What Do We Agree On?

Once upon a time, everybody believed that if a society was to cohere it had to have a common religion. And thus kings and other rulers had little choice but to persecute heretics; for heretics, like criminals and political rebels, were great disturbers of social unity.

Queen Elizabeth I persecuted Catholics on the one hand and Puritans on the other, not because she was a religious fanatic but because she was a conscientious ruler. If she failed to punish dissenters, she’d be allowing them to undermine social unity.

Likewise the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s. They fled England, generations of American schoolchildren have been told (I remember being told this in the 4th grade), in search of religious freedom. True enough. But not the principle of religious freedom for all; only the desire of freedom for themselves.

One of their number, Roger Williams, believed in the principle of religious freedom for all, and for that heresy they tossed him out into the wilderness of Rhode Island. They also expelled Ann Hutchinson for heresy, and they punished Quakers by hanging them.

After many religion-based wars – for instance, 16th-century civil wars in France, the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48), and the English Civil War of the 1640s – the world, having discovered that compulsory religious uniformity didn’t always work well, began to turn in the direction of religious freedom. It was a gradual process and took a long time, but much of the European-American world finally arrived at the conclusion that society could cohere without a religious consensus.

In the United States, from the beginning of the republic, we did fine without an ecclesiastical consensus; that is, we didn’t all belong to the same church. But we didn’t have to do without a religious consensus, albeit an informal one. Virtually everybody was Protestant. There were a few Catholics and Jews and Deists and frank unbelievers. But they didn’t count very much; they were small non-Protestant drops in a very large Protestant bucket.


The Protestants, of course, came in many denominational varieties: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and more. But all Protestants, regardless of their denominational differences, agreed on many things: the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Ten Commandments, Heaven and Hell.

They all agreed too that Catholicism was a great perversion of Christianity. We should never forget that anti-Catholicism was an important “glue” holding the Protestant world together.

By the early years of the 20th century, however, you could no longer say that the USA was a Protestant country. Too many Catholics and Jews were living here by then, and too many of them were playing important roles in American life. But then somebody came up with the brilliant idea that, if we could no longer have a Protestant religious consensus, we could at least have a “Judeo-Christian” religious consensus. It wasn’t as “thick” a consensus as had been the Protestant consensus, but it was thick enough. Just think of all the things religious Protestants and religious Catholics and religious Jews agreed upon.

And so, by 1950, more than 300 years after Roger Williams had argued for freedom of religion, Americans still had a religious consensus, albeit one that was informal and not legally prescribed.

That finally collapsed in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory prayer in public schools is a violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment. Until then schools, in keeping with the spirit of our national Judeo-Christian religion, had mandated prayers that gave no offense to Protestants or Catholics or Jews. Usually, this was the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer whose content gave no offense to any believer. But all prayers would give offense to atheistic parents of school children.

Just as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954 was a symbolic moment declaring that blacks are equal to whites, so the prayer decision of 1962, Engel v. Vitale, was a symbolic moment declaring that atheists are equal to Judeo-Christian religious believers. If Brown meant that racial segregation was on its way to the dustbin of history, so Engel v. Vitale meant that our informal national religion was headed in the same direction.

So it is only since the second half of the 20th century that we Americans have had to try the experiment of living without a religious consensus. How are we doing? Not too well, I’d say, to judge from the great divisions currently plaguing American society.

The great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) argued that in modern secular society, where religious consensus is impossible, we could still have a moral consensus. This moral consensus would be based on natural law, a law that applies to all humans and is known by all humans, whether religious believers or atheists or something in between.

Now I’m a great fan of Maritain and a great believer in the idea of natural law, and many years ago, influenced by Maritain, I expected that in America a moral consensus would replace our collapsing religious consensus. But it hasn’t. We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.

Well, if we cannot have a religious consensus, and we cannot have a moral consensus, what kind of consensus can we have in the United States? For surely we have to have some kind of consensus. A society that cannot agree on anything won’t be able to endure.

The best I can think of – barring a religious and moral revival – is that we will endure, if we do endure, with a consensus about the importance of making money and spending it. If we cannot agree about abortion or homosexuality or euthanasia, we can, perhaps, at least agree about the wrongness of commercial fraud and cheating on taxes and other forms of thievery.

But that’s not an inviting prospect.


*Image: Roger Williams by Franklin Simmons, 1872 [U.S. Senate corridor, 2nd floor]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.