Christians are used to seeing secular society - whose institutions favour no particular faith - as a dire threat. To John Piper, for example, '[t]he modern secular world... tries to remove God from his all-creating, all- sustaining, all-defining, all-governing place [and] has no choice but to make itself god'. In other words, a secular society is blasphemous by definition. Against this conservative appraisal, I'll suggest secularism is most fruitfully understood not as a menace destroying western civilisation from within, but as a blessing longed for by those who did not enjoy it, made possible by Jesus' death on the cross.
At the same time, I'll argue that the liberal understanding of secularism is ahistorical and impossible to square with biblical evidence. Here, for example, is the excellent blogger Fred Clark, arguing against the US Catholic bishops' attempt to stop contraceptive services for women:
'It does me no injury,' Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.' The advocates of burka-logic [sic] disagree. They insist that the very presence of such irreligious neighbors does them an injury - the injury of constraining their freedom to live unperturbed by the constant reminder of such blasphemies.This quintessentially liberal argument - my neighbour's religious predilections do me no harm, so I have no business constraining him - cannot survive an encounter with the God of the Old Testament. At Sinai God makes a covenant is with Israel as a community to ensure correct religious observance and moral behaviour in the land (Deuteronomy 1:1-14). The Mosaic Law does not offer any room for religious toleration. Indeed the Israelites are explicitly commanded to destroy all traces of Canaanite paganism if they wish to enjoy the land (Deuteronomy 12:1-4).
Contrary to Jefferson, under Old Testament law my neighbour's heterodox religious observance does pick my pocket and break my leg. The Religious Right's notion of 'individual responsibility' is quite absent in the Bible. God repeatedly threatens to punish people for sins they have not themselves committed, 'visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation' (Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9, and many more). Positively, God considers whole communities more kindly on account of a few righteous people (Genesis 18:22-32, Romans 11:28).
The insistence that Israel is judged as a whole for the actions committed in its midst rather than as individuals is perhaps best encapsulated by Deuteronomy 21:1-9:
If in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither ploughed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward... And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, o LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.' So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.Here the murderer is unknown and unidentifiable, but the nearest settlement is required to offer a sacrifice in atonement for the sin committed lest it be visited upon their heads. The action, not the acting subject, is the primary term. Nor does the Bible consider the motives of offenders. Distinguishing murder from accidental killings, for example, is an innovation of the ninth century, when earnest scholars attempted to settle matters humanius (more humanely) than the often harsh Church Fathers. (So much, incidentally, for the notion that a concern for human welfare reveals a 'man-centred' world-view.)
We tend to take a modern legal understanding of individual responsibility for granted, but it can seriously distort our reading of the Bible. The concept of bloodguilt - that sin, if unatoned, will return to haunt even those who have not themselves committed it - is accepted by New Testament writers (Luke 11:50-51, Revelation 6:10). Augustine's notion that original sin is passed on through biological parenthood - logically consigning those who die in the womb to damnation - would also be impossible without bloodguilt.
But that isn't the whole story. In the New Testament, God's people are not told to enforce obedience among their nonbelieving neighbours. Indeed the New Testament is marked by disinterest in secular power at best, and outright hostility at worst (Revelation 17:1-6). The death of Jesus at the cross changes everything. From that point onwards, it is not biological descent from Abraham but faith that determines membership in the people of God (Romans 9:30). The ethno-religious boundaries of ancient Israel have been shattered. God's people are now of every nation and tongue, no longer identifiable with individual peoples or states.
Secularism - a society no longer compelled to enforce religious obedience among its subjects, on pain of judgment - is thus made possible by the death of Jesus. When an individual puts her faith in Christ she cannot become his without also becoming part of the people of God; God's covenant is made with his people as a whole. There is no salvation for the individual outside the collective salvation of God's people (which is why I continue to find Calvinism's emphasis on Christ's successful purchase of a definite people compelling). It is because of this ingrafting into the people of God that baptism - a public symbol of membership in God's family - is important. But it no longer coincides with membership in an earthly nation or obedience to a set of temporal laws.
If the potential for secularism was present from Jesus' death onwards, that potential had to remain unrealised in pre-modern societies, which functioned through personal relationships and localised hierarchies sealed and enforced through oaths. Public declarations of political and religious loyalty - which are quite superfluous in modern states - were vital to rulers who lacked the centralised bureaucracy necessary to enforce obedience among their subjects. (For example, a modern state knows who all its subjects are and where they live, something the ancients could not have imagined in their wildest dreams.)
Even the Roman state, often praised for its tolerance, could not solve the problem of religious diversity by becoming secular - atheist as a state - but only by being radically inclusivist, declaring all faiths valid and adding foreign deities to its pantheon. Still, it required that its subjects subordinate their loyalties to the imperial cult, and those who could not comply - Christians, most famously - had to suffer its wrath. Pre-modern societies that did not compel everyone's conversion (the political entities of the Islamic world, for example) nonetheless had to privilege one faith.
It was only with the vastly increased capacity of the state from the French Revolution onwards, and its sweeping aside of motley feudal ties and privileges, that overwhelmingly Christian societies could provide freedom of religion for their subjects without breaking down. Our nonconformist forebears - the very people from whom modern evangelicalism is descended - ardently campaigned and prayed for a secular state that would not exclude them on the basis of religion, and eventually obtained that sweet freedom.