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Troubling Signs

By October 30, 2012 13 Comments

As we enter the final week before we get through this taut political season, I have a question: Who is responsible for making and distributing those yard signs that say “Take Back Our Country in November”?  Since I see these signs in about two-thirds of the same yards that feature Romney-Ryan signs, I could guess folks are getting these signs from the same place they get the top-of-the-ticket signs but I don’t actually know that.  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  

What does trouble me is the meaning of that “Take Back Our Country” sign.   Take it back from whom exactly?  Because notice these signs do not say that we should take back “the White House” or “the Congress”, which would count as a pretty normal election slogan from either political party.  No, we are being told that what needs taking back is nothing short of the whole country.  But since I am not aware of any foreign interests or powers that took over our nation here in the United States such that we as Americans need to fight to get our own people back into power once more, I am left to wonder what’s up.

So for all those folks whose front yards now sport these signs, I guess I’d like to know in whose hands you think the country is right now.  

Well, I’ll stop asking rhetorical questions and stop dancing around the obvious.  The unhappy fact of the matter is that our political culture has gotten so polarized across the last fifteen years that we’ve actually come to a point where some of our fellow citizens have gone so far over the edge that a legitimately elected government is now viewed as in fact illegitimate, as being the practical equivalent of representing some anti-American, anti-patriotic, almost foreign presence.  Many people have never viewed Barack Obama as a credible American.   Some have chalked this up to rank racism, others chalk it up to people’s stubborn belief that Obama is Kenyan, is Muslim, is . . . well, whatever he is, many believe he is not “us.”   Where that leaves all those Americans who voted for him four years ago and who will do so again a week from the day this post appears is less clear.

But if supporters of President Obama see these yard signs and feel themselves marginalized even as Americans, that ought not be too surprising.  It is, however, a troubling development that can only serve further to split this country.

However, since this is a blog rooted in a church tradition, let me close out these musings with an ecclesial and theological thought.   I served as a pastor from the late 1980s until the middle of 2005.    Across my last half-dozen years in ministry before coming to Calvin Seminary, I noticed a heightened poliltical sensitivity in the church.   Most pastors are smart enough to avoid overtly politicizing comments in prayers and sermons, but it struck me in the early years of the 21st century that even being careful in all the usual ways was no longer enough.   People would pick up on even small-ish comments and spin them in a political direction.  It’s the kind of climate that makes pastors want to avoid the Minor Prophets altogether–one whiff of economic justice for the poor from Amos can be enough to peg a pastor as a left-wing Obama operative these days.

It’s hard enough for pastors, church leaders, and ordinary church-going folks to keep clear the lines that separate the kingdom of God from any given poliltical system or nation here on earth.   But that is going to get a whole lot harder if even in the political realm people become seduced by this riven culture of suspicion that thinks there is now only one political party that represents America, much less that may represent the alleged values of Christian Americans at that.  A friend of mine who is on the political right and who would never put such a sign in his yard told me that both parties have some crazies on the fringes and we’re best off not getting distracted by that.  True enough.  And I know there are people of enormous goodwill and insight on all sides of the political world.   Still, I have seen too many of these troubling signs to think it’s just a few folks in my area or that it can be only the funky fringe types.

What’s more, I live in a part of the country where it is almost certain that some of the people displaying those “Take Back Our Country” signs are people who go to church every week.   Pity the pastor who would have the courage to challenge any right-wing position vis-a-vis such people.   I’ve had people tell me directly that they cannot figure out how someone can be a Chrisitan and a Democrat at the same time.  But if now being a Democrat means not even being a true American–if Democrats are the people from whom the whole country needs to be taken back so that real Americans can rule once more–then we’ve reached a tipping point in which clear-eyed appreciation for the message of the Bible will become swamped by socio-political considerations that could well lead to a form of idolatry that can only serve to corrupt the Gospel as Good News for all people.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I appreciate the post – particularly its sensitivity to how this charged political climate can put pressure on those of us who proclaim the gospel.

