Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State Doesn't Think So. He writes,
To hear the religious right tell it, men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were 18th-century versions of Jerry Falwell in powdered wigs and stockings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Unlike many of today's candidates, the founders didn't find it necessary to constantly wear religion on their sleeves. They considered faith a private affair.
Contrast them to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (who says he wouldn't vote for an atheist for president because nonbelievers lack the proper moral grounding to guide the American ship of state), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who hosted a prayer rally and issued an infamous ad accusing President Barack Obama of waging a "war on religion") and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (whose uber-Catholicism leads him to oppose not just abortion but birth control).
There was a time when Americans voted for candidates who were skeptical of core concepts of Christianity like the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth. The question is, could any of them get elected today? The sad answer is probably not.
Boston employs five Founders to make his argument: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Payne. As a novice student of the Founder's religious views, I find myself sympathetic with portions of Boston's argument, but I think it does lack some nuance and that two of his examples are not helpful.
The faith of George Washington is somewhat of an enigma. Both the left and the right use him as an example to further their political agendas, but that, I believe, reveals why Washington is not helpful in the current discussion. It is true, contrary to the views of the religious right, that Washington was no card carrying evangelical. He did use the typical deistic language of his day (e.g. referring to God as Providence) and he most certainly was not trying to convert his soldiers at Valley Forge. For some reason, known only to Washington and lost forever from history, is the fact that he never took Communion during worship, although his wife Martha did. However, the evidence that he was a card-carrying deist is also lacking. His use of "deistic terminology" for God was commonplace in colonial America, employed by non-deistic and particularly Reformed theologians and pastors like Jonathan Edwards. Moreover, Washington also called for times of prayer and fasting among his troops on several occasions, hardly a regular practice among deists. Thus, Washington is not a good example because his faith appears to be a faith similar to that of George H. W. Bush- a private faith not spoken of too often, but a faith in a personal God, that cannot be described as evangelical, but perhaps orthodox on the main tenets of the faith- and Bush was elected president in 1988.
Thomas Paine is also not a helpful example. Yes, Paine's pamphlet, "The America Crisis" greatly stirred the Revolutionary cause, but his writings often ridiculed Christianity. When he died, no Christian church would receive his body for burial in their cemeteries. Paine was buried on his farm but his bones were later exhumed for burial in England, which did not happen. The whereabouts of his remains remain a mystery. Upon Paine's death, The New York Citizen observed, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
The point here in reference to Paine is that while he never held public office during his life, his chances of being elected president of the United States were about as slim in his own time as well as today. Thus, Paine counters Boston's argument as well.
So, now we move on to the place where Boston is on firmer footing-- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. While I am not sure that the term deist adequately applies to John Adams, he was far from orthodox in his theology-- rejecting the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and stating explicitly that the United States was not founded upon the Christian religion. Jefferson and Madison were deists in the quintessential sense-- Jefferson rejecting the miracles of the Gospels and in particular the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In reference to James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, he did indeed reject government paid chaplains for the military and found Jefferson's deism very congenial.
So, the question remains-- could the Founders be elected president of the United States in the 21st century? The answer to that question depends specifically upon the Founder? Washington might and Payne would most certainly not, but he likely would not have been elected in his day either. But Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, who were elected in their day would likely not (and I say that somewhat cautiously) be elected in 2012. Their theological convictions and their views on the relationship between church and state would make their campaigns quite problematic in the eyes of many contemporary Americans. That being said, I think Madison's rejection of government paid military chaplains would likely be more controversial than Jefferson's rejection of the miracles of Jesus.
Of course, if Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, should win the Republican nomination and go on to win the presidency, then all future arguments on this matter are up for grabs. And for those who are so sure that none of the Founders could be elected, I ask them at what point has Mitt Romney been asked about the Trinity in the Republican presidential debates?
Perhaps the matter is more complex than our narrow political agendas will allow.