The largely secular press corps does not usually regard Jesus Christ as a suitable authority to cite in political or policy discussions. When George W. Bush invoked Christ's name in a December 1999 debate, for instance, journalists gasped at the insertion of religion into the public square, something to make non-Christians squirm. To liberal media purists, the slightest acknowledgement of Christianity by a public official is evidence of a sinful desire to impose a Taliban-style theocracy in America.
But attach Jesus' name to a liberal cause, and all the social taboo-carving fades. A group called the Evangelical Environmental Network recently began an ad campaign asking the question "What Would Jesus Drive?" Their answer was that surely, the Son of God would not drive a filthy sport-utility vehicle that guzzles gasoline. In fact, the Reverend Jim Ball, who leads this cause, has great confidence that he can ace this question. "Jesus wants his followers to drive the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle that truly meets their needs - though first he might look at other ways to get around. He'd definitely be in favor of us taking public transportation."
Maybe the mass transit agencies will take the hint and start ad campaigns of their own: "Be truly holy. Ride Metrobus."
Several television networks found this campaign worth some free commercial time and powder-puff promotion. On his nightly CNBC news show, NBC anchor-in-waiting Brian Williams touted the "decidedly anti-SUV commercial" as raising "an issue that's getting a second look in Washington these days, even though, as we mentioned, the administration has been criticized for having Big Oil men at the helm." But three years ago Williams couldn't abide the Republican primary talk about Jesus. He invited Newsweek's Howard Fineman on his show to ask if the GOP wasn't scared about how they'd look "rather strident tonight: anti-gay, pro-Jesus, and anti-abortion and no gray matter in between?"
And Williams wasn't alone. CNN promoted the Jesus-prefers-a-subcompact line all day. That seems odd considering less-than-tolerant "Jesus freak" attitudes of founder Ted Turner, so perhaps it fits better into his endless Greenpeace-goofy pronouncements on carbon dioxide baking the planet to a crisp. Even Fox News made time for the ad campaign, frustrating partisan Democratic complaints that liberals should not even bother to ask for air time there.
But the real repeat offender on this beat is ABC News. They promoted the commercial on their morning news, on their evening news, and even on their Sunday "news" show with George Stephanopoulos. Peter Jennings took the lead in political spin: "We are going to take a closer look tonight at the latest pressure on car manufacturers to be more fuel efficient - from the Bush administration and from, yes, conservative Christians."
Conservative? Newspaper articles make plain that the Evangelical Environmental Network is part of a charge led by the National Council of Churches, radical leftists who were last seen lobbying to return young Elian Gonzalez to that conservative Christian hot spot, Castro's Cuba. The EEN's environmental stand on global warming and the need to raise fuel-economy standards to "40 miles per gallon by 2012" sound just like the Sierra Club.
This is not the first time ABC has tried to pretend that every Christian in politics is a conservative. Six years ago, Peter Jennings promoted EEN commercials against fiddling with the Endangered Species Act by reporting, "the pressure comes from a group of the Republican conservatives' strongest supporters." Reading a few press accounts quickly established that the EEN was working with the Environmental Information Center, a major liberal lobbying group, not exactly a battalion of Newt's Army.
So watching this whole media parade pass by looks like insincerity piled upon inaccuracy. The public should object to these reports not simply because they're imbalanced - few of these network stories and interviews balanced EEN with either real conservative Christians or distinguished scientific skeptics of so-called global warming. They should object because of the double standard applied to the political application of Christian teaching. And they should object to blatantly false characterizations of the EEN's location on the ideological spectrum.
Despite its rather low public profile, there still remains a faction in American politics known as the "religious left." It doesn't help them or anybody else to either pretend they don't exist, or if they're relevant enough to deserve press attention, they mislabel them as conservatives. The next time this group wants free TV coverage for a liberal ad campaign, news networks should ask: What would balanced journalists do?