Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

“I Want My Country Back!”

Among all of the things said at the recent teabag/anti-health care reform/birther protests, I have felt emotionally moved by the individuals who, in tears and in anger, have shouted or cried something along the lines of “I want my country back!” or “I feel my country is being taken away from me”, or “I feel like I’m no longer welcome in my own country.” While other of the more outlandish statements at the protests are often said in anger, this particular line of statements is often made with tears and fears.

Perhaps one of the reasons this fascinates me is that this kind of feeling of having lost their country is something that I have heard many on the political left say for years. What right-wing pundits have decried as the “anti-Americanism” of the left is actually the exact same feeling of not being a part of the country that many on the right are expressing now. It is the feeling that the “America” you know would not do the things that America is currently doing.

For many on the left, it was war, torture, pollution, civil-liberty encroachment, and other issues that made them feel that “America” had betrayed them. Now many on the right feel that health-care reform and a black-man in the White House just could not occur in the America that they know and love.

What has fascinated me about this phenomena is that it is one of the clearest expressions of the results of idol worship in recent memory that did not directly have to do with God. The energy, the feelings and emotions that people express when they shout a tearful “I Want My Country Back”, has nothing to do with their country being taken away, but rather with the idol they had made of their country being proven to be insufficient to encompass all that America is.

Each of us makes idols of things every day of our lives. It is a coping mechanism built into humanity to allow us to make sense of a world that is much more complex, dynamic, and diverse than we have the capacity to conceive of. You will never fully understand your spouse, and so the image you have of him/her in your mind is actually an idol. We can never fully understand or conceive of all that is God, and so each of us creates an image of God in our minds that we can understand and relate to.

The same is true of our boss, of our friends, of our church, of everything of dynamic complexity that we interact with in our lives. We do not have the capacity to conceive of them in their fullness, and so we create an “idol” we can conceive of so that we can function.

Think of it using the metaphor of a map. I cannot conceive of all of the geography (natural and manmade) of the state of Illinois, I just do not have the mental capacity. But I have a map of the state, a symbolic representation, an idol… and it allows me to drive, to get around, to find the lakes and the rivers. My symbolic idol allows me to function. I might hold that idol in my own memory, or it could be marked down on paper.

The problem comes not in having idols, but in worshipping them… in forgetting that the idol is only a symbol of a much larger, much more dynamic reality. The problem comes when you forget that the statue of God is not God… or when you forget that the image you have of your nation is not the nation in its fullness.

There are two dangers to idol worship… to replacing the complex dynamic reality with the symbol in totality. First, it is way too easy for our own desires and egos to manipulate the symbol, the idol, in ways that we could never manipulate the overall reality. If we focus our eyes and our hearts too tightly upon the idol we have created, then the complex, dynamic reality can no longer serve as a corrective upon the symbol.

Let’s take those who have made an idol of the Bible, believing that the Bible contains the sum total of the Word of God, rather than just a symbol of it. In seeing the Bible as an idol, they are unable to accept when the reality that is God points to its limitations. Dinosaurs, evolution, and the immensity of the universe are not signposts to a deeper understanding of the Bible’s message for them, but rather a threat-because to see them any other way requires realizing that the idol can never represent the fullness that is God.

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So too it is with the image of America that many have made into an idol. The emotion, the tears, and the fear that are voiced when someone cries “I want my country back” can be translated as “I want my idol of my country back”. For many people, their idol was shown to be deeply limited when an African American man was elected president. Such an event is not possible within the limited form of the idol they had come to worship as if it were America in its fullness.

Having your idol smashed is a traumatic event if you have come to worship it… I know. The level of fear and anger that event can cause is nearly unlimited. Some of the most violent wars in human history find their roots in the inadequacy of an idol that was being worshipped.

So, how do we have idols and yet not worship them? We remind ourselves always that our idol is nothing more than a symbol. Every day, I remind myself that my wife is much more complex than my image of her… and so when she does something outside that image, I am fascinated and surprised, not angered and fearful. We must regularly remind ourselves that God is much more dynamic and vast than the image of God that we create, be it in our minds or in the Bible (or Koran, or Torah, etc).

