The separation of church and state the a feature of secular governments intended to protect the rights of religious pluralities as well as the civil rights of individuals. The interests of church and state tend to merge and clash, however, as evidenced by an outbreak of court cases instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last Christmas.
The ACLU sued several city governments for allowing religious displays on public property during the holidays. ACLU's Michigan director, Howard Simon, stated, "Government endorsement of the symbols of Judaism as well as Christianity does not honor their obligation regarding separation of church and state." The two interests appear to be at odds. Even Jesus Christ indicated the conflict of interests when he stated, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
But the Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the interaction of church and state in a way that may shed light on present-day disagreements. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in his Bhagavatam commentary, "A secular state may be impartial to any particular type of faith, but the state cannot be indifferent to the principles of religion." According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, executive heads of state should advocate religious principles in a way that will not compromise anyone's liberties. In fact, when the government fails to support religious principles, it indirectly introduces greed, falsehood, and cheating. It is hypocritical for a government to make propaganda to stop corruption in the state while doing nothing to promote religious principles.
Principles of religion are not the dogmas of a certain faith. They are not the property of the Christians or Hindus, Buddhists or Mohammedans. Srila Prabhupada writes, "The principles of religion, namely austerity, cleanliness, mercy and truthfulness, may be followed by the follower of any faith."
The word austere will always seem unpalatable to the hedonists, and yet no healthy civilization is without simplicity and rigor among its people. In recent decades we have seen this manifest through trends such as renewed attention to health and diet, environmental protection, the economics of "small is beautiful," and similar sensible movements. In Sanskrit austerity is termed tapasya, which means "to accept things that may not be comfortable for the body but that are conducive to spiritual realization." If we understand the religious principle of austerity rightly, we will see that it is an auspicious energy that leaders can use for people's betterment. And since austerity among the people benefits both the church and the state, they can combine to promote it, rather than argue in nitpicking ways about the overlapping of church and state interests.
In a free government, people have the right not to be clean if they so wish, but there are limits, especially when their uncleanliness affects the well-being of others. Should a government be completely indifferent to whether the health of its citizens is being endangered by sewage or air pollution? Of course not. Vedic knowledge further suggests that cleanliness refers to internal as well as external purity. There is a definable standard of cleanliness in mind and habit, which can be agreed upon by all reasonable persons. And that standard may also be upheld by law. But in the absence of guidance in making standards, the government inadvertently or deliberately promotes uncleanliness by endorsing acts that are physically, morally, and spiritually corrupt.
Human mercy should be promoted, beginning with an education in what is mercy. Certainly great spiritual teachers such as Lord Krsna, Jesus Christ, and Lord Buddha taught and practiced mercy to all living beings. Their teachings were on a sublime level, but the same principles have to be understood and applied by ordinary people in ordinary dealings. Mercy should be shared by all who profess interest in liberty and the well-being of society. The practical implementation of mercy may be debated according to different viewpoints, and the government will have to decide how mercy can prevail. But government cannot turn its face away from the responsibility to be merciful, and neither should government leaders think they have nothing to learn from the world's religions regarding mercy.
According to Vedic knowledge, the present age is symptomized by an almost complete loss of religious principles. The last quality to remain is truthfulness. If we can at least admit that things are wrong or out of control, this indicates that we want to know the truth. Honesty is also expressed in the desire to expose frauds wherever they may appear, even in religious and government leaders.
In enforcing honesty, a government may also test the religionists, by insisting that they follow the tenets of their own religion without hypocrisy. As Srila Prabhupada has said, "The government should have expert men to see that the Hindus are acting like Hindus, Muslims are acting like Muslims, and Christians are acting like Christians. The government should not be callous about religion. It may be neutral, in that whatever religion you profess, the government has nothing to do with that. But it is the government's duty to see that you are doing nicely and are not bluffing." According to Vedic knowledge, persistent honesty will ultimately lead us to acknowledge the supremacy of the supreme being and to serve Him.
Modern societies that promote uncleanliness and dishonesty cannot check the evils such as crime and disease that result from these practices simply by statutory acts or police vigilance. These evils can only be checked by measures advocated in the principles of nonsectarian religion.
If government leaders would sincerely conduct research into the dynamics of spirituality aside from the dogmas and differences of various religions, they could find many secrets for peaceful, prosperous civilization. The practices of austerity, mercifulness, cleanliness, and truthfulness contain powers that can correct the worst flaws of human society. But when we become entangled in petty quarrels, such as the recent legal cases over separation of religion and government, we forget the purifying essence of religion, as well as the responsible role of government.
We therefore suggest that these four criteria may be used as a basic standard of proper behavior, and that religious and public leaders be tested accordingly before they can be accepted as masters of society. – Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami