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Understanding Jon Huntsman's distinct brand of Mormonism
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman before formally announcing his presidential campaign in Jersey City, New Jersey on Tuesday.
June 21st, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Understanding Jon Huntsman's distinct brand of Mormonism

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Faith Now • Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics

soundoff (1,219 Responses)
  1. Rebecca

    If he is a moderate, there is no chance I'll support him.... Extremists are never shy, are they?

    October 10, 2011 at 3:12 am |
  2. Jakell

    I am a very non-religious person. I lived in Michigan when Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, was Governor. I voted for George Romney after I became of age to vote. It was well known that George Romney was a Mormon and he was elected Governor of Michigan at least twice, was a popular governor, and was a promising candidate for President in 1968. I think that to consider the religious affiliation of a candidate in deciding how a vote should be case is un-american. People who won't vote for Mitt Romney or John Huntsman solely or primarily because they are Mormon should be ashamed of themselves.

    October 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  3. James

    I would not vote for a Mormon. I cannot respect the judgement of anyone who would adopt religious beliefs that were so obviously fabricated and are so easily falsified. Huntsman, on the other hand, pretty clearly does not hold Mormon beliefs: he is "not overly religious." He deserves a close look. I suspect that he is a secular humanist but knows that he could not get the Republican nomination (and likely not the Democratic nomination) if he were to profess such a position.

    October 9, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Rebecca

      No religion on this planet can be anything other than "so obviously fabricated and ... so easily falsified." Christianity relies on faith alone, there is no proof. Ditto all the religions. Granting that I had a "religious experience" when I was 12... alone on a jetty looking at the ocean... I am still aware that my experience was absolutely not proof in any rational sense of the word.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:23 am |
  4. chefdugan

    I am in my 80's and have been active in a very public way for most of my life.I can't remember a single instance when what Morman's believe or do not believe influenced my life. I can't say the same about Evangelicals since they seem to want to tell everyone what to believe, or the Catholics, since they want to turn a blind eye to the sins of their leaders. Besides, the Mormans should be given credit for bringing some great football players from the South Pacific into the NFL. The evangelicals only gave us Tim Tebow and we know what he's like.

    October 9, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  5. Mike Koch

    As an active Mormon, it is always so interesting to me to read these comments and see how I am viewed by others and by the media. For anyone who is interested in knowing why one dude is standing by his religion, I have a sort of profile which explains why I am a Mormon: http://mormon.org/me/2G66/

    October 9, 2011 at 1:39 am |
  6. Jacalyn

    I guess finding useful, reliable ifnrmoaiton on the internet isn't hopeless after all.

    October 6, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  7. Jean Clelland-Morin

    I'm an ex-Mormon, agnostic graduate of Brigham Young University. My religion is the Golden Rule. I have difficulty believing that Huntsman is really a Mormon in his heart. But there's a problem: If you want to be elected to the presidency, you must be a believer (or claim you are). Sad but true in this day and age. // Jean Clelland-Morin

    August 21, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  8. Tammy Edge

    I lived in utah all of my life prior to moving to Idaho four years ago. I am 52 years young. I was brought up in the LDS religion. I do not practice. When I left Utah 4 years ago, I commented to my spouse"If Jon Hunstman ever runs for president, I will vote for him!" This goes against all of my religious and political values, yet I KNOW he is the man for the job!!!
    Tammy Edge

    July 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  9. Truth Teller

    The Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus and Lucifier are brothers and Lucifier is the brother that won.

    This is Satanism. Mormonanism is the occult with mainstream acceptence. The Spirit of God is not here. Mormons aren't in it for God. they are in it for the loaves and fishes.

    God is calling you out of Babylon ( false religous belief). Mormons give your heart to the real Jesus Christ. ( the one in the Bible ) otherwise you'll suffer the doom of the second death. Why ye die, turn ye turn ye from your ways and live ye

    July 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Lance

      I just had to reply to the incorrect statement of Mormon doctrine. Lucifer did not win, but was kicked out of Heaven. He lost pretty big.

      July 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Alex

      As someone who grew up mormon and even served a mormon mission I gotta say you evangelical Christians are morons. You completly misquote the Book of Mormon with bullcrap like " that Lucifer won." There is plenty of ammo against mormons without having to make crap up because you are either too stupid or lazy to get your facts straight. The truth is its true that theres little or no archelogical evidence that points to the book of mormon but it actually doesnt teach anything contrary to popular biblical concepts with the exception of origional sin and baptism by immersion.
      The true BS comes from early mormon leaders. You could discredit the mormon church by commenting on crazy Brigham Young comments like his desire to "spread the gospel to the people of the moon" or Bruce Mckonkie saying that Blacks were "fence sitters in the pre existence."
      The truth is Mormons are normal people who beleive some weird stuff. It doesnt mean they are going to hell. It doesnt disqualify them for the presidency either unless they are a staunch mormon like Romney, but Bauchman and Santorum should be cut out for the same reason. Religious zealots are not fit to lead no matter what religion. Since Huntsman isnt a zelot then his religion shouldnt matter.

