God or SUV?

Religious leaders are urging people not to buy the oversized, polluting SUVs on the market.

Religious leaders are urging people not to buy the oversized, polluting SUVs on the market.

Illustration By Daniel D'arcy

Coming soon to your neighborhood car dealership may be religious leaders attired in the vestments of various faiths, holding placards and urging you to boycott sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Ministers, rabbis and priests are becoming increasingly vocal with their congregations, urging members to both raise their voices against the plunder of the environment and to make personally responsible choices to safeguard it.

From the Sacramento Diocese of the Catholic Church to Littleton, Massachusetts, home of national interfaith environmental activist group Religious Witness for the Earth, members of the clergy who see caring for the earth as inextricably linked to honoring God’s creation are imploring President George Bush to reconsider current energy policy.

Deacon Bill Sousa, social justice director for the Diocese of Sacramento, is circulating a household conservation checklist to increase environmental consciousness at 98 local parishes. All family members are asked to participate in the “Sustainable Lifestyle Program,” signing a pledge to recycle, choose environmentally friendly and renewable resources, limit energy and water consumption and use alternative means of transportation.

Sousa and the church’s Environmental Committee are educating parishioners about global climate changes and how to make energy efficient improvements to their homes in order “to protect the earth’s ecosystem, safeguard public health and ensure sufficient and sustainable energy for all.”

Presentations in parishes and schools promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation. Churches have also been monitoring and reducing their energy use, and the Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento is installing an energy management system in their new science and technology building.

St. Philomene Parish will soon have a photovoltaic system on the roofs of three buildings. Peggy Lesnick-Bortka, a solar consultant for the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, says that 40 churches have enrolled this summer in an energy savings program featuring free installation of solar panels and another 80 are on the waiting list.

Even Pope John Paul II has been encouraging environmental activism, beginning with his 1990 papal message, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.” In a speech given earlier this year, he declaimed that man has devastated the earth, “polluted the waters … made the air unbreatheable … and turned green spaces into deserts.” The Pope warned of “catastrophes we are moving toward” unless our profligate habits of material consumption are abated so that “future generations [can have] an environment closer to that which God planned.”

Catholic social justice teaching requires caring for the earth, “protecting people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation,” necessitating parishioners’ awareness in recognizing the relationship between how they live their lives and the well-being of the earth. Since Americans account for less than 5 percent of the world population and consume 25 percent of the world’s energy, it isn’t difficult to make the point that the ecological crisis is a moral crisis for Americans, with the most severe consequences befalling the world’s poor.

In October, the Sacramento Diocese is sponsoring a conference at the University of California at Davis, with lectures by environmental ministers and religious activists, focusing on how to deliver a healthy planet to future generations.

Recently, Sousa and Priscilla High, chair of Diocesan Committee on Care for God’s Creation, wrote to President Bush, pleading that he reverse his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in “light of the alarming findings” by the United Nations panel that global warming is “happening twice as fast as was thought.” High listed catastrophic climate consequences, including rising ocean levels, “increased severity of storms, migration of diseases, drought, floods leading to famine … and heat stress for the elderly, the sick, children and the poor.”

Church leaders on the East Coast have begun demonstrations modeled on the civil disobedience actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In May, a Religious Witness protest outside the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., resulted in the arrests of 22 people, 10 of whom were clergy.

Fred Small, minister of the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, Massachusetts, and a founding member of Religious Witness for the Earth, was one of those arrested. This summer, with religious leaders from different faiths, he has been organizing protests at Boston car dealerships, urging congregation members to pledge not to purchase new SUVs until they are redesigned to get better mileage.

Small emphasizes that he doesn’t want to shame people who already own SUVs. Rather, he wants people to think more deeply about their purchases and the consequences to the environment for future generations.

Another SUV event took place last week in Northampton, Massachusetts, where a dozen ministers and several rabbis implored people to buy alternatives to the fuel-guzzling status symbols that, according to Small, represent “a devil-may-care attitude about what happens to the rest of the world.”

Religious leaders note that technology exists for SUVs to be more fuel-efficient, though Congress recently voted against requiring automakers to implement it. According to environmentalists, a modest three-miles-per-gallon increase in SUV efficiency would save more oil than the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge could produce.

“The powers that be are not biting the bullet anytime soon,” Small said, adding that he plans to organize more demonstrations with “more numbers and greater determination until that political paradigm shifts.”

Small compares the new religious environmental activism to the militant action of the clergy in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements: “The religious spirit and motivation of [the civil rights] movement was critical to its success.” Rather than just being about civil rights, it was about “God’s justice.”

With environmental degradation, “we are facing a moral challenge on the same level,” with most victims of environmental injustice yet unborn. “Living as we do, we are stealing from our children and grandchildren. It’s unconscionable,” Small said.

As sea levels rise in Southeast Asia and record heat waves scorch the Midwest and East Coast, Small says, “There is no question the earth is getting warmer … and the consequences are deadly,” referring to recent heat-related deaths.

The recent vote of the House of Representatives to potentially open up ANWR for drilling leads Small to believe that Congress is not making the connection that unmitigated use of fossil fuel will lead to disastrous consequences.

“Historically, it’s been the duty of religious people to stand up for the powerless victims of the status quo,” Small says. “Religious environmentalism is in that tradition.”

So before you sign that contract to purchase that SUV, you might want to consider whether you want to be driving what may soon become as gauche as wearing mink to your neighborhood pizza parlor, if militant religious leaders are successful in changing public opinion.