This is the second of a five-part series on church and state by Roundup columnist Tom Garrett. The series will appear in the Friday edition of the Roundup through Dec. 16. Comments on the articles received from readers will be directed to Garrett for a response.
Part II: Why the First Amendment is so important
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees us the freedom to worship as we please. It forbids government at any level from passing any kind of law, regulation or policy that pertains to religion. The government is told, "Hands off!" The ban is absolute and the wording of the First Amendment leaves no doubt about it. It bluntly says, "Congress shall make no law ..."
But why? Why did our founding fathers feel there had to be an absolute ban on governmental interference with religion? The answer lies in the pages of history.
Let's talk, for example, about a land and a people that seem to fascinate us in a way that no other land or people has ever managed to do: Ancient Egypt. To make it even more interesting, let's look at a period of time very close to the Exodus, the time when Moses led his people out of the land of the Nile. Historical evidence indicates that the king who ruled in Egypt at the time of the Exodus was Ramesses II.
Just 63 years earlier, in 1353 B.C., Egypt was ruled by Amenhotep III. Historians call Amenhotep III the "Sun
King" because he ruled over Egypt during its Golden Age. In his time, the land of the Nile was the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. There was peace in the land, and plenty, and joy.
But Amenhotep lived to age 60, a very old age in those days. The result was that Tuthmosis, his son and chosen heir, died before him. For a time it was thought that there was no heir to the throne because only Tuthmosis and his four sisters were mentioned on the monuments of Amenhotep. Then, out of the shadows, there arrived on the stage of history, a man who is best known to us because he was the father of Tutankhamen, whose tomb has come down to us virtually untouched. That man was Akhenaten.
You may know something about Akhenaten. You may know that he ruled in Egypt for a short time, that he worshiped a single god, and that he had a beautiful wife named Nefertiti. But what you probably don't know is that he was perhaps the most hated and reviled man who ever lived.
The answer lies in his one god and what Akhenaten did concerning it. The ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods. Most of them were very similar to the Roman or Grecian gods. In other words, they were quite human in their attributes. They were gods, but they had a human face. This is not entirely unlike the way we view God today, since we are told that we were created in His image.
But what about the Aten? The god of Akhenaten? Was it just another god in the Egyptian pantheon of gods? Definitely not. The Aten was the sun itself, the hot ball of fire that the Egyptians saw rolling across the sky day after day -- a faceless, nonliving thing with no knowledge of, or interest in, the people below. To the vast majority of Egyptians, the idea of worshiping the Aten was abhorrent, just as it would be to us today. You might as well worship the earth itself, or the moon, or a granite rock, or the concrete foundation of your house.
But Akhenaten was the king. He had absolute power. He used that power to force the Egyptian people to abandon their old gods and worship his hateful, faceless ball of fire. He had the temples torn down and looted of their treasure. He punished people who refused to worship his god. He turned a happy, peaceful land into a place of hatred and violence and death, where the government interfered with religion.
When Akhenaten died, his monuments were thrown down, his temples destroyed, the new city he founded deserted, his name chopped out of inscriptions throughout the land. His name was removed from the list of kings. He was referred to, if at all, as "that heretic." He was reviled, hated, despised.
There is no need to ask why this time. The answer is clear. If there is anything for which we are willing to fight and die, it is for our faith. No government can be allowed to interfere with that. Not even ours, however great it may be, and this is why our founding fathers wrote the First Amendment as it is written, forever forbidding our government from interfering with our right to worship as we see fit.