      August 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Brad Wheeler

      why don't you try reading the book of mormon before telling lies about what's in it. nowhere in the book of mormon does it say that, don't believe me? read it for yourself.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • badlobbyist

      Truth Teller – I'm a non-Mormon Utah native and you scare me more than any brainwashed Mormon sheep I have ever met, and I've met a lot of them. (Not saying they all are, but a good many are.)
      Huntsman is hands down the best guy the Republicans could pick. Thank goodness (not god) that they are too stupid to pick the best man for the job.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Rebecca

      Whoa, this is absolutely a lie! Of course, teabagger terrorists never worry about all that lying sending them to.... abide with Satan.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  10. Zach

    Jack-what sort of book or mormon evidence is inconsistend with the archaelogical and anthropological record of North America? The fact that nearly every native population believed in the return of the "great white God" that had visited them before? The fact that reformed eqyptian hieroglyphics are found regularly throughout the americas? (e.g. grand canyon) What about the similarity in names among the native american population and those of the middle east? What about the similarities in culture and writing styles among aborigines, pacific islanders and native americans, for which the Book of Mormon provides hints of common ancestory?

    More than anything, as with the Bible, the Book of Mormon testifies of Jesus Christ as the Savior and redeemer of the world. It encourages every reader to seek to know of its truth for themselves by studying it with pure intent (in other words, not with the intent to bash it, but to learn of it) and pray to God to know for themselves if it is truly scripture. I encourage you to do the same before making assumptions that have zero backing.

    June 29, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  11. Benjamin Campbell

    Gotta love it when cheesy born-again evangelicals attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator in society by using tired old stereotypes and downright falsehoods at times to denigrate the Mormons, a group that actually does a much better job at christian charity and being kind to their neighbors than any of the rope-for-belts, Bible thumpin, tonguespeaking, televangelist supporting, preaching-for-hire schumcks that is modern day protestant evangelical Christianity today. We Mormons don't mind if you despise us, in fact we expect it. But it's pathetic to see you act as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Go back to worshiping your mutant three-in-one, one-in-three god, we won't hinder you. I just hope the rest of America doesn't pander to you bottom feeders.

    June 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Cathy

      Way to represent, Brother Campbell. Tell 'em how worthless they are, that'll bring 'em around.

      June 29, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  12. Eric

    I live in Utah (non-mormon) and I pretty sure the LDS church actually supported the civil union legislature. There is no way it would have been passed in the legislature if the church didn't support it considering the state legislature is like 70-80% mormon. The are vehemently opposed to gay marriages but I am fairly certain they discretely supported the civil union legislature.

    June 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Andrew

      Eric is right. The LDS Church does support equal legal rights and does support civil unions for gay couples. It seems like a lot of editors are missing errors by their reporters recently.

      June 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Cathy

      Did these civil unions include the right of survivorship, right to adopt children, FMLA eligibility, and the ability to take advantage of any tax (and other) benefits afforded to married couples?

      June 29, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  13. Anathoth

    As an evangelical II would vote for a Mormon if I liked the candidate.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  14. Name*Chedar

    Mr Hunstman speaks one of the most difficult language of the world Chinese. He is a well traveled person and one that understand the world at large. He is the man every democrat fears. A man for all seasons. He will get my vote. More power to you Mr Huntsman

    June 28, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • MinJae Lee

      For hundreds of millions of people Mandarin Chinese is the easiest language in the world. It's actually not that difficult for English speakers but most Americans have so little experience with learning languages that they tend to spout nonsense whenever they speculate about it. If you're basing your vote on the fact that Mr. Huntsman speaks Chinese I think you have a serious problem.

      August 23, 2011 at 3:15 am |
    • Lisa

      As a democrat, I think Huntsman is the only republican candidate that makes any sense at all. I don't fear him, but I do fear he will not get very far as a candidate because he's not extreme enough.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  15. John Henson

    What Huntsman is saying is, "You don't have to hold your nose and vote for me because I'm not a member of the cult like Romney is." There ain't no such animal, folks. Mormonism is a cult like any other kind of cult. It has never tolerated deviation. Look into the history of Mormonism and you'll see.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • kls817

      Mormonism is not a cult. Cults are characterized by extremely charismatic leaders and they attempt to separate the individuals from society. Mormon leader are not charaismatic (they are logical – not emotional – leaders from the business and academic community) and mormons are encouraged to go out into the world and not hide from it.
      As a non-mormon (I'm catholic) who has lived among them I believe I am qualified to talk on this matter.
      Actually, many evangelical congregations are more accurately described as cults be the above definitions. I wouldn't be surprised if John Henson is among them. John: take a good look at yourself and take care that your church doesn't take away your free will to think for yourself and view others with the kind-heartedness that Jesus asks you to.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Megan

      I suggest you take your own advice and look into the religion before making outlandish accusations against it.