And we must regularly remind ourselves that the dynamic complexity that is America is much, much broader than our images, or idols of this country, and to allow our idols to grow when America does something we did not expect.

Your country has not been taken away… only your idol.

Yours in Faith,

16 Thoughts on ““I Want My Country Back!”

  1. You’re over analysing here David. HR3200 is a crummy plan. It’s not reform. It’s not liberal. Read Robert Reich yesterday: The White House deal with Big Pharma undermines democracy http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/08/10/pharma/

    or Lee Siegel today: Obama’s Euthanasia Mistake http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-08-11/obamas-euthanasia-mistake/?cid=bsa:archive4

    This is a “Chicago Way” plan complete with payoffs to business (Reich) and flakey end-of-life philosopy from Profs in Hyde Park (Siegel)…

    … people have a right to be angry about the far reaching changes HR3200 would implement, but it’s not some spiritual crisis or people feeling left out of America.

    It’s serious politics, serious payoffs, serious changes… serious stuff,…. but not that serious either. It’s politics.

  2. Bill,

    I think you are under-analyzing the dynamics of what is going on. For a policy wonk such as yourself, of course it is about the politics. But for the majority of the people attending these events, just as with the tea-bag protests and the birther movement (for which there was little to no policy background at all) their investment is not rational, nor is it political.

    It is entirely emotional.

    What is happening on the far-right at the moment is not about policy… it is an emotional confluence that is attaching to different issues or poltics. The energy is separate from any particular issue, as is evidenced by the transferability of that energy over the last year.

    Bill, I think you are seeing only the surface of what is happening.

    Yours in Faith,


  3. Heck David…not the surface… I know the guys behind the scenes too. And I’ll apply for a job with the Commissioner for Health Care Choices too if this thing passes.

    And Sure the health care debates is emotional and rightfully so.. everyone has a personal story to tell.

    But emotion doesn’t mean thare aren’t real issues at hand…issues that should have been reviewed in Congressional Hearings if Congress hadn’t been so afraid of letting this bill see light.

  4. Bill, you are still not getting this…. its not about health care at all.

    Nor is the “birth certificate” stuff about where Obama was born.

    I challenge you to begin thinking about the psychology of these events. Look at the sociological motivations behind those attending. Any time you see an issue, step beyond it. What is motivating many people on the right has nothing to do with the issue, and everything to do with the psychology of the moment for them. Just as much of the energy around the anti-war movement has little to do with war and peace, and much more to do with the psychology of the moment.

    I understand if you can do it… and I understand if you think I’m crazy on this, but what I see happening has much more to do with psychological, spiritual, and emotional issues than it does with health care.

    Yours in faith,


  5. I’m not a Psychologist and to my knowledge nor are you. People have all sorts of agendas, hidden or otherwise, and that’s all fair game.

    But to engage policy debates by doing armature Psychoanalysis of the opponent is at best offensive. It doesn’t seek any resolution or outcome. It just writes off swathys of people opinions as psychoitic… as mental illiness.

    At it’s worse, as E J Dionne’s column argued, it insulates liberalism from “from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation.” It’s bad for political liberalism. It’s bad for religous liberalism.

  6. You do not need to be a psychologist to understand human nature, and human psychology. The psychologist determines treatment. You can not do “religion” without deepening your understanding of human psychology and of human life and nature.

    You might be offended, but why? I’m not speaking of you specifically. In truth, my article is not talking about the health care debate at all… only one set of reactions I have seen within it. You continue to personalize what I say, and I’d be interested in why that is… I’d say there is something there, a “hook” for you to discover within yourself.

    Every human being does amature psychoanalysis of every other human being they come into contact with every day of the year. Why did he say that? Why did she look at me that way? Why did he write that on his blog? Pretending we do not is a denial of an obvious part of human life.

