“Agree to Disagree” – is it still possible?!

The first time the phrase “agree to disagree” appears in print is in a John Wesley sermon, written for the 1770 funeral of George Whitefield, fellow founder of the Methodist Church.

Apparently, the two men made a sport of arguing theology, but in the end always kept perspective and left as friends. Wesley wrote this: “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature…In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials…”

You can guess why I’m thinking about this today.


Have we seriously lost the ability to agree to disagree? 

I know, I know. Politics and religion. The only thing better than talking about them separately is talking about them together. (No one made you read this.)

Religion has actually come a long way in its ability to “agree to disagree”…I think, anyway.

  • Even a hundred years ago, individual denominations within the Christian Church held that those in other denominations wouldn’t be in heaven. And you sure couldn’t date their daughters.
  • In the 1800s, those wacky Mormons kept getting persecuted and kicked west until they finally landed somewhere no one else wanted to live by the Great Salt Lake, and they’ve since built a pretty nice city there.
  • In 1960, there was genuine debate about whether our country should elect a Roman Catholic president (Kennedy), or whether he’d just be a puppet of the pope; that wasn’t that long ago!

Now, there are definitely areas where religion has a long way to go in balancing disagreement with tolerance. But it has come a long way.

What about politics? It certainly feels like we are becoming more polarized in this country, not less. The levels of vitriol on both sides sure leave a bitter taste in most of our mouths.

On the other hand, there have been plenty of battles fought over politics in the past. I forget; did the “good old days” of peaceful Americana happen during McCarthyism? The Vietnam War protests? The Civil Rights Movement? The Civil War? The Revolutionary War era? When were those days, again, when we all got along as one?

Maybe we’re becoming more polarized. Or maybe the polarization is just better publicized. 

Here’s what I know from actual experience:

  • I live in a diverse city with a diverse ethnic and religious population, in a state with about the widest political spectrum there is. For the most part, it’s not that hard to get along with the people here.
  • I have friends who I love who are both vocal Democrats and vocal Republicans. They both drive me equally crazy 🙂
  • I have voted differently than my wife in a Presidential election (I think). We’re still happily married (I think).
  • Whatever happens, the sun will still rise tomorrow (almost certainly), unless Jesus comes back first (I hope).

All this to say, if everybody thought just like me, the world would be a pretty boring place. Everybody would be right (I kid, I kid), but it would be pretty boring.

Something I’ve been doing for the past few years has been seeking out viewpoints that are different than my own, in an effort to try to understand where people are coming from. Sometimes it gets to me and those viewpoints irritate me, but I think overall it has taken me a little way out of the “echo chamber.”


What if we “held fast” to the essentials? 

Today on the drive to school, I gave a history lesson to our firstborn on the merits of democracy versus communism, with a quick primer on the Cold War, Siberian relocations, and the Gulag. (You had to be there.)

It turns out that if you don’t like something or someone in this country, you can vote against it or them. That’s pretty helpful! The chances of me getting everything I want have proven to be pretty low, but it also turns out for everything else, that it is possible:

We can agree to disagree.

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