In the wake of the recent shooting in Arizona, there is a renewed discussion concerning the influence of political rhetoric on the populace. Those on the left have blamed those on the right, and vice-versa.

Many liberals have blamed conservatives like Sarah Palin, who created a list of candidates to defeat in the next election and used the symbol of gun crosshairs to illustrate her intentions, or the Tea Party movement as a whole.

Judson Phillips, a prominent leader of the Tea Party movement, has responded to liberal criticisms by psychoanalyzing the shooter and concluding that he is actually a “liberal lunatic,” so blame for the shooting of a moderate Democrat like U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) should actually be placed on the more liberal, progressive Democrats.

The foolishness of the Tea Party’s claims should be self-evident. A troubled young man decides to shoot people at a political gathering, and Phillips suddenly decides he is an expert in psychology, able to deduce that the shooter was a “liberal lunatic.”

Palin’s case isn’t so clear, however. In March 2010, I wrote an article critiquing the political rhetoric, calling for our nation’s leaders to recognize the influence their words have on the populace. That recognition is as needed now as it was then.

Liberals criticizing Palin and other conservatives for using violent images and belligerent rhetoric is valid. Many conservative leaders have been careless in their choice of words, and they have failed to realize how influential their language is on their constituents.

Yes, a rational person can understand Palin’s metaphorical language. But what about a troubled, angry, mentally unstable young man? Can he tell the difference?

It should also be said that liberals have used equally caustic rhetoric themselves, so it is unfair for them to place blame solely on Palin (or anyone else) for this tragedy. And, in the end, the larger issue here is the caustic political climate in which each side denigrates and demonizes the other.

The problem does not ultimately lie with any one person or group. There is no scapegoat to be sacrificed to explain these tragic events. The problem is the hate-filled atmosphere of unbending partisan politics in which opponents are demonized to the point that violence becomes not merely possible, but probable.

It’s easy to hate someone if what you are told about those with whom you disagree is couched in language of hate. It’s hard to hate someone if what you are told about those with whom you disagree is couched in language of love.

Tragically, the political rhetoric of the past few years has been hateful and loveless. It has been filled with a back-and-forth escalation of demonizing speech that has mirrored the arms build-up of the Cold War era. This, in my opinion, is the problem – not any one individual or group or political persuasion.

What we need is a national repentance that involves leaders from all sides coming together in confession of and remorse over the caustic rhetoric that has fueled the flames of hatred and violence. We need our leaders to find a way to disagree agreeably – a way for our leaders to acknowledge their differences and to lead our nation in a way faithful to their ideology without demonizing those who think differently.

Our leaders must end their vitriolic speech, which tells their constituents that anyone who disagrees with their party is somehow evil and bent on destroying our nation. They must find a way to disagree about how this country should be governed, about where government should be “big,” and about who would do the best job governing in a manner that is humane and healing.

The corrosive language used by leaders on both sides of the aisle has created a climate of hate and divisiveness, which has led to such tragedies as the Arizona shooting.

No, people are not robots, but what our leaders say and how they say it influences people’s emotions. And if we don’t find a way to disagree without demonizing, I fear that this will not be the last tragedy we see.

Zach Dawes and his wife, Peyton, are pastors of First Baptist Church in Mt. Gilead, N.C. He blogs at Scribblings.

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