The founders of the United States, both its leaders and ordinary citizens, had a problem: what to do about religion in the new republic. Those who had immigrated from Europe, remembering everything from corruption to holy wars, knew that in the hands of civil authorities religion could by force of law be used, and that rulers had used it. Heads of state might employ preferred faiths to endorse their own selfish policies, show favoritism in the public, or penalize those who dissented from officially approved creeds. The American colonists, now republicans, had just “killed [off] the king” in the Revolutionary War, so monarchs and governors could play no legally legitimated role in determining the civil place of religion. The thirteen former colonies differed among themselves in polities and policies. Some retained the establishment of religion with all the legal perquisites that went with it, while others fought for disestablishment and thus attempted to give a place for dissent against the favored faith. What should the citizens of 1787 and 1789 do?
It has been well said that the founders solved the problem of religion by not solving it. They drafted and approved the First Amendment to the Constitution with its classic clause barring Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. Earlier, in Article VI of the Constitution itself they had assured that “no religious test” should have any part in qualifying or disqualifying anyone from public office. But they did not go so far as to spell out the details, and they did not include anything about the religious role of the executive branch in the person or through the agency of the chief executive. That left a vacuum to be filled in a society of whose citizens President Dwight Eisenhower was to say, “We are a religious people.” He overshot in a second phrase, claiming on slight grounds that the nation’s laws presupposed belief in a supreme being.
This people—“religious” and “nonreligious”—has shown through the decades that the majority favors religious expression from the president. Willy-nilly, the president serves a kind of priestly role. When a spaceship explodes, when terrorists attack or enemies bomb, when publics need to