    I think you are right that 'Take Back America' seems to imply that we are under the rule of a foreign power. It's the type of language used by conquered peoples. What I wonder about the 'Take Back America' campaign is whether, should our preferred candidate not be elected, we should see ourselves as a conquered people who must form a resistance. Faith in the democratic process has wained considerably. Instead of trusting that even if my candidate does not win that we have done the process well and the right person has been elected (even if it wasn't my preference), we have seen winning as the ultimate goal. The only way to secure the future of America is to win.

    As you point out, this attitude is scary. My hope and prayer is that we could trust our brothers and sisters to pray and vote as best they can. My hope and prayer is that we would remember that Jesus is Lord, no matter who is president.

  • Richard Tiggelaar says:

    I was in western Michigan for about about two weeks quite recently and saw plenty of these signs (and their billboard cousins) that Scott mentions. I live in Omaha NE and do a fair amount of driving in rural northeastern NE. No one would deny that NE is a "red" state! But I have not seen one "Take Back Our Country" sign here. It was sad to see so many in western Michigan.

  • Mark DeKoster says:

    Scott, I am somewhere between incensed and just plain "what's the use" in responding. Your broad brush display of misunderstanding of conservatives like me is disappointing. I have started three different responses to this piece and I have expended more words in each one then in your original and not made it through my points, my rebuttal, and my attempt to explain my position. I wish to do so in the hope that you might understand what and who we conservatives are as opposed to your New York Times caricature of us.

    The really really short explanation of that sign is that we don't want democrats or republicans to take us down the road of European Socialism. It doesn't work well, compared to capitalism it doesn't work at all.

    As for economic justice, redistribution of wealth is simply stealing with legal impunity. I do not think it serves the Church to advocate welfare by the state. That is the job of the Church and individual Christians. If you or any other preacher suggests that using the government to take from those who have and giving to those who don't is noble or desirable I will "get on your/their case." Not because I'm a republican but because I don't believe it's Christian.

    As a Christian it is my responsibility to provide for the poor with the gifts that I have been given. I do that willing every Sunday at the plate. I do that by doing my job as best I can. I do not do that by advocating political policy that takes from those who have and gives to those that may or may not be in need.

    Economic justice is when all have the same opportunity to make it to top; it is not whether all actually make it to the top. In history there is only one system of government and for the most part one country that has allowed that and it is free market capitalism as has been practiced, albeit fitfully here in the US. That is what we want to “take back."

  • Steve MVW says:

    Mark, thanks for pushing through your frustrations and posting, and contributing to the conversation. We probably agree on very little politically, and I don't want to put words in Scott's mouth, but I don't think his concern (here) is with different models of economics or the Christian response to poverty. Rather it is with the rhetoric "take back." Put up a sign that says "Free Market Capitalism!" or "No to Euro-Socialism!" or "Give the poor opportunities, nothing more!" and I will totally disagree with you. But those mottoes don't sound so jarring, almost treasonous, like "take back!" does. I think Stephen's comments above express that well. So speak your mind, support your causes, and I'll push back all the way. But the rhetoric of "take back" implies being occupied, dominated, powerless. That seems over the top, unhelpful, frankly dangerous.

  • Jack Kooyman says:

    Thanks for the post Scott. I too have been disturbed by the prevalence of that particular yard sign and others like it (there's also a billboard on U.S. 131 with that tells us to,"Vote for Religious Freedom!"). Slogans and statements such as these are clear examples of what is meant by the phrase, "begging the question," i.e., they assume as proven the very thing they are trying to prove. Unfortunately, I have frequently heard these kind of statements and similar sentiments expressed by professing Christians . . . often in a manner that seemingly assumes everyone with them shares their opinion. The greatest challenge for me in these situations is determining how or whether to respond. If I do respond, I have learned that it is probably better to do so in a civil and respectful manner that will more likely encourage and not discourage understanding, mutual respect, and continuing dialogue.

  • Dan Gordon says:

    I think those who are 'alarmed' by these particular signs are reading far more into them than is intended…after all, the signs are hardly advocating the 'taking back ' at the point of a gun, or by some violent means…they are political signs, urging voters to 'take back' something that they feel was lost at the last election, when the country (which includes, the white house, the judiciary, and legislatures) were 'taken' by what they consider an unfortunate vote….these 'Take Back the Country' signs have been in yards for many decades, and usually posted by the party that is trying to re-gain the political power…they
    really are hardly worthy of this type of debate.