    At no point did I suggest that anyone has mental illness… far from it. The reactions I talked about and the expaination I described is very normal and human. The loss of idols happens within normal human behavior every day. You injected the issue of mental illness, not I. I called no one psychotic, no one mentally ill. Doing so is a strawman argument… much like Sarah Palin’s death panels.

    I stand by what I said. What is happening has much less to do with policy than with human nature and human psychology. You may not like what I said, and that is fine… you dont have to agree with me. I ask you quit putting words in my mouth….

    Yours in Faith,


  7. Bill,

    If I was to sum up David’s blog post in a sentence it is all about the inability of people to adapt to and accept CHANGE. 🙂

    That may be oversimplifying things a bit but not by all *that* much.

  8. Psychoanalysing a person with an opposing opinion is rude. Instead of engaging the facts, assertions, the logic and the conclusions, we just get an analysis of what someone thinks is deep inside us, and oh, by the way, your wrong to oppose Obama Care as proposed in HR3200.

    That’s rude but a slight I can certainly endure.

    What’s damaging for our Church, our Faith, for Liberalism, is this becomes a way to avoid dealing with the hard issues.

    Here is a link reviewing Zeke Emanual’s (Special Advisor for Health Policy) latest in The Lancet: “Principles for allocation of scarce medical interventions”, also known as the “complete life system”. http://community.comcast.net/comcastportal/board/message?board.id=news&thread.id=933942

    Zeke’s a guy a fully expect to be Health Choices Commissioner if HR3200 gets based. Look at his graph on ages and interventions. Figure our where you on the graph and ask if a person doesn’t have a legit reason to feel a bit scared.

    This isn’t unjustified and it’s wrong to dodge the justifiable concerns here (even the unjustified ones for that matter) by psychoanalysing those opposed instead.

    Look at the UU’s, including clergy and leaders, who have posted about the angry mods etc, and how absolutely none have written on the serious stuff the guys behind this “reform” are saying and getting published in journals like “The Lancet”.


  9. PS I was appalled with the Standing on the Side of Love campaing for much the same reason. It becomes a blank check to just write off others as standing on the wrong side of Love. It just sets up a You v Them to use as one sees fit to demonize whomever… the fellow on the other side of the Love Divide…

  10. Bill,

    First off, I am not, nor do I claim to be a policy wonk. That’s not my job. I’m not talking about policy. That’s not the point of this post, and has not been the point of any post except perhaps the one I wrote telling my story with health care. You have kept trying to push me there because that is your interest, but that is not what I am interested in, nor is it what I am discussing here.

    I dont think that what is happening in America right now has anything to do with health care policy, or any other policy at all. There is something deeper motivating many of the people on all sides of the issue. President Obama was not elected on policy, but on a dream, a vision of America. John McCain also ran on a dream, a vision of America. There are other dreams of America that are motivating people.

    You can be offended by looking at those motivations, by looking at the psychological and social underpinnings… but I am not moved by your offense. I am certainly not going to apologize for doing what all humans do, just openly. You do not have to agree with me… I’ll even let you call what I do “offensive”… but it wont stop me looking for the deeper issues here. Humans are rarely motivated by what is obvious or on the surface.

    I wish you luck…. And I trust you will focus on the policy to your hearts content… I still think this is much deeper than the policy.

    Yours in faith,


  11. David, thanks for saying what you’ve written. If I needed evidence that the uproar is about something deeper than policy details, I would only have to hear pensioners on Medicare saying they want to keep the government out of health care. Or — my favorite example — the guy who lost his job and thus lost his health care, who didn’t want government-sponsored health care because when he’s employed again it will cost him.

    Arguments like these, and a million others, are illogical. Many of the protesters finish by saying they’ve lost their country or we’re going to turn into Soviet Russia or nonsense like that. They don’t appear to understand that Soviet Russia has been gone for most of their lifetimes — the appeals to fears about socialism or communism in particular are the ones that seem tragic to me.

