Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


What Would Jesus Drive?
By Christine McCarthy McMorris


Sightseeing in London, the Rev. Jim Ball was amazed to find the gift shop at Westminster Abbey chock-full of “What Would Jesus Do?” paraphernalia. WWJD?, an evangelical slogan dreamed up to inspire morality in young American Christians, was slapped on everything from bracelets to polished stones.

An American Baptist minister and the editor of the small quarterly Creation Care, A Christian Environmental Quarterly, Ball wondered whether a small twist on the phrase—“What Would Jesus Drive?”—might not work miracles in the slogan-happy American media. His spin, spelled out in the Fall 2002 issue of Creation Care, was: “Pollution resulting in ill health and/or harm to the rest of creation is counter to Christ’s reconciliation of all things, and dependence on foreign oil from unstable regions heightens the prospect for armed conflict.”

With the updated slogan on board, the campaign cruised up the entrance ramp of the media superhighway. But would Ball and his low-budget, Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) be able to convince Detroit—whose gas-inhaling SUVs and pickup trucks outsold cars for the first time in 2002—to see the light? And could a catchy phrase win over the soul of the average Christian in a car lot, choosing between a Ford Excursion and an Escort?

Last fall, it turned out that auto makers had already found their own religion angle. General Motors unveiled a marketing campaign: “Chevrolet Presents: Come Together and Worship” that featured 16 concerts with top Christian rock bands across the Southeast and the preaching of Texas pastor, Rev. Max Lucado.

This partnership was lampooned in a November 2 column by the Hartford Courant’s Jim Shea, and described in depth in a Knight/Ridder/Tribune News Service story by David Crumm (Detroit Free Press November 9). Crumm quoted Chevrolet’s national point man on the campaign, Steve Betz, who enthused,

“[w]e’re so family-oriented and have great values.” Betz predicted a positive response to the campaign because in the Southeast, “Bible reading is the No. 1 leisure activity. So it’s huge. This is the Bible Belt.”

But General Motors, journalists, and an uninformed public would soon learn that, even in the Bible Belt, evangelical Christians do not always speak with one voice, agree on “great” values, or even drive the same cars. Though it is comparatively small, there’s a very lively and ingenious evangelical “left” out there.

The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign hit the newsstands on November 8, in a Washington Post article by Katherine Ellison headlined, “Going for a Sunday Drive, Evangelical Campaign Focuses on Environmental Awareness.” It gave a forum to Ball’s views and outlined his plan to put “WWJDrive?” ads on Christian radio and cable television stations in Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina.

In Ellison’s piece, Eron Shorsteck of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers confidently asserted that manufacturers “act morally and responsibly in giving consumers a choice.” Ball disagreed: “Jesus wants his followers to drive the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that truly meets their needs…He’d definitely be in favor of public transportation.”

The 15 television WWJD spot opened with an image of a bearded Jesus appearing from the clouds, then dissolved into scenes of overcrowded highways, floods, and a child using an inhaler. A sonorous voiceover asked “[T]oo many of the cars, trucks and SUVs are polluting our air, increasing global warming and endangering our health…So if we cherish God’s creation, maybe we should ask, ‘What Would Jesus Drive’?”

Here, then, was a story that journalists could love. In the slow lane, an unknown group of evangelicals, steeped in a “we can change the world” tradition, claimed to know what a first century religious leader would use to transport his disciples. And zipping by in the fast lane? A majority of the driving public and the Big Three auto makers, who saw wildly popular SUVs (with a $10,000 profit per unit) as their salvation against foreign imports.

At first, news reports scoffed that Ball was a David unlikely to topple this modern-day Goliath. An Associated Press story by Emery P. Dalesio (“Holy Rolling, Environmentally Conscious Seek a Sanctified Ride,” on November 12) called the campaign “a small voice,“ Ed Hunt’s November 25 opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor was more direct: “They’ll need a miracle.”

But Ball’s next move would win the Indy 500 of public relations for the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, EEN’s new coalition with the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, among others.

On November 20, leaders from these groups climbed into hybrid fuel-efficient cars and delivered open letters to the chief executives at General Motors, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler. They (politely) demanded to know “what specific pledges…will you make to produce automobiles, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks with substantially greater fuel economy?”

