June 21st, 2011
02:00 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
How key is Jon Huntsman’s Mormonism to understanding him and his rise as a politician?
His grandfather was an apostle in the Mormon church, his father is a lay leader in the church, and Huntsman himself was a Mormon missionary to Taiwan, which gave him the language skills that helped land his last job, as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China.
On the other hand, Huntsman - who officially launched his presidential campaign Tuesday - has publicly distanced himself from his Mormon faith.
“I can’t say I’m overly religious,” he told Fortune magazine last year, when he was still ambassador. “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.”
It’s not the only move that serious Mormons would consider slightly unorthodox. Salt Lake Tribune Washington correspondent Thomas Burr notes that one of Huntsman’s daughters was married in an Episcopal church.
And a Huntsman spokesman, Tim Miller, says the Huntsmans are raising their adopted Indian daughter “to learn about and appreciate her native culture and the faiths associated with it.”
“Jon Huntsman's Mormon roots run deep,” said Burr, who has covered Huntsman since his days as Utah’s governor in the mid-2000s. “Personally, Huntsman says he considers himself a Mormon, but he's also stressed that he gets inspiration from many faiths.”
It’s a contrast to the way the other Mormon candidate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has talked about his religious faith.
"Romney has not been shy about his love for his faith and gave a big speech in his 2008 campaign about it,” Burr said. “Those who know Huntsman and Romney would say that Romney is very active in his church, while Huntsman hasn't been as active."
A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official name of the Mormon church, would not comment on Huntsman's or Romney’s level of involvement in the church.
“We leave comment on the role of faith in an individual’s life to the individual,” said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.
But the differences between Huntsman's and Romney’s orientations toward their religion may have as much to do with generational differences as with levels of religious observance.
Matthew Bowman, an editor at a Mormon studies journal called Dialogue, says Romney appears to embody the Mormon retrenchment of the 1960s and 1970s, when the LDS church defined itself largely in opposition to the broader American culture, which was seeing cultural upheaval and the sexual revolution.
That attitude prevailed through the 1980s. “Leaders of the church were very pessimistic about the way they talked about American society, using apocalyptic rhetoric, framing America as the new Sodom and Gomorrah,” Bowman said. “There was this real attempt to tell Mormons that we need to distance ourselves from the country, to be different.”
Romney, 64, came of age during that era, which Bowman says explains why he appears defensive about his faith, seeming to see it as something that sets him apart.
There are some who “would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction or disavow one or another of its precepts,” Romney said in a 2007 speech in which he confronted the so-called Mormon question head-on. “That I will not do.”
It’s hard to imagine Huntsman, 51, making such a dramatic vow.
Bowman argues that that’s largely because Huntsman – who was born in 1960, 13 years after Romney – is part of a subsequent generation of Mormons who see themselves as quintessential Americans, not so different from their non-Mormon friends and neighbors.
That new attitude is evident in the LDS church’s current “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, which emphasizes that there are Mormons of all ethnicities and from all walks of life.
“Huntsman is a Mormon who thinks of his faith not as something that separates him from American culture or as something he has to defend or explain away, which is what Romney did,” Bowman said.
That’s not to say Huntsman is unobservant. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the newly minted presidential candidate occasionally attended LDS services both as governor and as ambassador.
A survey released this month by the Pew Research Center found that a quarter of American adults admit to being less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president.
The survey found that resistance to Mormon candidates was even higher among two groups: liberal Democrats and evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican. One in three white evangelicals said they were less likely to support a Mormon candidate.
Evangelicals form huge part of the GOP electorate in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.
If some GOP voters are more likely to vote for Huntsman because he seems less overtly Mormon, others may be less apt to because of his reputation as a moderate.
For instance, Huntsman signed a law that introduced civil unions for gay couples when he was governor of Utah, putting him at odds with his church, which strenuously opposes gay unions.
“I don’t know Huntsman at all, but his reputation is one of a moderate,” said Michael Farris, an influential evangelical activist. “If that’s justified, there’s no chance I’ll support him.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.