Shrill voices, backed by vast ad spending, are trying to turn Americans against each other. And not just in vocal and behavioral disagreement, but to a depth of fear and hatred that could turn violent with little provocation.
Is it working?
To judge by the shrill echoes of shrill voices, the right wing is arming for battle, with God on their side, the flag as their shield, and the future of a white Christian nation at stake. Foolhardy politicians egg them on, and the greedy rich seem to believe that they can turn this hatred on and off to suit their quest for tax breaks.
Do the shrill represent any force larger than their own passions? Will the common-sense middle prove more durable and extensive than zealots want to believe?
We won't know until Election Day, of course, though possibly sooner as voter suppression schemes get exposed and citizens must decide whether preventing people of color from voting is, in fact, the American way.
But I did an experiment last week and discovered something interesting. A reader of my Daily Meditations asked for guidance on how to respond when partisans on homosexuality throw Bible verses at each other. I gave her my opinion — "Ignore them. Dueling Scriptures aren't what God is about." But then I "crowd-sourced" the matter on Facebook.
I asked my 2,700 Facebook contacts how they would respond to this reader. I got a bunch of responses. Most took a position of tolerance and inclusion, and most believed Bible verses shouldn't be used as ideological weapons.
But here's what caught my attention. First, they had thought about this matter. The diatribes of the shrill wouldn't be their first exposure to the question. They had read about it, watched helpful videos, assembled resources, and formulated opinions. I think people are more informed than we give them credit for.
Second, they expressed their opinions in reasonable voices, and didn't match shrillness with shrillness. Try as they will to stir an angry and righteous pot, the shrill might end up speaking only to each other.
Third, their responses held passion, but they had learned to express their passion without demonizing other points of view. Caring deeply doesn't necessarily lead to violent loathing. Passions for country and for faith don't necessarily lead to vitriol and weapons. More likely, they lead to service and community.
Fourth, people seemed content to voice their opinions and move on. They have lives. Their identities aren't wrapped up in partisan extremism.
Now, I know my history. I know that sometimes it takes only a few passionate antagonists to bring down an institution, even a nation. The bellicose right wing seems to have such aims. But I also know that when enough people care more about raising their children than raising a ruckus, extremism falls short.
It's the same when people go to work, not to a gun store; when people mow grass with a John Deere, not people with an assault rifle; when people say the pledge of their nation and the creed of their faith and feel grateful, not smug and violent.
People who have a stake in the nation tend to preserve the nation, not destroy it.
With their eyes focused on power and not on the nation's interests, the shrill apparently have a bottomless well for funding their cause. They are certainly whipping each other into a frenzy. The question remains: Is anyone else listening?
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.
Photo: People yelling, olly / Shutterstock.com