In the wake of Jerry Falwell's death, I happened to catch an interview on MSNBC with a Jewish rabbi (can't remember his name unfortunately) who had interacted with and debated Falwell on a number of occasions. In contrasting himself with Falwell, he said something very interesting, and, no doubt, very popular - "I believe religion should bring us all together, rather than divide us." It's a common sentiment that is used in secular discourse about the preferred role of religion in society, not to mention what religion's highest goal should be. But as much as I'd like to agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, I'm not really sure I can in the end, and I have no doubt that this conclusion is a very unpopular one.
In thinking about the rabbi's statement, the first thing that pops into my mind is one major historical message behind all 3 major monotheistic religions and even Hinduism. That message being that we as human beings are under the authority of a higher being and/or a higher law. Discarding for the moment the significant differences between each religion regarding the nature of this higher being(s) and the tenets of the higher law(s), the idea that we are accountable to some higher authority is hardly the basis for human unity and togetherness, especially in America. Americans have a proud tradition of embracing self-determination, rebelling against authority, paving our own road, making our own luck, and refusing to be boxed in by rules or authorities. Put simply, we like to make our own rules, and consider this to be a basic right and a basic litmus test of 'authentic' freedom. In America, the idea that we are beholden to a higher authority is immediately construed as a move to limit individual freedom, liberty, and autonomy. Put simply, it is not a belief that conjures up joyous unity in its truth, but angry disunity in its implications.
And let's be clear - this isn't just a dynamic that exists between theists and nontheists. While not every difference between religions can be explained by this, the fact is that many differences between religions, and within religions, are greatly impacted by how people come down on the question of (to put it crudely) what degree we are our own kingmakers. This greatly impacts our understanding of God's sovereignty, and perhaps more relevantly, his providence.
In America, where the cultural tide clearly embraces self-determination and autonomy, it is foolish to think that this doesn't have a significant impact on the theological orientation we bring to the Scriptures, or that it isn't a severely complicating factor in the ability of religion to 'bring us all together'. I agree that religion has the ability to move us closer to unity. But it also has the ability to move us toward division. Scripture speaks very frankly about both dynamics and that both unity and disunity can be both righteous and sinful under different circumstances.
If the Genesis account of the Fall describes the human race plunging into sin as a result of wanting to be like God, the America I know is very consistent in indulging this urge today. A well respected Jewish author (who's name I again cannot remember) once remarked that it's no accident that Mormonism is America's unique contribution to world spirituality. Why? Because Mormonism in its pure form promises that we will be 'little Gods' reigning over our own worlds. This author rightly remarked that there is nothing more American than that. In order for 'religion to bring us all together', this mentality, a mentality that has existed since the Fall of man, will have to be undone, since it is radically autonomous, individualistic, and therefore resistant to a higher unifying law and Being to which we are wholly accountable. To say that the totality of our being is completely and absolutely beholden to the lordship of Christ is anathema to the mentality of self-determination, and stands opposed to it. In this respect, 'religion' will not bring people together, because it proposes an outlook and vantage point that is deeply offensive to most reigning notions of human autonomy that have a spurning of authority as their default setting.
The solution to this impasse is usually to accommodate religion to the culture and make it more palatable on this question. But as unpopular as it is, I just don't think that's the answer. That doesn't mean we become harshly divisive separatists who are uniformly derisive of those who don't see the world the way we do. But it does mean that there are times when we must charitably but unapologetically part company with the wisdom of the world on a number of very basic things, realizing that Kingdom eschatology is not just a neat theological prism, but a street-level reality.