U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston

The United States has always been a pluralistic society. It was, after all, formed by the union of the original thirteen colonies (hence the phrase e pluribus unum on the Great Seal of the United States). When Alexis de Tocqueville visited in the early 1830s, he was struck by America’s size and diversity. The United States, he observed in Democracy in America, was a large and highly populated nation encompassing a vast and ever-expanding territory including “a great variety of soils and climates and a great variety of crops.”  Nor was America’s pluralism limited to the resultant diversity of economic interests. Not only was the America he visited divided into 24 states each with their own political identities and interests, but it was also divided into distinct regions with somewhat different cultures and divergent concerns and interests. This doesn’t even take into account the self-governing towns and counties and the intense loyalties they generated. Likewise, there was the ethnic pluralism resulting from a vast and ongoing European immigration which had brought to America’s shores diverse peoples with “their [own] languages, religions and mores.” Finally, there was America’s legendary religious pluralism, the “innumerable multitude of sects” he found there.

Nevertheless, despite this pluralism and the tensions it necessarily involved, Tocqueville’s America cohered; it remained a stable and united society. It did so, Tocqueville maintained, because of the shared convictions, values, and mores that united its citizenry. “I will never admit,” he wrote, “that men form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws; only when certain men consider a great many questions from the same point of view and have the same opinions on a great many subjects” For a society to exist, he insisted, “and, with even more reason, for . . . society to prosper, all the minds of the citizens must always be brought and held together by some principal ideas.”

America could cohere, he maintained, because “from Maine to the Floridas, from Missouri to the Atlantic ocean,” he wrote, Americans agree both about “the general principles which should rule human societies” and the “moral opinions controlling the daily actions of life and the general lines of behavior.” They are united by a common body of “ideas, opinions,” and “habits,” by a consensus about the moral and political principles governing the structure of political life and specifying the content of the common good.

This consensus, in turn, was possible because of a broader agreement regarding the nature of man, the character of the human good, and the structure of social relations that should inform human life, and thus about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human existence. Americans could agree about the moral and political principles governing public life because they share a common body of “religious” and “philosophical” ideas. America’s political unity, in short, presupposed an antecedent intellectual and moral unity.

Over time, a lot changed and America’s pluralism only increased, but until recently (with, of course, the exception of the civil war), America has been able to time and time again forge such a consensus and thus to construct what George Marsden (in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment) recently termed “a coherent voluntary civilization out of many competing subgroups.” What were the religious and philosophical commonalities to which Tocqueville referred? How were they possible given the far-reaching pluralism to which he directs our attention, a pluralism that has grown dramatically in the almost 200 years since his visit?

To begin with, while Tocqueville calls our attention to “an innumerable multitude of sects” in which the fervent religiosity of the American people found institutional expression, he also noted that these sects “all . . . belong to the great unity of Christendom.” In fact, the pluralism of Tocqueville’s America, was largely an intra-Protestant affair; the America he visited was culturally and demographically Protestant.

When America’s religious pluralism expanded beyond the borders of Protestantism during the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, it came to include large numbers of Catholics and Jews. Nevertheless, as Francis Canavan) observed in The Pluralist Game, until fairly recently our religious pluralism was a pluralism of “a multitude of religious branches that sprang from a common stem.” Indeed, “all of the religions that had adherents numerous enough to matter shared a common Judeo-Christian tradition” and in most respects – particularly regarding “matters of public concern” – taught “the same biblical morality.”

If faith provided one of the pillars on which the American consensus rested, the other was reason. More specifically, it was the Western natural law tradition with its insistence that reason can discern a body of substantive moral truths embedded in the very structure of reality. It’s true that the American understanding of this tradition was colored by the Enlightenment, but in early America the Enlightenment took a conservative form that left in place the moral cognitivism of the natural law tradition (as evidenced by the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of accessibility to reason of a body of “self-evident” moral “truths,”  “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”); and an account of  these truths was broadly consistent with the principles of Christian morality (as suggested by Jefferson’s affirmation that the “system of morality” espoused by Jesus “was the most benevolent and sublime . . . ever taught”).

While the consensus evolved over time as American society changed, one cannot but be struck by the continuity it exhibited. It drew on both reason and revelation, and insisted on our nature as encumbered beings, as beings who although possessing the capacity for choice were morally obligated to make our actions conform to a law given us by our Creator. And, what made this consensus possible was precisely the nature of our pluralism whose limited character made possible a common intellectual horizon that endured through a century and a half of change and which acted to contain our disagreements and unite us as people.

