It used to be only environmentalists and liberals cared about disappearing rain forests and global warming. When churches become concerned about ecological issues, Detroit needs to pay attention.

This year, 22 churches in Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota joined a pilot project to buy palm fronds for Palm Sunday celebrations that are harvested in a sustainable way that doesn't kill trees.

It is estimated that North American churches alone strip 30 million palm fronds from the rain forests of Mexico and Guatemala for Palm Sunday.

“As Christians, our responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth needs to be as broad as we can make it, especially when it comes to buying something that is harvested right out of the forest,” the Rev. Glenn Berg-Moberg of St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul, MN, tells the Scripps Howard News Service.

It is a modest effort, but the idea of combining environmentalism with religious values is gaining momentum.

Last October, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, a politically powerful religious group that represents 51 church denominations and 30 million conservative Christians, added curbing global warming to its list of initiatives.

“I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created,” the Rev. Rich Cizik, the association's vice president of governmental affairs, told The New York Times last month.

Make no mistake: This is not the same tiny group that launched the “What Would Jesus Drive” campaign in 2002. The NAE played a key role in re-electing George W. Bush in the last election, and it continues to play a major role in shaping public policy.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group all are investing billions to improve the environment and limit global warming gases, from new eco-friendly assembly plants that drastically reduce emissions, to developing materials and components that are easier to recycle, to the development of alternative-fuel and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

All their programs are smart and make perfect engineering sense. But except for Ford's Escape Hybrid, Detroit currently has few products that can directly answer the emotional needs of a growing number of consumers who want to feel personally involved with doing something positive for the environment, such as buying a vehicle that wears its “green-ness” on its sleeve.

That leaves Detroit vulnerable to losing future sales to some of its most loyal customers: conservatives in the religious, red-state heartland.

John McElroy argues on p.19 why Detroit needs to appeal to car buyers' brains by promoting fuel-saving technologies, but it needs to do more than that. It needs to capture their hearts as well.

This month's cover story details how Detroit is pulling out the stops to create products that appeal to the most lucrative buyer segment: performance enthusiasts. Now the Big Three need to beef up another marketing/engineering effort in a hurry: developing “gotta have” products that tug at the spiritual side of a growing army of environmentally concerned Americans.