    I’m reminded of a scene in college — was it in a play? I can’t remember — where some guy sneers at another, “Your sister’s a girl!” And then a whole gang of guys gather and they’re all yelling, “Your sister’s a girl!” and by the end of the scene, the target of all this is convinced that being a girl is just the worst thing ever and an insult to his sister.

    Very few people born in this country later than 1979 have a clue about what communism was. But now they’ve been indoctrinated by O’Reilly, Hannity, Coulter, and the rest of the crew to believe that a) socialism is always, always, always bad for the people who live under it, and b) electing Democrats will lead to it.

    Why is this a religious issue? For several reasons. First, because this is The Big Lie, and The Big Lie is always ultimately antireligious. The Big Lie denies people their own autonomy and humanity. In this instance, The Big Lie is in service to insurance companies, the health-care industry, and above all, fearful right-wingers who don’t seem to care what they have to destroy to “bring down” the president. The Big Lie never serves fair and open discussion, which means it violates these of our seven principles:
    * The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    * Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    * A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    * The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
    To me, that makes all Big Lies, and this Big Lie, religious issues.

  12. Well, as far as Communism goes, I do recall as a young Trotskyist going to a meeting at Chicago’s third U to make fun of the orthodox Communists who attended there undercover –which we thought terribly lame– ,and had just returned from a visit with a youth group to the Soviet Union. I have a great memory of the guy from UAW 6 showing a slide of a Pop Machine with a common glass the pop was dispensed into and some one in the audience expressed some shock at that, and the old Stalinist, working sort of clandestine among the UUs, making a valid defense of Soviet Pop Machine communal cups…

    …so I do remember those years pre 1979, and even remember how to sing the Internationale….. I know Communism and Socialism from the inside and many of the old players in the Chicago scene… from long ago.

  13. David, man, you’ve got to get off that the right has a problem with a black man in the Presidential office. It makes you sound like the stereotype of the left’s cat call – that the right is racist. Any Republican would have voted for Colin Powell or Bobby Jindal over John McCain in a heartbeat.

    How many voted for Obama BECAUSE of his skin color? Now there’s racism.

    The right’s problem with Obama is his ideology, pure and simple. And put even more simply, we don’t want to live in a country run by his historically well-proven self-destructive policies.

    Good thing when Jesus returns we’ll have a just and loving theocracy, devoid of man’s political ambitions.

  14. Nathan,

    I would have to say that to not see the racism that is happening in our country right now, brought to the surface by Obama’s election is, in my opinion, willfully blind. The racism has always been there… it’s just slightly more obvious now.

    That’s ok, much of the political and social (and religious) right has made being willfully blind into an art form,.. And if you really beleive any theocracy, even one headed by a resurrected and returned Jesus would be devoid of man’s political ambitions, then you have a very limited understanding of humankind… Theocracy is the most inherently human form of government… look at Iran.

    Jesus was as much a political activist of his time as he was a prophet and messiah… and so were those around him. Early Christianity was a political movement as much as a religious one (perhaps more so).

    I live in Obama’s home neighborhood… his house is about 10 blocks from my apartment. I won’t argue with you about your view of his polices (which I certainly don’t agree with), I will simply say that to not see the inherent racism that permeates our country is to be willfully blind.

    Like not believing in the truth of Evolution.

    Yours in Faith,


  15. I rember something you told me that stuck in my mind from waaay back when a bunch of us went to the mall theater to see Star Trek 6, and afterwards I complained what a not-so-hot movie it was. You responded by telling me to “get off my high horse.” I wasn’t a movie producer, and so you were probably right.

    Your last comment has that “high horse” sound to it, so allow me to return the statement in kind.

    Your old buddy,

  16. Nathan….

    Star Trek vs. Institutional Racism? Really?

    Seems like you are trying to equate apples and skyscrapers…

    There are some issues we should be on our high horses about. I disagree with many conservatives on issues such as evolution, Gays in the Military, and the like, but I do not disagree with their right to hold the positions they hold, and to defend them, to call people’s attention to their perspective.

    I do disagree when they seek to use force to impose their views on others, but that is another point.

    Yours in Faith,


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