My Take: The five biggest misconceptions about secularism
Misunderstandings about secularists and secularism do a disservice to America, says Jacques Berlinerblau.
October 6th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The five biggest misconceptions about secularism

By Jacques Berlinerblau, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom has just been released.

As far as the Republicans are concerned, President Barack Obama is secularism’s go-to guy in Washington. Newt Gingrich refers to him as a “secular-socialist.” Mitt Romney charges that his opponent advocates a “secular agenda.” And Rick Santorum frets that Obama is imposing “secular values” on “people of faith.”

The president, however, seems not to have received the whole him-being-a-secularist memo. American secularists have thrown up their hands in frustration over his supersizing of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. They roll their eyes at his God talk. As for his recent call for days of “prayer and remembrance” to commemorate 9/11, well, would the late Rev. Jerry Falwell have done it any differently?

After spending years trying to sequence the genome of American secularism, I have arrived at a sobering conclusion: no -ism is as misunderstood as this one. All of which is bad for secularists, secularism and America. Let’s look at some of the biggest misconceptions out there:

1. Secularist: Just another word for atheist: Not true! But that doesn’t mean there is any thing wrong with nonbelievers. Nor does it mean that secularists and atheists don’t share scads of objectives in common (e.g., opposing religious establishment, securing freedom from religion, defending free expression).

American secularism’s roots can be traced to Christian political philosophy (yes, you read that correctly). Its main architects were Protestant thinkers like Martin Luther, Roger Williams, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

What evolved was a political worldview deeply suspicious of entanglements between what these gentlemen called “the civil and ecclesiastical authorities.” They asked: “How can we configure our government so that citizens of different religious groups may all live in equality, peace and order?”

Atheists, by contrast, posit the nonexistence of God(s) and proceed to explore the implications of that intriguing premise. Let’s put it this way: While nearly all atheists in America are secularists, not all secularists are atheists. In fact most secularists are not atheists — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

2. Secularism simply means total separation of church and state: Separationism is, undeniably, a form of secularism. But not the only form. Secularists need to accept this, if only because more and more state and federal governments are giving separationism the old heave-ho.

As conservative Christians like to point out, the Constitution never mentions separationism. That idea surfaces in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he lauded “a wall of separation between Church & State.” It was not, however, until about a century and a half later that the wall was actually built. This occurred in a series of stunning Supreme Court decisions that briskly evicted religion from public schools and spaces.

The separationist worldview crested in the 1960s and 1970s. When John F. Kennedy talked about a country where the “separation of church and state is absolute,” he articulated post-World War II liberalism’s dream. Or delusion. Even Supreme Court justices whose decisions helped erect  Jefferson’s Wall conceded that total separation is impossible to attain.

That is because the United States is historically and culturally Christian. We rest on Sundays. We close federal offices on Christmas. We put the word “God” on our coinage. Most citizens are believers. The state cannot logically “separate” from them. As Justice William Douglas - no foe of secularism - once remarked, total separation would mandate that, “Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups.”

Government and religious citizenry are entangled. This doesn’t mean we should endorse those entanglements. Rather, we must recognize separationist secularism as something extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

3. Secularism is for Democrats: This was increasingly true with each passing decade from the 1960s forward. But after John Kerry’s debilitating loss to George W. Bush in 2004, all of that changed. Party strategists now recognized the power of the so-called “values voters” — the conservative Christians whose energy and activism propelled the incumbent to his second term.

A few months before Kerry’s defeat, an obscure state senator named Barack Obama blew the roof off the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a speech in which he intoned: “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States.” It was a harbinger of things to come. By the 2006 midterms, stories leaked about Democratic consultants who advised candidates never to say “separation of church and state” on the stump.

By 2008, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were Bible-thumpin’ with aplomb. Presidential candidate Obama, for his part, was promising to renovate George W. Bush’s faith-based Office. Separationist secularism, long in decline, was about to be rolled. What replaced it? Read on.