  • Paul janssen says:

    Well, Dan, not really. These things haven't been going back all those decades. Hoezee is right, provided Steve's amendment. I would add that it is the "our" that troubles me. Whose country? I thought it was the country that, among other things, abided by majority rule, albeit respecting the rights of the minority (at least ideally). If I voted for Obama in 2008, does that mean the usa is no longer my country, too? If Romney wins, will I be within my rights to say Take Back Our Country? Just for once, people, put the shoe on the other foot and see how it feels! Mark, your assertions are just that….assertions, not arguments. They portray a vision that many, but not all, share with you. Do you realize that the Belgic Confession recognizes the duty of Christians to pay taxes? Not overpay, but pay…. The spirit of right and left wing pundits is taking over in so many of our discussions. Pardon me for wrenching the Scriptures out of context, but "it ought not be so among you."

  • Mark DeKoster says:

    Paul, I don't recall opining against taxes. I am against the redistribution of wealth in a free society. If I were to walk up to you and by threat of force take your money you would, I hope, consider that to be stealing and immoral. If I then took your money and gave it to the guy standing by the entrance to Costco with the sign that reads "Homeless, Hungry, Three Kids" (keeping 70% for myself) what I did would still be immoral, in my opinion. The fact that a majority of a select group of men and women in Washington DC think otherwise does not change the moral issue.

    I recognize that I don't speak for everyone who puts out one of those signs but does that change my arguments to simple assertions or am I misunderstanding your comment?

    I do believe that I represent the majority of opinion relative to that sign. Should you be one who votes for Obama and if you and he lose next Tuesday you may indeed put out the same sign 4 years from now. That is your right in this country and I will support your right to do so 100%. I will also disagree with you 100%!

  • Paul janssen says:

    Well, Mark, you may have identified two significant differences between us.

    First, I think there is a qualitative distinction between a thug coming to me and, with threat of violence, stealing what is in my wallet on the one hand, and on the other hand, citizens participating in representative government to discern how they shall live together according to the collective vision of a majority of the people. The prior case is "by threat of force." The latter is precisely the point of politics: it is the brokering of power so that we do not descend into anarchic violence. I may misunderstand you, but it seems that you believe that there is some kind of moral equivalency between the two. I heartily disagree.

    Second, you aver that I would have the right to put up "take back our country" signs in four years if Obama wins. I know this may well sound "high and mighty", but frankly, I wouldn't think of putting up such a sign. I don't believe this is "our" country, in the sense of the USA belonging to half of its citizens. It's all our country. Races, language groups, old immigrant, recent immigrant, sexual orientations, 1%, 99%, etc., etc. The USA belongs to all of us, not half of us. Personall I believe it to be the height of arrogance to claim that someone with a vision of the common good that differs from mine is somehow less American. (It's kind of a Galatian problem all over again, but in terms of the kingdoms of this world rather than the kingdom of God.)

    In other words, we are totally free to disagree vigorously. And we may think what we want. But I believe that it passes the boundaries of common civility to imply that someone is less American because he doesn't believe in the same America for which I long.

    I hope you would agree that our allegiance to America is a distant second (at best) to our commitment to Christ.

    Peace be with you, now and Tuesday.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    It figures that the one blog post of mine that actually garners this many responses happens while I am on a business trip to California that kept me so busy, I did not check in on these comments! Now nearly one week later a quick response to a few items.

    — I agree with Paul and others: it's not a matter of it being fair game if I also wanted to put up a "Take Back Our Country" sign four years from now in case it's Romney versus whomever. Of course I have the freedom to do that but I never would do so precisely because–and this was the main point of my post–it signals a divide among our fellow citizens that I find at once offensive and extremely unhelpful in terms of fostering civil discourse.

