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Sermonizing in suburbia


I knew that preaching about sport utility vehicles would be risky. I just didn't know how hard it would be to stop. A little background: I'm a lawyer, not a man of the cloth. Like most lawyers, I enjoy hearing myself talk, so I occasionally volunteer to fill in for the paid preachers at the Presbyterian church I attend. This is fun for me and (at least theoretically) a service to the congregation. It's also a good way to get yourself in trouble.

The old adage is that preachers should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I live and worship in Cary, so my preaching gigs give me ample opportunity to afflict my friends and neighbors. The news media often portray Cary as the epitome of 21st-century suburban prosperity--crowded, relentlessly upscale, determined to keep out shiny diners, low-income housing and anything else that might detract from the town's grand bourgeois self-image. These portraits tend to exaggerate the truth, but there's truth in them nonetheless. National Geographic has accurately described Cary as a "futuristic Pleasantville."

Cary must also be the SUV capital of North Carolina, if not North America. You can't drive two blocks on Cary Parkway or Kildaire Farm Road without encountering at least half a dozen of them. A significant percentage will be the really big, T-Rex models--Expeditions, Sequoias and the like.

The drivers of these vehicles usually are not on their way to remote campsites in the mountains. As far as I can tell, the typical Cary SUV driver is female, has a cell phone permanently attached to her ear, and conveys the impression that her last real encounter with nature was just after a yellow jacket flew into her Diet Coke at the swim club picnic. The men often look like former football players whose current exercise regimen is limited to strolling with the family Shitzu.

Cary, in short, is ripe for caricature. It's also where I live and where most of my friends live. Consequently, I'm attuned to the fact that most Cary folks, while vulnerable to the well-aimed lampoon, are not cartoon characters. They are, as a general rule, as morally complex as anyone else. There are, in fact, many people in this place who care deeply about living productive, responsible lives. Some of them go to my church. Which is why I decided to preach about SUVs.

My sermon actually was about loving one's neighbors. The thesis was that we often do a poor job of loving the neighbors who are least visible to us. We typically make decisions, especially decisions about how to spend money, without giving much thought to how our choices affect the people who don't normally show up on our radar screens.

I could have used any number of illustrations, but I was preaching in Cary so I picked America's love affair with the SUV. Here's part of what I said:

"There are lots of reasons to want an SUV. Some of them are even good reasons. But how many people who bought an SUV during the last few years gave much thought to how their choice would affect their neighbors? Did they, for example, think about future generations, and how much fuel would be left?

"Maybe they were thinking about safety--but not about their neighbors' safety. Just ask anybody who has ever tried to navigate a normal-sized car around Crossroads Shopping Center. You might as well go jogging in Jurassic Park."

I immediately went on to point out that it's not just SUV owners who forget to think about their neighbors; it's all of us.

"Most of life is about what we eat, where we sleep, how we keep warm, how we get from here to there," I said. "We make decisions about those things based on what we want--status, luxury, convenience, fun--and on what our families can afford, but without much regard for what others outside that limited orbit might need. We're wrapped up in our own little worlds. As a result, our neighbors become invisible. And it's very difficult to love an invisible neighbor."

When it was over, I stood at the door to greet people on their way out and learned something about how easily a message can get swallowed by an illustration. The sermon had lasted 20 minutes, but what the congregation seemed to remember was the one minute I'd spent on SUVs.

"I hate 'em, too," one person said.

"Thanks for making us squirm," said another, who seemed closer to getting the point.

"I got my SUV to protect myself from other SUVs," said one woman, who may or may not have been thinking about the arms race.

A certain mountain biker, who has hauled me and my bike around in his Explorer more than once, was one of the last people out. "You're lucky you didn't get struck by lightning," he said.

A few days later I ran into our senior minister and asked if he'd heard any complaints. Well, he said, a few people had been offended. He wouldn't tell me who they were, except one. Chris (not her real name) felt like I had crossed the line. Worse yet, somebody who saw her getting into her SUV after the service had told her that she should be ashamed of herself.

The parking lot incident was especially distressing to me. Chris is quiet, unpretentious, kind to children and dogs. I don't know if she drives nurses to work in the snow, but I'm aware that she frequently uses her SUV for the benefit of her neighbors in other ways. Chris is living proof, if any were needed, that not all SUV owners are self-centered greedheads, and that there are indeed some good reasons for having such a vehicle.

I talked with Chris a few days after the sermon to make sure nothing was broken, and since then I've been noticing all the good people I know who own SUVs. I don't think SUV owners are bad, or that the rest of us are somehow better. I'm not a Puritan. I think a desire to go four-wheelin' through the mud is a decent (if not particularly noble) reason for having an SUV. I just don't think it should be done without some kind of accounting for the cost to others.