4. Secularists don’t make accommodations: Although few have noticed it, the Democrats have pivoted from “separation” to “accommodation.” This means the government can fund or assist religion; it just can’t play favorites. Thus, all religions are equal in the eyes of the faith-friendly state.

Is this approach secular? The jury is still out. Accommodation does respect the First Amendment principle of refraining from federal establishment of religion.

Consider the White House faith-based office. In theory, it funds all religious groups who provide social services (hence no establishment). In practice, however, things have not worked out so well (see complaints against both the Bush and Obama offices). Further, accommodation doesn’t really accommodate or take into account nonbelieving citizens.

5. Secularists are anti-religious: In recent years some have made secularism into a synonym for godlessness, possibly because a few extreme atheist groups have taken to calling themselves “secular.” Yet the idea that believers cannot be secular is incorrect and politically disastrous.

Secularism, as noted above, was born of Christian thought. Historically, its greatest champions have been those opposed to state support of one church or religious institution, such as Baptists, Protestant dissenters, and minorities including Jews, Catholics, Sikhs and others.

Secularism’s mission is to maximize freedom of and freedom from religion. But unless we start speaking of it in precise terms, and bringing secular believers and nonbelievers into coalition, it won’t be able to render this service to America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jacques Berlinerblau.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Church and state • Courts • Politics

soundoff (1,517 Responses)
  1. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    Word hindu is driven from Latin word hindered, negative, Hun, great, Han, to be in greatness, hin, negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity. hinduism denial of truth absolute by choice and so is atheism, self center ism, secularism, denial of truth absolute by choice. So does word pig. take your pick, obedient to truth absolute GOD or a pig, self centered, secular in denial of truth absolute GOD.

    October 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      There are no two way's but only one way to reach truth absolute and there is no other way but way of truth absolute to reach top of mountain of truth absolute. religion's are hinduism, corruption of truth absolute and not a way to reach top of mountain of truth absolute.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Damocles

      Does all this make sense to you when you go back and read what you wrote? I certainly hope it doesn't and you are just doing it on a dare.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  2. RichardSRussell

    "As conservative Christians like to point out, the Const¡tution never mentions separationism."

    You know what else it never mentions? God, Jesus, Christ, Christianity, or the Bible. And the only mentions of religion are along the lines of "stay away from it".

    October 7, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Correct, truth absolute is mentioned as GOD in consti tution of USA, stop your hindu atheism, filthy self center ism, way of not human but animals.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      NO DOGS!

      October 7, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Epica

      Your lack of ability to discern the difference between hinduism and atheism kinda hurts my brain...badly.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      must be something else, a hindu denier of truth absolute have no brain to compare and a atheist self centered are linguistically suffer's from hinduism, mental dyslexia..

      October 7, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Epica

      Yeah...yeah...that is exactly it...now I just want to bang my head against a wall. Side note Hindu's actually believe that all religions are just different paths up the side mountains.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  3. Maya

    For those of you who think that Christianity should be preferred and supported by the government: Open up your Bible and look for any mention of human or civil rights. Go ahead, do it. Let me guess, you didn't find anything. That is because the concept of humans having rights is a concept which is completely alien to the Bible, and therefore to Christianity. Humans have no true rights; even interpreting the Bible most liberally, they are merely privileges which an be taken away by God for no reason at all. In the Bible, people have no rights. So be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

    October 7, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      word right means limit, factual limit of human, truth absolute, only one out side right limit are hindu atheist, ignorant self centered, pretending to be truth absolute themselves. Right limit of a person is not beyond his nose, and every hindu atheist should have a flat nose for their hinduism, illegality of atheism, secularism, denial of truth absolute GOD by law.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Epica

      Uh huh...yeah hate to break it to you but Hinduism and Atheism are two completely different things. I mean on the scale they are no where near each other. That is like trying to say N.Korea is exactly in line with Norway's world view. It makes no sense and there is no line of thought that could ever connect the two. It only shows your ignorance at other types of thought than your own.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Damocles


      Gotta ask if you named yourself after the band?

