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SUV supporters answer campaign

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What Would Jesus Drive? Apparently a large SUV.

The Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America is fighting back against a religious campaign with a tongue-in-cheek ad.

"Most people think it's a ridiculous question, and that's the approach that we've taken toward our own ads," said Ron Defore, communications director for the association.

The ad shows a middle-age Jesus Rivera standing next to his SUV, with an elbow resting on the passenger-side mirror, as he waves and smiles. On the right, it reads: "What does Jesus drive? We asked him," followed by a few sentences about Mr. Rivera's reasons for buying his 1995 SUV.

The first ad in a monthlong campaign will be published today in regional editions of USA Today and then expand nationwide.

Jesus' son also drives an SUV, but it is midsize, the ad says. The ads do not say what brands of SUVs the Riveras drive.

The nationwide organization represents 24 million SUV owners. The campaign is being started after a slew of anti-SUV ads.

The anti-SUV campaign, started by the Evangelical Environmental Network, says that what a person drives reflects his or her moral choices. It uses biblical references such as "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Do unto others as you would have done unto you."

The environmental network was formed to declare the "Lordship of Christ over all creation" and that certain environmental concerns parallel moral issues.

Spearheaded by the Rev. Jim Ball, a Baptist minister and evangelist, the organization started the anti-SUV campaign in November.

For the past few months, Mr. Ball and his wife have been traveling through the Bible Belt in a Toyota Prius, a hybrid gas-electric automobile, to preach the benefits of fuel efficiency as part of a higher authority.

"When you boil down environmental arguments, they're moral arguments," Mr. Ball says on his Web site (www.whatwouldjesusdrive.org). "This is part of loving your neighbor."

No one from his campaign was available to comment yesterday.

Mr. Defore said most of the respondents in an informal poll of drivers -- some SUV owners, some not -- said they were offended by the "What Would Jesus Drive?" ads, as well as other campaigns equating driving SUVs with supporting terrorism.

The use of religion to push an environmental issue was a strange concept for some, he said.

"Most people thought that it was a question that never should have been asked in the first place," Mr. Defore said.

"What Would Jesus Drive?" is derived from "What Would Jesus Do?" The theme has been used in Christian books and accessories such as bracelets, ID holders and pins.

Activist groups supporting fuel-efficient cars, such as the Sierra Club, say drivers should have options but that the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign should focus on SUV manufacturers instead of owners.

"We think Jesus would like to save money at the gas station," said Allen Mattison, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington. "Everyone is allowed to drive what they want, but the car consumer should be aware of what his car does to the environment."

The SUV association's campaign kicks off as Mr. Ball finishes his evangelical tour of the South. The campaign is set to continue through the month, but the pro-SUV group did not give more details.

"We wanted to get our message out," Mr. Defore said. "I think this ad does it all."

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