My layman's understanding may be imperfect, but it seems to me that one of the first rules of preaching should be to minimize the distance between the pulpit and the congregation--to let your listeners know that you are as guilty or pathetic as they are, even as you urge them to do better. That's why, when I preach, I always try to be as self-deprecating as possible. This usually is pretty easy since I'm a lawyer and virtually everybody is primed to feel morally superior if I give them half a chance.

But preaching about America's love affair with the SUV posed a special problem for one simple reason: I don't own one. My track record in the area of energy conservation is far from perfect; my other sins and shortcomings are legion. But the evidence was not sitting outside in the parking lot. I probably could have preached against adultery at the Philanderers Club without as much risk as I took when I commented that Sunday morning in Cary on the meaning of SUVs.

Our culture tells the SUV owner that he is entitled to drive around in as big and aggressive a vehicle as he can afford. It was somewhat impolite, if not downright rude, for me even to suggest otherwise. After all, I don't know what practical considerations might justify purchasing a Land Cruiser instead of a Camry. One's choice of vehicles simply is not thought to be the kind of decision about which preachers or anyone else should make moral judgments. Cars and their larger relatives are among America's sacred cows.

But this, of course, was exactly why I thought that our cultural love affair with the SUV was an apt illustration for my sermon. If there is a better example of how jealously we guard the right to spend our money as we please, regardless of how it might affect our neighbors, I'd like to know what it is.

Looking back on my sermon, I see now that I could have handled things a little more deftly. There's also no question that I could--and maybe should--have said more on the topic than I did.

We Americans currently are spending a whole lot of money on "homeland security." Most people seem to think this is a rational response to a clear and present danger. The world suddenly got scarier in September, and events since then do not suggest that it is going to get a whole lot safer very soon. Unfortunately, we seem to be building up our security capabilities without making much effort to address some of the things that make us complicit in our own insecurity.

Recently, there have been public service ads on TV and in the newspapers touting the link between illegal drug purchases and terrorism. Buy drugs, the ads say, and the money very likely will find its way into the hands of terrorists. I don't doubt that this is true. I wonder, though: Where are the ads explaining the potential consequences of our other national addictions?

There is a clear connection, for example, between anti-Americanism and the rate at which we are consuming the world's natural resources. People in other countries can't help but notice that we burn up about 25 percent of all the oil used worldwide. Almost 70 percent of the oil we consume is for transportation. Most of that is burned as gasoline in cars and SUVs.

Our neighbors abroad need only switch on their televisions to see American streets jammed with pickup trucks masquerading as luxury cars--many of which, at least in Cary, will be en route to a grocery store three blocks from home for the third time that week. A minute later, the TV audience hears that America cannot afford to sign the Kyoto global warming accords, or that we need to start drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate votes against stricter mileage standards for SUVs after one of its leading members brandishes a photo of a small, fuel-efficient automobile sold in Europe and declares that he doesn't want Americans "to have to drive this car." Is it any wonder that many of our overseas neighbors see us as something other than friendly and benevolent?

The temptation is to blame all of this on the authors of our national energy policy who, instead of seeking ways to discourage unnecessary fuel consumption, seem hell bent on doing everything possible to accommodate our wastefulness. The policy makers, however, are responding to what their constituents demand. In a culture where gas hogs are sacred cows, the political options are limited. The problem is not just in Washington. The problem is in . . . well, Cary. I can say that because I live there.

If I had it to do over again, I might acknowledge in my sermon that SUVs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, some of which are more neighbor-friendly than others. I might say that minivans--another Cary favorite--can be almost as bad as SUVs in the gas mileage department and are at least as hard to see over and around.

But I would also say (again) that the cost of America's SUVs is not borne solely by those who drive them. The real cost of a gallon of gas is not just what we pay at the pump. Our use of that gasoline inevitably costs our neighbors something as well. And the more we are perceived as hogs at the energy trough, the more we're likely to be paying for homeland security.

There's a lot to like about SUVs. My wife complains that now she'll never get to have one. I feel bad about that (and probably will be made to feel worse). Some of my best friends drive SUVs. They are good people and I love them. They give me rides (or at least they used to).

Still, SUVs are a symbol for a cultural attitude that says, "We've got ours, we're gonna get more, and devil take the hindmost." Most of us don't consciously think that way, of course. We are far more likely to see SUVs as symbols of freedom or the triumph of American capitalism, or at worst as a practical response to the exigencies of suburban life. But that's how we must appear to much of the world. Can we really say with any confidence that our neighbors are all wrong about us? EndBlock

Gary Govert is a former newspaper and magazine writer who lives in Cary and drives an aging Honda Accord.

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