      October 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Epica

      Originally I got it from Nightwish's song Epica but I enjoy the band Epica as well.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Damocles


      Cool cool. I like both bands as well.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Southerner

      The Bible is filled with the principle of life. From the creation, to the resurrection of Jesus and the guarantee of eternal life based on his death. As far as rights, that's a concept of relationships between government and individuals,

      October 7, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  4. MichaelJCaboose

    Christians love to persecute themselves as well. I remember a group called the Anabaptists, Christians who argued for separation of church and state. They were hunted and killed until they made a colony in Pennsylvania, calling themselves Quakers.

    October 7, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Gregg

      LOL – soon we will have sunni and shia christians who have sunni shia christian cathoilics as cousins

      October 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • old ben

      Interestingly, many Baptists to this day are firm supporters of the first amendment. Especially those that are not of the Southern Baptist variety.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  5. MichaelJCaboose

    Religion should stay in churches, synagogues, temples, etc. It doesn't fit in politics.

    October 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  6. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    Only by Christianity absurdity of a Christian, hindu and pagan. Filthy Christian Captain Crunch dog. Filthy pagan hindu pig dog. Filthy Randy Jackson dog. Filthy hebrew national beef dog. Filthy Ron Jeremy foot-long dog. NO DOGS!! Who let them be out? Quran means nothing else but path of triple abdullah absolute quantified. please visit ahmadinebinpaid.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. But turn virus protection off before.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • jim atmad

      Try the decaf, Mithy. You seem a little on edge.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Brain Hertz

      "Filthy Randy Jackson dog."

      Nice. You almost had me right up to that part...

      October 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu copy cat.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I love America. Even crazy people have rights.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  7. DB

    The irony is... the very people who cant trust contemporary media, are all for events that happened 2000yrs ago.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Gregg

      I know,it kind of makes you want to go out and slap a choir boy into reality.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  8. jim atmad

    The only person in the race who openly professes an atheist philosophy is Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Prometheus

      You say, "The only person in the race who openly professes an atheist philosophy is Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan."

      Paul Ryan does not profess an atheist philosophy. That would be a miracle. Instead, he combines the worst parts of Ayn Rand (her talent for turning the talented, wealthy, and fortunate into victims) with his conservative catholic faith (which prefers the spread of AIDS in Africa to the promotion of condom use).

      As Garth from Wayne's World might say, If Paul Ryan were an ice cream flavor, he'd be pralines and dick.

      Someday, if we haven't destroyed ourselves by then, we'll have atheist, secular, progressive political leaders... and religion in politics will be no more than a shameful, troubling memory.

      October 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  9. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    hindu's criminals are the one live by atheism, self center ism, denial of truth absolute, hindu's, empty head's, with tong of a hindu filthy dog but brain nothing more than a pea. Ask a rock, about truth absolute, essence of her existence, had she have ability, she would have witnessed to foundation of her existence, truth absolute, THE LORD AND THE GOD. Proven by quantum physics, hindu ignorant Atheist believe as their god.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  10. Let's Compromise! Instead of Jesus or the Const!tution, Let's Just Crown a King!


    October 7, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  11. jim atmad

    Keep your church out of my government, and your government out of my church.

    As soon as they link up, Hate, Intolerance, and Bigotry are the big winners.

    It doesn't matter where you are or what the religion is, it's always the same.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • mama kindless


      October 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Anon

      Here's the issues, Christians are literally mandated to spread their nonsense due to the great commission.
      In their screwed up heads secularism means going against the word of their imaginary desert god.

      October 7, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  12. Ich............bin...............ein berlinerblau!!!!!!!!!

    ein berlinerblau!!!!!!!!!

    October 7, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • End Religion


      October 7, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  13. Bob

    Robert Brown, you've completely missed the point. Think this through a bit: how come your ‘omnipotent’ creature couldn’t do all that supposed saving without the loony Jesus sacrifice bit? And for that matter, how was it a sacrifice at all, when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time it wants with less than a snap of its fingers? Pretty feeble god it is that you’ve made for yourself there.

