On Ideologies and Idolatries

By Dr. Steven Garber,  founder of The Washington Institue 

“Oh, he’s just a liberal!”


Yesterday I was walking with a good friend out of a meeting on Capitol Hill, and we were talking about a conversation he had had the previous day. My name came up, and the person—whom I know a bit –said, “He’s just a liberal!” My friend responded, “Steve Garber?” He knows me very well, and being for thirty years on the Hill himself, first as a congressman and then a lobbyist, knows the political landscape of the city very well too.

“Well, he’s an environmentalist” was the dismissive, put-someone-in-a-box response. I smiled.

Driving home, at a red-light near our house, I saw a man in a car next to me flick his used cigarette butt out of the window. I sort of scowled at him—and I smiled again. And a few minutes later, pulling into my driveway, I remembered that I drive a hybrid car. Maybe I am an environmentalist.

Then I remembered the time I was in a meeting on the Hill, and a good friend, Peter Harris of A Rocha was speaking about our responsibility to steward the earth, and a foolishly partisan person in the back of the room picked a fight with him, insisting that we cannot afford to make economic and political decisions that require a concern about the planet. He was nasty, and arrogant, and I just about slugged him. Maybe I am an environmentalist.

Or maybe the problem is that I have invested some of my life in helping companies understand a more complex bottom line. It is economic foolishness of the first-degree to imagine that we can only ask one question of a business, viz. “Have you maximized shareholder profit this quarter?” In reality there are other important questions too, and in reality if a business wants to be in business for the long-haul, it has to ask other questions. A few years ago I took some senior executives from a global corporation to spend a day with Wendell Berry on his Kentucky farm, talking about a serious project to rethink the very nature of business by insisting on a bottom line that honestly accounts for profit and people and the planet, at the very same time. At the end of the day, Berry put it like this, “If you want to make money for a year, you will ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for 100 years, you will have to ask other questions.” I am sure he is right. Maybe I am an environmentalist.

Or maybe it was the time I decided to see the film “Avatar” again, and wrote about it for my friend Denis Haack’s magazine, Critique. Aware of the ways the story drew us into a pantheism that is not mine, arguing for a divinity for anything and everything, I was surprised that people of my tribe were not equally troubled by the industrial economy that had already laid waste to one earth, and wanted another to ruin and destroy—which is the very context and drama of the film’s story. And so I wrote about why there were two equal dangers, and why we should not be taken in by either. Maybe I am an environmentalist.

But people who know me well know that I believe the truest truths of the universe cut deeper than the partisan divide, and so I am clearly not a liberal, just as I am not a conservative. I don’t see myself as an “ist” of anything. It is always seems to me that ideologies and idolatries sleep in the same bed.

What I am committed to is doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God—and therefore to honest human flourishing, which rarely finds a home in the partisan debates of Washington, or any city. We are more complex, because life is more complex.

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