    — As to my friend Mark's riffs on taxes, socialism, and wealth redistribution: well, I touched on precisely none of those things in my post. What Mark's tumbling to all that in immediate response to my post tells me, however, is that this is precisely what is behind those signs. If I agree with Obama I am a socialist and not a true American and THAT is the party from whom the country needs re-taking. But I ain't buying it. Obama is no socialist, for goodness sake. And if he made a comment years ago about "redistribution" of wealth, that could as easily be construed as a broadly Christian sentiment as a politically socialist one. What if we talked instead of sharing our strength or (a la Jesus) taking from those who have so as to give to those who have not?

    I also don't buy the argument that dealing with the poor is 100% an individual or maybe a church matter. When we pay taxes, we pay into a system that does something with that money. We can buy bombs or we can provide lunches for needy children at school; we can prop up a system that gives tax breaks to people who don't need them or that supports safety nets for those who do need such things. Our taxes are the primary way by which we share wealth collectively in this country based on our overall earnings as individuals or couples and it's one of the few social systems in place with a large enough capacity to deal with problems as huge as poverty in this country. The idea that the church can take care of the poor as well as the government is laughable–most churches in this country have around 100 members. Can they cough up the millions it takes in even a given region to do all that needs doing? The idea that we as Christians can sequester our obligations to the poor to only our private lives and keep it totally walled off from any governmental obligations and opportunities strikes me as absurd. We'd never think of turning national defense over to just individuals or churches. Or air traffic control. Or border defense. Or meat inspection and food quality in general. There are just some things we're better off doing all together. Everyone accepts broad communal/governmental responsibility in most every area you could name right up until it comes to communal/governmental obligations to the poor and the hungry. Then all of a sudden it becomes Christian doctrine that the state should have nothing to do with what is solely an individual or congregational duty. Nope, not buying it.

    Bill Clinton said in Charlotte at the convention that "'We're All in This Together' is a far better slogan than 'You're on Your Own.'" I agree. I'd also argue that the former has much more of a Christian ring to it (the Gospel of Luke would agree, I'd argue).

    But again, my post was not about all that. But a future one might be . . . 🙂

  • Mark DeKoster says:

    Scott (and Paul)

    You know I have to wonder if either of you read my post? Both of you are insistent in putting words and thoughts to my original and subsequent posts that I did not opine or imply.

    Scott you "knew" all along what those signs meant to you and have simply used my explanation to attempt to justify your sense of "outrage" etc. over them. I did not tumble into anything other than to tell you what those signs represent to most conservatives like myself, using your comments in which to frame mine.

    I spent only enough words to answer your question and highlight a couple of your points; wealth redistribution via a model that could be best described as the Socialism that is prevalent in Europe. Excess Government and its relationship to Economic Justice.

    My efforts then and since are an attempt at civil discourse which you and Paul are claiming to want but to me seem to be refusing to participate in. You are opining what you assume to be my point of view and then tossing in a couple of straw dogs to knock down and in the final analysis you have merely used your own arguments to confirm what you believe about me and others.

    To suggest that there is not a divide in this country is to ignore the obvious, to suggest that it is bad and can't be a part of civil discourse is its own arrogance and one in which I will choose to take some offense. It is this divide, how to achieve “the American Dream,” that is at the heart of politics, is a legitimate part of religion and religious belief and therefore belongs precisely in the discourse of the nation and the church.

    I don’t have a problem with discussing the sharing of wealth, it is doing the sharing through the force of government that is my and others concern. (And yes Paul I do believe that whether a thug does it or the IRS it is morally the same.) Our discussion of it in public and in the church is exactly where it belongs.

    It is the task of buying bombs and the willingness to use them by this country’s government that allows us to have this discussion in English and in recent times without a constant reference to sharia law. Defense, Border Control, those things that the Constitution spells out are what I want the government involved in, and willing pay taxes to support.

    I do not consider you to be un-American if you support democrats and Obama, I have never said so. The conservatives I know and most of the conservative pundits I will read and listen to don't either. However if you don’t like me calling Obama a socialist then let’s try statist. He is certainly that and in watching what he has done as president, senator before, legislator before, and community organizer before that he fits the definition by his actions and most of his rhetoric.