    Give that some thought and maybe it will help you leave your delusions behind. You will remain a laughingstock otherwise, and the more you dwell in your silly delusion and ancient myths, instead of keeping up with advances in medicine and technology, the more America slips downward relative to the rest of the world in science and other fields.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      hindu Mithra ism, savior ism Jesus is hinduism, absurdity of boy loving hindu sanatan's, filthy goon's, there are no Mithra's, savior, Only savior are human and their creator truth absolute GOD.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  14. DB

    The irony is... The filthiest and cruelest minds will wave and thump any holy book, to express their deep religiosity.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • ME II

      You might want to revisit the meaning of "irony".

      October 7, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  15. DB

    The irony is... the faithful are the ones who have yet to evolve out of their primitive minds.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      Rather to be free to be primitive then to be forced otherwise by the highly evolved elitist...

      October 7, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  16. tony

    The oldest profession. Collection plate passer.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  17. Phillip Neff

    Mamma Kindness
    In a Free society what a woman does is between her and her doctor or herself or her husband or anything else, you get the point. In a social engineered society it can be mandated to get or not to get an abortion.
    So which do we choose? A society where religion tell you no abortion or a communist society like China which forces an abortion. Personally I choose Freedom! Where no one tells her what she must do, but rather a society where she can choose which is best for her.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Anon

      Religion is slavery of the mind.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • mama kindless

      OK. Remember to use Reply button, but I appreciate the response. You sound like you might be a Libertarian with the mix of things you've written so far. I'm just not exactly sure where you're going with the social engineering idea.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • drbob66

      I agree. Organized religion and dictatorships are no different. We do not elect the pope, the leaders of the religion do. That is not freedom. We do not elect dictators. That is not freedom. Only when we have freedom from dictators, oppressive governments, and religious organizations can we be free. Value voters do not vote for freedom, they vote for oppression over those who have different beliefs, just like dictators force us. There is little difference between the two. Thanks for your post.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Phillip Neff

      Anon, Rather to be enslaved in the mind to the Moral disciplines of religion by choice, then to be forced to believe anything against my will. Freedom is the answer!

      October 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • End Religion

      Libertarian is my guess as well. Phil, how's the Bitcoin mining operation going? You holding or selling?

      October 7, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  18. bluetail75

    This is a lame and inaccurate article. Really? Obama, the first gay muslim president, is the spokesman for Christians? Come on! Oh he may say he is Christian to play the game but his actions speak a hundred times louder than his words. Health care advocate that smokes? He is truly two faced and we all have a certain level of hypocrisy in our lives but his is at an unacceptable level especially for the most powerful man int he world. He certainly isn't presidential. NOBAMA 2012

    October 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      "NOBAMA" is not a sign of intelligent life. Transmission end.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • pensimmon

      I presume you're joking.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • tony

      Someone didn't look in the mirror this morning. Or it's cracked already

      October 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • drbob66

      The article was about secularism, not President Obama.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • fail or troll?

      "gay muslim"

      lolololol no.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Wow. You need to call your cable company and report to them that your box is only picking up the Fox News channel.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  19. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    That word salad is crap.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  20. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    supreme is truth absolute God by American consti tution, and hindu Atheism, filthy self center ism or hindu Judaism, secular ism is way of hindu's, deniers of truth absolute, hindu's, traitor's deserve nothing better than punishment for their hindu Atheism, criminal self center ism, a kick on their hind, to awake them up to follow truth absolute GOD, way of human.

    October 7, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Anon

      Reading that reminded me of this.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Still having a hard time obtaining those meds?

      October 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • JohnK

      A believer's mind at work.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Phyllis01

      I do not understand your post. It seems to be just a bunch of random words and phrases.

      October 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • End Religion

      holy cow, that mcdonald's commercial would be a great torture device for use at Abu Ghraib

      October 7, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.