      June 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  16. Jonathan

    It takes a special kind of man to minimize your faith in order to gain public approval. By special I mean cowardly.

    June 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • MinJae Lee

      I agree, Jonathan, there is something rather smarmy about Jon Huntsman's remarks concerning his religion. It's like he's afraid to take a solid stand one way or the other because he knows that there will be people who hate him with either answer. He's decided not to take a stand to avoid the hate – I prefer leaders who have the courage to stand up for their convictions.

      August 23, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  17. David K.

    Pretty interesting read reveals one persons account of the religion. I have a work acquaintance who is LDS and yes they do still wear those undergarments but he denies anything else that this book reveals. Is he honest or protecting the church?
    Dunno. I have to wonder.

    Secret Ceremonies: Diary of a Mormon

    June 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Well, either the book is wrong, or your friend is involved in a vast satanic conspiracy. Yeah, the conspiracy sounds a lot more believable. I mean, I read a book that says that the President is a Martian, obviously any denial of that is a coverup.

      June 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  18. Rob

    I am a 27 year old Latter-day Saint and I find the "Mormon retrenchment of the 1960s and 1970s" completely absurd. There has always been different levels of devotion within any religion. A "new" generation of Mormons is just an opinion.

    June 25, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • Tina

      You simply weren't alive for it, if you're only 27. Anyone around 40 or older can attest to the prevalence of the retrenchment mindset noted in the article. The only part I disagree with is the idea that the retrenchment is somehow a thing of the past. There are plenty of people who still cling to that world view and are constantly telling church members, youth in particular, ways to essentially distance themselves from their peers. It's also a regional phenomenon. In my current Seattle-area stake, I find most parent are downright fearful of sending their kids to any college that isn't a church-run college, opting to send their kids to a lesser-quality school (like BYU's Idaho campus) than a better-rated local university or even the Univ of Utah (also academically superior to BYUI). They're afraid they really can't handle the world unless they're surrounded almost exclusively by other Mormons. However, this mindset was not, as is not, nearly as prevalent where I grew up in Southern California. Retrenchment is unfortunately alive and well amongst many church members, despite Salt Lake's efforts to try to change it with ad campaigns.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Andy

      There is a degree of retrenchment in all religions, but it was particularly prevalent in the LDS church in the 60s and 70s. The Church didn't let Black people hold the pristhood or participate temple cerimonies until 1978. That caused a certain degree of friction between the church and the rest of society, and that has since subsided.

      June 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  19. Adam

    Indeed, Jack. But this is only a problem if one endeavors to uphold the best and truest representation one can about how the universe actually IS. Based upon the fact that people like Romney coldly dismiss the relevance of the propositional claims he must necessarily hold as a member of his faith, and that people like Hunstman admit to an appreciation of mutually exclusive religious "influence," to me says that they are unwilling to admit to actually believing what they MUST believe in order to be Mormon. Sadly it is undeniable that in our society today empty adherence to insane propositional claims of absolute truth are infinitely more admirable than humble admissions of metaphysical uncertainty.

    June 25, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  20. Jack

    The Book of Mormon is so demonstrably false that I find it hard to believe many Mormons truly believe it is factual. Whatever you want to believe about the Bible's relation of supernatural events, it is beyond reasonable dispute that much of Biblical history is corroborated by archeology. Not so the tales told in the Book of Mormon. They are totally inconsistent with the archaeological and anthropological record of North America.

    June 25, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Adam

      I almost called you for total BS until I saw that you wrote "most" of Biblical events are corroborated by evidence. However, even that is a stretch, I agree that there are some events but the Bible can be just as questionable if you really look.

      June 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Zelda

      They are not Christians and will perish in the lake of fire. They need to be right like I am.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Jackie

      http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html

      I would also recommend picking up Hugh Nibley's "Lehi in the Desert" and "The World of the Jaredites"

      http://www.achoiceland.com/home

      What Card and Nibley point out is that, if Joseph Smith or someone close to him wrote the Book of Mormon, they were the luckiest fakers in the history of the world. The odds that he could get as many things right as he did, especially considering the low level of education he had, are completely improbable.

      July 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
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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.