Over the past five or six decades, however, American has undergone a far-reaching cultural transformation resulting in a fundamental change in the nature of our pluralism. On the one hand, there is our progressive loss of faith in the ability of human reason to discern an objective moral order, an order of human and social ends that bind us antecedently to, and irrespective of, our consent. Beginning with cultural elites who jettisoned the idea of an objective moral law under the impact of intellectual movements such as positivism (in its various forms), atheistic existentialism, and postmodernism, the resultant value-noncognitivism has trickled down to popular culture. Moral judgements, it is now widely believed, are simply matters of individual preference and will. Indeed, the very idea of an objective moral order is a threat to individual freedom, and assertions of moral truth are simply devices used by some impose their will upon others. Increasingly, we believe it’s up to each individual to create their own moral universe.

As far a religion is concerned, the American religious scene has been characterized by an ever-increasing pluralism. As James Davison Hunter (Culture Wars) points out, following World War II the numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and adherents of other non-Western religions have “grown prodigiously.” Indeed, by the early 1990s Islam had become the eighth largest denomination in the United States commanding more adherents than “the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. the United Church of Christ or the Assemblies of God.” Over and above these world religions gaining a foothold here, we’ve also witnessed an explosion of newly invented religions.

Perhaps the most striking development, however, has been the explosive growth of what might be termed the “seculars” (sometimes called the “nones”) – those with no religious affiliation – from roughly 2% of the populace to somewhere around 25% today. Among younger Americans, the percentage of seculars is even higher: Some 35 % of millennials identify as “nones.” Admittedly the “nones” are something of grab-bag running the gamut from proponents of the new atheism to the religiously indifferent, to “searchers”, to the adherents of home-made, do-it-yourself religiosities (the “Sheilaism” to which Habits of the Heart famously called our attention) to the “spiritual but not religious.” Nevertheless, their emergence represents a sea change in the American religious scene. As Hunter notes, seculars “represent the fastest growing community of ‘moral conviction’ in America.”

Hunter speaks of them as a community of “moral conviction” because they possess a distinct moral orientation at the heart of which is commitment to individual autonomy. In this view, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, in Democracy’s Discontents, human beings are understood as “free and independent” selves who are unbound by “ends we have not chosen – ends given by nature or God, for example, or by identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions.” In this view, in short, a human being is simply a sovereign will, an arbitrary center of volition, free to make of himself (or herself) and the world, whatever he (or she) chooses.

This ethic, in turn, finds political expression a public morality whose central values are liberty and equality and which affords paramount importance to the right of individuals to choose their way of life, to pursue their self-chosen ends.  Indeed, it is this vision that finds signal expression in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey which asserts that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

These developments have fundamentally changed the character of American pluralism. Their effect has been to replace a real but limited pluralism with a far more radical pluralism, that sweeps away the pillars on which our public consensus has historically rested. This broader and deeper pluralism has issued in the collapse of the older Judeo-Christian consensus in American public life and has triggered the bitter, debilitating and seemingly interminable culture war that today wracks our society. As Angelo Codevilla has pointed out, today we are “divided” by “unreconcilable visions of the good, held by countrymen who increasingly regard each other as enemies.”

And the very pluralism that triggered the collapse of the older consensus acts to preclude the formation of a new one. In the face of a pluralism that involves truly fundamental disagreements about the nature of man and the human good, it is difficult to see how can we today forge the type of robust overlapping consensus about the moral and political principles that should inform our public life that we have traditionally had and on which the vitality of our body politic has depended. The question we face today is how can we sustain government of, for, and by the people, when we have effectively ceased to be one people? How can we maintain the unity and vitality of the body politic absent the underlying intellectual and moral agreement on which it depends.

Several decades ago, John Courtney Murray, the great Catholic commentator on American pluralism, observed in We Hold These Truths, that among the pressing questions we face today are: “How much pluralism and what kinds of pluralism can a pluralist society stand? And, conversely, how much unity and what kind of unity does a pluralist society need in order to be a society at all?” As we ponder today’s discontents and consider on their causes, we’d be well advised to spend some time reflecting on Murray’s questions.

Professor Kenneth L. Grasso teaches in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University

Professor Kenneth L. Grasso teaches in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University.