This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

Some colleagues and I happened to be meeting in New England this week, so we drove a little bit north to a small village in Vermont called St. Johnsbury, right in the line of the totality of the solar eclipse.

Even before the sky darkened, I was mesmerized by the people gathering in the town square, each with a sense of anticipation and excitement over the shared experience. We ended up standing on the front lawn of someone’s house, eating sandwiches while we waited for the sun to hide. The homeowners sat on their stoop and were not only unperturbed by our camping out on their property but seemingly enjoying the chance to welcome people to their place.

Several articles this week noted how the eclipse seemed to have the effect of bringing out kindness and connection, almost the way a natural disaster would, except in collective wonder instead of in common suffering or fear. Not only that, some studies are showing that this sort of neighborliness and openness is far more common than we think, eclipsed behind the maelstrom of division we see on social media and on cable news.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen describe our sense that the country is hopelessly and irreparably divided as “America’s reality distortion machine.” Most people aren’t fringe-right Christian nationalists or fringe-left campus activists. Those fringes, though, are amplified not only by the nature of our media but also by the incentives of politicians to cater to the extremes.

A couple weeks ago on my podcast, I asked social psychologist Jonathan Haidt some of the questions I’d received from listeners since the last time we’d talked, one of the primary ones being a question from school administrators about the use of smartphones in their classrooms.

The problem, several of these administrators said to me, is not that they receive pushback from the kids when they suggest banning phones during class hours but instead that they receive opposition from the parents. Haidt, though, pointed to research showing that, in most cases, upward of 80 percent of parents are fully supportive of schools carrying out such measures.

The key, he said, is that no one ever hears from the parents who are supportive. The schools get calls and emails and visits from the outraged parents afraid of their child being unable to be in touch with them at a half-second’s notice.

Haidt’s observation rings true to me. Very few people think to contact their child’s principal to say they’re happy with the way the school is being run. Very few people email their pastor to say that the church is benefiting them spiritually.

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Part of that is for the same reason that news services don’t run stories about all the houses that don’t burn down or about all the bank CEOs who don’t embezzle money or all the evangelists who don’t have affairs. We tend to take such things for granted, and when something is going really well, we assume that it’s obvious and doesn’t even need to be said.

I caught myself realizing this tendency in myself a few weeks ago when I was saying to a group of people in another state how awed and grateful I am for my church, for the Christlike vibe there, for how I’ve never heard anyone say a critical word of any kind about the pastor, for the way my own sons respect and love their youth pastor. It struck me that while I often say these things about our church, I rarely say these things to the leaders at our church. I tend to unconsciously assume that everyone just knows how good the congregation and its leadership are.

In any environment, from a school to a church to a neighborhood to a country, the normies tend to go on with their lives, without saying much. When angry fringes emerge—on a campus or within a ministry or in a political party—normal people often assume that if we just get really still and try to keep the Eye of Sauron off of us, then the rage will magically settle down on its own.

The fringes know this. They know that the rest of us will start getting exasperated with the school board member, the chairman of deacons, or the tenants’ association president for the very fact that they draw fire from the fringes. Why are they so controversial all the time? the normies sometimes conclude and start to draw back. What we don’t realize is that this sort of mentality is exactly what extreme fringes count on in order to wreak havoc.

Every time another study comes out about how we actually are not as polarized as we seem, I worry that people will conclude that this means that polarization isn’t real . When the people who prize kindness and civility and decency and norms go quiet, though, the fringes become less fringy. People start to imitate what they see as “normal,” and if what they’ve seen as normal is crazy, the crazy soon becomes normal.

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For Christians, this has implications for our witness. For an entire generation or more, we’ve taught church members and the next generations how to contend with a culture that’s hostile to them. Sometimes this is done in a good and biblical way, rightly emphasizing that following Christ is costly and that we should be prepared to be rejected, just as he was.

The problem is, without the balance of the Bible’s simultaneous emphasis on common grace, we end up not with countercultural Christians but with paranoid ones.

If you expect your neighbors to hate you, you will almost inevitably, preeminently armor up in a protective crouch. Imagine if someone sets you up on a blind date with the words This person might be the love of your life—or they might be an armed stalker who will chase you to the edge of the grave. That would change the conversation.

The end result is that, frequently, Christians in secular spaces have a lack of confidence, with a kind of inferiority complex about the gospel they carry. Yes, the gospel is countercultural, a two-edged sword, a scandal to the world, a contradiction to the status quo. But the gospel is also genuinely good news—speaking to the primal hopes and fears embedded in human psyches.

Often, the neighbors we assume hate us aren’t thinking of us at all—they don’t even know we are there. If those who really believe that their neighbors might well be their future brothers and sisters in Christ—that the gospel really can renew any heart, reconcile any person—are in a defensive crouch, then the only Christians their neighbors will see are angry people who would, like Jonah, be furious to see their enemies seek grace.

In reality, many unbelievers—especially some who are in the most disenchanted, nonreligious spaces—are curious about what motivates religious people. Some of them are more than curious. They are trying to imagine what it would be like to be the kind of person who seeks a God who might love them, to have an atonement that frees them from guilt and shame.

Sometimes those curious people seem the most eager to argue against Christianity. The closer they come to asking What if it’s true? the more vigorously they try to argue themselves away from that brink.

When we expect automatically that our neighbors loathe us, we tend to see every potential conversation about spiritual matters to be a competition of irrefutable arguments. We try to find the series of pithy zingers that would show that unbelief is irrational. Sometimes encounters over spiritual things are arguments like that, but they are rarely one-time confrontations that someone wins by audience vote like a college debate.

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And the idea that such conversations must be like that can cause us to go silent until we feel that we are adequately prepared to answer any potential question about philosophy or archaeology or ancient Near Eastern history. No one ever feels adequate to demolish every potential argument, to answer any conceivable question. Such a mentality silences the kind of people who, in the Gospels, have the sort of witness that’s the most powerful—the kind that says, Come and see.

The country is kinder than what we see in our politics and our media. The reality is distorted, to be sure. But the more we normalize that polarization, the more real it becomes.

The more we automatically assume our neighbors hate us, the more we will start to preemptively hate our neighbors. Jesus told us that it’s insane to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl (Matt. 5:15). In many cases in this crazed, angry time, that light can be eclipsed by something else. But an eclipse that goes on too long is indistinguishable from night, and a night that goes on too long is almost indistinguishable from death.

Your neighbor might hate you—but probably not.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.