Of liberty, blessings, and SUVs

Posted: Nov 27, 2002 12:00 AM
All right, I give up. Just what would Jesus drive -- supposing he lived in Cambridge, Mass., and had decided the daily donkey shuttle no longer would cut it? Supposing, also, that the question, addressed to readers of Christianity Today in an ad ("What Would Jesus Drive?"), could be considered a serious attempt at confronting an ethical question. The WWJD ad -- part of what The New York Times describes as a religious-based "grass-roots campaign linking fuel efficiency to morality" -- slaps us around on the eve of Thanksgiving, when the supposed task at hand is to celebrate abundance. The ad campaign would have us ponder the perils of abundance, such as Detroit-spawned monsters polluting the air. Various denominational leaders who support the National Religious Partnership for the Environment urge that Christians, if they really insist on leaving their neighborhoods, resort to bikes, carpools and public transportation, not to mention their own two feet. Harmful pollution is "counter to Christ's reconciliation of all things." Under these circumstances, SUVs won't do. A little scoffing from Web site bloggers ("Jesus would definitely drive a big SUV like the Hummer! It would fit all his 12 apostles.") will never deflect the partnership's efforts to discredit the gas-guzzler mentality. Sometimes, it seems, abundance is just too ... well, abundant. Watching American religious progressives strive for relevance can be fun if you're in a certain mood. The effort is likely as not to exclude classic theological concerns, e.g., sin and redemption. Generally, the connection is to issues you read or hear about in the media: how to deal with Iraq, how to provide adequate health insurance, how to cope with global warming, and so on. Bishops and Bible-wallopers, like electricians and second violinists, enjoy the right to free speech. That is not the issue. Their tendency to go overboard is the issue. Too often they end up resembling the Gore Campaign at Prayer. No theologian or worshiper could rule out the environment as a theological concern. "This is my Father's world," proclaims the old hymn. In such a world, there are, you might say, speed limits -- ambiguous and sparsely posted but readable. On the one hand, the Bible says God gave his creatures stewardship over the good earth; on the other hand, stewardship doesn't equate with pillage. The thing you want is balance. Progressive theologians say, yes, by all means let's have balance. Actions, alas, often belie fine words. Deep down, liberal Christianity doesn't like capitalism or capitalists. It usually distrusts their designs, resists their goals. Liberal Christianity opposes tax cuts and drilling on the Alaskan North Slope. It prefers government initiatives to private ones and squints suspiciously at the whole concept of individually held property. Liberal Christianity sees the marketplace as distortional and corrupting. Which it is sometimes. So also is it creative and liberating: the source of freedom and of the abundance that freedom alone, on the dreary record of modern times, is capable of producing. And for which Americans rightly give thanks. Despotism, as typified by hellholes like Zimbabwe and Iraq, produces privation and misery. People there starve or languish in chains. In the land of the Hummer, hunger could be called a voluntary pastime. If property and labor compete, much more often they work in concert to deliver whatever goods free people freely choose -- the Yukon XL or the bicycle. Thanksgiving reminds us that balance is the hardest act in human affairs to pull off. Hummer drivers, environmental activists -- we never get it just right. The right to go on trying is not the least of our American blessings. Those who chivvy their fellow countrymen about Jesus' driving preferences are neither dumb nor evil. They just seem not to understand the extent to which liberty is every bit as much a Christian construct as is responsibility in the exercise of that liberty. We're back, then, to the matter of balance? Not at all. We never got away. We never do, it would seem.