Reverend Asks, What Would Jesus Drive?

What would Jesus drive?

It's an unusual question, admits the Rev. Dan Smith, who carried a sign with the eye-catching challenge at an anti-SUV rally outside an auto dealership in the spring.

"Many Christians have this phrase that is meaningful for them, 'What would Jesus do?'" says Smith, an associate minister at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, Mass.

"It's something that I think is provocative. So my intention was to be provocative. Hopefully it would make people think before making this decision."

He says his parishioners have been receptive.

"I haven't heard any negative feedback," he notes.

Smith is part of a steadily growing convergence of religion and environmentalism in America.

Moving Into the Religious Mainstream

Many spiritual leaders say that environmental issues are receiving more attention than ever among their colleagues and congregations.

"I've been watching this for 10 or 12 years, and suddenly this year it's as if this has come alive," says Bill McKibbon, a fellow at Harvard Divinity School's Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, and author of The End of Nature.

"I think a lot more people of faith are involved in this now," agrees Kim Winchell, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the director of the Michigan Interfaith Coalition for Creation, an environmental group.

Some involved in religious environmentalism are politically active, writing letters to the president and protesting outside the Department of Energy. Others are preaching the message of conservation to their parishioners or installing solar panels on their churches.

In recent months, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has passed a resolution calling on the United States to address climate change, and a broad coalition of mainstream religious groups, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches USA and others, issued a call for energy conservation and "climate justice."

"These are not just the usual suspects," insists the Rev. Fred Small of First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Mass. He says the movement has spread well beyond traditionally liberal religious denominations.

These views have been echoed by religious leaders representing faiths ranging from Greek Orthodox Christianity, to fundamentalist Christian groups, to Islam and Asian religions.

Still, most involved in religious environmentalism admit their message hasn't been accepted by all.

For example, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life Director Stefanie Zelkind says, "I think the more liberal denominations get it." But she admits, "For other folks, it's pretty new."

‘Caring for God’s Creation’

The movement has gained speed in recent months, in part due to widely publicized reports on global warming, and concern over President Bush's environmental policies.

But many leaders stress more fundamental ties between environmental issues and traditional areas of religious concern.

"For us, environmentalism didn't start on Earth Day, it begins with Genesis," says Paul Gorman, founder of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Gorman and others say the issue also reflects religious leaders' traditional interest in issues of poverty and social justice, because environmental problems often most directly affect the poor.

Activists also readily acknowledge that churches, mosques and synagogues can reach people who have little contact with environmental groups.

"We're reaching people they aren't," says Zelkind.

The recent California power crunch and record-high gas prices have also helped bring energy and environment to the pulpit.

"When people's pocketbooks are hurt, they're more willing to pay attention," says the Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest and environmental activist in San Francisco.

Rediscovering Long-Standing Connections

Environmental issues are, of course, not new to religion.

Pope John Paul II, for example, drew attention to the subject 11 years ago in The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.

Christianity, Judaism and other major faiths all talk about the importance of caring for the earth in their sacred texts.

Attention to the environmental aspects of their creeds is on the rise, however.

"I think we've all gotten clearer that our scriptures have a lot to say on the issue," says the Rev. Rich Killmer, director of environmental justice for the National Council of Churches.