By Tom Ehrich

Let there be no doubt: large cadres of Americans are engaged in a systematic campaign of cruelty.

Congressional Republicans have voted some 50 times to undermine portions of the Affordable Care Act that benefit the poor, while leaving intact portions benefiting middle class and above. Two dozen states have rejected participation in Medicaid simply out of spite for the poor.

Police forces aren't the least apologetic about targeting blacks for unusual scrutiny and harassment, then engaging in violent reprisals if they stand up for their rights. New York City intentionally ignores a culture of violence at its local jail, resisting all efforts at reform. Whites with guns plan to terrorize blacks.

Pro football officials tried to look the other way when players brutalized their women. Colleges like Columbia University encourage sexual violence against women by downplaying incidents and discouraging legal action. Fraternities and sororities perpetuate hazing despite efforts to stop it. Bullying has become normal among teenagers.

If these were isolated instances, you could blame a few misguided individuals. But these situations, and many others like them, suggest an escalating tolerance of cruelty, indeed an appetite for cruelty, as if "Lord of the Flies" were now normal, not grotesque.

How did we slip the traces of normal civility? No one thing, of course. Increased exposure to violence in entertainment, as well as growing awareness of violence in other lands, such as recent beheadings in Iraq, have made cruelty seem normal.

Self-restraint has run aground, as people feel free to exercise their demons. Religion has been so inwardly-focused that it fails to proclaim God's norm, namely, mercy and kindness. Indeed, in some sectors, religion is leading the campaign of cruelty. Business increasingly uses the language of warfare and domination to explain itself.

In all this, we come to see other people as objects, not as persons. We live in bubbles of class, color and information, such as the bubble of distortion that Fox News has created for conservatives. Anything outside the bubble is seen as "other," perhaps dangerous, not to be known or respected, certainly not to be treated civilly.

Cruelty is different from self-interest. Self-interest says, for example, I get an advantage when you suffer. I profit financially from your deprivation. Denying you a societal benefit or basic freedom makes my world feel safer.

Cruelty, on the other hand, says, I take pleasure in hurting you. I enjoy watching you burn. There is no calculation of benefit, just a visceral delight in knowing you can't get health care or your children are hungry. I smile inside when you are shown being arrested for nothing.

It takes courage to stand up to bullies. It takes a strong moral code to take the side of a woman being molested in a public place or a child being beaten or a minority being targeted. People of good will can't just assume the world around them is healthy or that someone else will step up. When cruelty is systemic, not sporadic, people of good will might be fewer than we think.

It is time for religion to speak up, teach better, train our own people to be brave and kind. Stop hoping that a few token gestures like electing a gay bishop will be enough to stem the rising tide of homophobia and bullying. Stop pulling our punches on proclaiming the Gospel because the word might offend the powerful. Name venues of cruelty and act against them. No more hiding inside our walls because the world outside is crazy.

Most especially, we need to reject the culture of nihilism that is sweeping the world, from Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria to skinheads in Europe to gangs in American cities. We stand for something, and those who want to destroy everything need to know it.