since people will not listen to them, they must be forced by the state to engage in what they deem to be righteous behavior.
There is much to condemn in this seemingly simple advertisement. It presents false choices, insinuates that motorized transportation has only harmful effects, and it creates new categories of Christian orthodoxy that one cannot find in the Bible or historical church literature. And while most people will ignore it, I suspect that the real reason for its existence is to help grease the skids for more government control of consumer choices.
What would Jesus drive? I have no idea, and neither do the signers. However, I know that Jesus would not engage in telling falsehoods and would not call for the expansion of the Leviathan State. If the signers actually wanted to prevent the cause of much of the death and destruction of our age, they would call for the dismantling of the behemoth of modern government. Instead, they do the opposite. That should tell us something about their motives, and their understanding of the religion they claim to embrace. .FM
William L. Anderson teaches economics at Frostburg State University (firstname.lastname@example.org)