    I however do not make the leap that you are one as well simply because you support him. I would have to know what you believe and whether or not you support him and his party due to research or because you are also a statist. Either way you are still an American and I will still argue and vote against you as I try to maintain the precepts under which this country was founded and have worked better than any country in the history of the world.

    As for what is the task of the church it sounds to me as if you have completely abdicated its role of taking care of the poor to the state. Scott, you may recall your previous church was involved in Interfaith Hospitality Network a program that had a success rate of triple the state as I recall at a budget of probably 100th of the state for the same program. Perhaps we should not be so quick to discount the work of churches small and large. Imagine what the church could do if its parishioners weren't required to pay for a multi trillion dollar government with a multi trillion dollar debt.

    I would agree that we're all in this together… but as individuals attempting to serve our Lord and be good citizens of the state, not as some communal collective.

    I shall look forward to your next post, Mark

    PS: Jut in case you're imagining I have neither yard signs nor bumper stickers adorning my home or cars.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    To Mark: I will restrict my comments to just two items. First, it is patently false from almost any moral angle you could name to make equivalent a robbery on a street by a thug and the levying of taxes, some of which go to help the poor and those less well off than others of us. This is a nation of laws and of a shared social compact. If you want the IRS to do its constitutionally granted task of collecting taxes differently, then you may vote for people who promise such changes and reform the code. Until and unless that happens, however, the levying of and distribution of taxes is a legal operation that has no equivalency whatsoever with a crime. My tax money went–in part–to fund a war in Iraq that I believed at the time and still believe now was morally wrong to launch. Even so, I do not feel as though I have been "robbed" or mugged through an illegal action, and in fact I have not been so assaulted, either. Also, you mention that the Constitution calls for national defense. True enough. It also calls for the insuring of justice and of domestic tranquility as well as the promotion of the general Welfare so that the blessings of liberty can be enjoyed by all. I just have to believe that included somewhere in there is the feeding of hungry children and the like.

    Finally, of course I have not abdicated the role of taking care of the poor solely to the government, nor did I say as much. My only point was that the resources needed to deal with the enormity of poverty in this country require more than the average church–even churches that are socially active and consciously trying to help the poor–will likely come up with on their own. It is very much a both/and for me. Of course I believe the church is properly involved with social justice and with ministry to the downtrodden. But I also believe that we are right–as an extension of that very commitment to ministry–to advocate for government policies and practices that extend that work beyond what any given individual or congregation could do. I just don't understand why people passionate to help others would want anything less from its government.

    You mentioned the IHN homeless program. That program came to Calvin CRC on my watch and in part due to my earnest encouragement that Calvin become the first CR congregation to join the network. My wife spent years serving as the Director of that in our congregation, too. I am proud of that work and it does a lot of real good. But it ministers to about 10 families at a time. It has not settled the problem of homelessness in West Michigan and cannot do so but the larger issues out there on that issue, for instance, are properly a concern for all of us, including for elected officials on the local level and in how we allocate tax monies to address underlying issues.

    Of course, with IHN as with my former congregation's clothing ministry, I also heard lots of cynical comments over the years from more conservative members, including a member of your own family who once told me that our clothing ministry was basically a waste of time seeing as when his tenants would leave an apartment, sometimes they'd leave behind bags of clothing they had gotten from clothing closet ministries as well as furniture purchased at In the Image or some such outfit and so really, what was the church doing with this kind of work anyway? And although I do not recall a single incident in which you did so, I did get blowback many times when I suggested in a sermon that the church has a role in advocating for the poor and ministering to the poor. Not a few people could not for the life of them figure out what the church and social justice issues had to do with each other. So the idea that the church and the individual believer in the church is the first, best (if not the only) way to deal with poverty and related issues is surely not shared by all conservatives.

  • Mark DeKoster says:

    Scott, In the final analysis each of us speaks for ourself and answers for ourself. At this point I think it time to agree to disagree. I must say that it has been enjoyable/interesting to spar with you, my wife usually won't let me talk politics and I started this without her knowledge. Perhaps each of us and those who have watched on the sidelines will, in the future, be moved by one of our comments.

    I look forward to additional opportunities to repsond and engage in discussion begun by you and others that post in this blog.

    In the meantime blessings to you and your family.

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