The confusion stems, in part, from the ubiquity of sacred images in American culture. God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and other holy figures are displayed in movies, cartoons and churches and on living room walls. We place them on T-shirts and bumper stickers — and even tattoo them on our skin.

But Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred. The path toward civil debate over such representation is neither short nor easy.

The United States was settled, in part, by radical Protestant iconoclasts from Britain who considered the creation and use of sacred imagery to be a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. The anti-Catholic colonists at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay refused to put images of Jesus in their churches and meetinghouses. They scratched out crosses in books. In the early 1740s, English officials even marched on an Indian community in western Connecticut, where they cross-examined Moravian missionaries who reportedly had a book with “the picture of our Saviour in it.”

The colonists feared Catholic infiltration from British-controlled Canada. Shortly after the Boston Tea Party, a Connecticut pastor warned that if the British succeeded, the colonists would have their Bibles taken from them and be compelled to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, believe the doctrine of Purgatory, and the Pope’s infallibility.”

It was not only Protestants who opposed sacred imagery. In the Southwest, Pueblo Indians who waged war against Spanish colonizers not only burned and dismembered some crucifixes, but even defecated on them.

In the early Republic, many Americans avoided depicting Jesus or God in any form. The painter Washington Allston spoke for many artists of the 1810s when he said, “I think his character too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil.” A visiting Russian diplomat, Pavel Svinin, was amazed at the prevalence of a different image: George Washington’s. “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” he wrote, “just as we have images of God’s saints.”