Danny Hakim caught the offbeat flavor of the day in the lead of his New York Times story on November 24: “It’s not often that you see a rabbi being chauffeured by a nun in a car emblazoned with the slogan ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’” A UPI wire story gave prominence to the image of clerics “driven around Detroit by Catholic nuns in fuel-efficient cars owned by the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

The next day, nearly every daily paper in the country picked up the story of the clerics’ visit to Motown—and nearly every journalist tried his hand at a little “WWJDrive?” humor. A St. Louis Dispatch editorial ran jokes that popped up on EEN’s own Web site, “Jesus would drive a rusty old Plymouth, because the Bible says God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in a Fury,” ran head-to-head with “Honda had the edge, since the ‘Apostles were in one Accord.’” And for non-Christians wondering “What Would Moses Drive?” Roy Rivenburg wrote in the Los Angeles Times (November 20), “Yahweh favored Dodge pickups. Moses’ followers are warned not to go up a mountain until ‘the Ram’s horn sounds a long blast.’”

What Would Jesus Drive? officially became a water cooler riddle when late-night comic Jay Leno weighed in. Jesus, he said, was sure to get around in “a dented-up pickup—he was a carpenter, after all.”

Overkill set in as journalists hypothesized “What Would Jesus Eat?” (the Albany Times Union); “How Would Jesus Drive?” (the Boston Herald) and “Which Religion Columnist Would Jesus Like to Read?” (Chicago Sun-Times).

However, not all jokes about religious divinities are created equal, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette learned, when he posted a drawing of an Arab man in a Ryder truck loaded with missiles, captioned “What Would Mohammed Drive?” The cartoon was quickly pulled from the Tallahassee Democrat’s Web site and the paper refused to publish it. While defending his freedom of speech, Marlette received some 10,000 complaints and, according to a January 1 Chapel Hill Herald editorial, “at least a few death threats.” 

As Thanksgiving neared, a collection of odd bedfellows joined the inevitable backlash. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a strong editorial condemning “Bible-thumping demagoguery,” and declaiming that “the current WWJD? campaign harms public discourse and should be abandoned.” Opponents of political correctness also chimed in, with columnist Bill McClellan writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Take heart, smokers. We’re getting a whole new group of politically correct targets—people who drive SUVs.”

Next to go on the attack was the Christian right. The Denver Post quoted the Rev. Pat Robertson as saying, “I think the concept of linking Jesus to an anti-SUV campaign borders on blasphemy.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell baited Ball on CNN’s “Crossfire,” boasting that not only did he drive a Suburban, but “if I ever change, I might get a Hummer.” Falwell brought up the Christian right’s doubts about global warming and environmentalists, who were actually latter-day pagans. Ball countered with Scripture, as in “protecting the planet is a new way to love your neighbor.”

The sign that the debate had entered the political arena came with George F. Will’s syndicated column that ran on Thanksgiving Day. Will questioned the campaign’s grasp of complex issues, with, “The WWJD? clerics think Christianity is not just good news, it’s good scientific and economic analysis.” He then slammed the proposal of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) for a 50 percent increase in CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards—one that lost in the Republican-dominated Senate.

But despite Will’s grumpy dismissal, the renegade environmentalist campaign did—at the very—coincide with a dramatic change in the public discussion about SUVs.

Three months after the debut of EEN’s television ads, which cost only $65,000 for production and initial ad buy, SUVs had become a red-hot media topic. Each day, journalists churned out statistics: SUV rollover dangers, the fatalities of car/SUV crashes, America’s dipping fuel-economy rate, and the exemption of SUVs and pickups from pollution and safety controls mandated for cars.

And in a vast majority of the articles, What Would Jesus Drive? was credited as initially bringing the issue onto the media’s radar.

Two financial page articles linked EEN’s campaign—along with fears about the stalled economy and war in Iraq—to a distinct cooling of America’s passion for supersized SUVs and pickups. “What has some Detroit executives particularly worried are signs of a backlash developing among the next generation of auto buyers,” wrote Jeffrey Ball in the Wall Street Journal. He quoted James Schroer, Daimler Chrysler’s executive VP for sales and marketing: “It’s a big deal, and it’s real.”

Writing in the Washington Post January 26, Greg Schneider noted the change in public perception and “a pronounced shift in the car-buying habits of Americans—who are turning away from the long-popular truck-based SUVs…and embracing [smaller] import SUVs that handle like cars.”

As to Ball’s fundamental question, we may all have to wait for the Second Coming to really discover what Jesus drives. But it is fair to say that just by posing the question with a snappy slogan, a small group of left-leaning evangelicals caught the national media’s attention and jump-started the public discussion on transportation.


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