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: Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics

soundoff (1,219 Responses)
  1. Jennfier J

    That statement about not being overly religious... Proclaiming to be Mormon IS being overly religious!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  2. Bill

    Anyone who runs for president has to distance him or herself from religion. If they don't do this then people suspect that a candidate will manage the country according to the teachings of his or her church. I remember Pres. Obama make a lot of effort to distance himself from his church. Of course Bush didn't do that and got the support of the Evangelicals. In the end the Republicans used the Evangelicals to get votes.

    Of course religious people never catch on the the country cannot be managed by the teachings of anyone's religion, because government is separate from religion; a president must act in the interest of all people or at least the majority.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  3. jude

    my teeny weeny "god" blew himself up billions of years ago to become a hume universe of all we see and do not see. everything..aminal life, plants water earth, all planets celetial stuff and stuff way way out there. gravity out there, here and also love (a form of gravity) will bring this whole thing back together some time in the future to reform as "god". that love stuff on earth has been a huge challengee on earth.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  4. George

    We're definitely not ready to have a cult in the White House.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • RandomDude

      Ha, bigot.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Chris

      Do some research moron.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • jude

      governments can handle one hockus pockus religion as a time best. thats the human way. countries with varying religions fight allot. countries with varying cultures fight allot. countries with varying ethnicities fight allot. it is no different than the single family unit. the more diverse, the more we fight and less we are willing to pay taxes for the good of all.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Joe

      Huntsman has an established record of public service. If you're sure he has beliefs that would lead to bad leadership, surely you could give some examples from his record?

      June 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      jude: I thought the distiguishing factor of religious pluralism between the United States and the historic British Monarchy is that we don't have to fight every time a religion goes in our out of vogue. Mormons afford all others the right to worship how or what they may.

      June 22, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  5. jcom

    37 year non-mormon Utah native. Huntsman was the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing when elected to office as governer here. He was a relative unknown from a well known and powerful family. Every on thought he would be more of the same...conservative mixed with religious idealism. What turned out could not have been further from this. He brought culture and broad minded thinking to a very closed minded state. He turned around our archaic liquor laws in a very short time and things, although relatively normal before and much to the contrary of what many outsiders may have thought, have improved ever since. It was a sad day when Obama stole him away and sent him overseas, but the wiser of us saw it coming well in advance. Obama always saw him as a threat and he knew this day might be coming. The ambassadorship didn't thwart Jon's greater intentions, it simply polished him a bit more.

    I predict Obama in 2012 and Huntsman in 2016.

    Side note. Mormons are Christians. Anyone who says they aren't is very uninformed, hasn't read, and makes themselves look idiotic by stating otherwise. Yes, they may be a different form of Christians, but they are Christians nonetheless. To me, an atheist, it's all hocus pocus, fairy tale stuff anyway. Sorry folks, when you die, it's over. Peace.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • garwin1

      It has to be true because Joseph Smith said so!!

      June 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • KC

      Hey jcom–hate to tell you, but bottom line–you don't know whether there's an after life any more than do those with a religion!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Lone

      As an atheist you should keep to your own yard and avoid trying to appear educated about and define for others a topic that you dismiss in the same breath. Deep Mormonism is about as Christian as Hinduism.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Chris

      Lone- education... get one.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  6. tom

    "I can't say I am overly religious?" What the heck does that mean?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Jeff C

      Claiming that you are not overly religious, is like saying, everything my religion teaches, or everything the bible teaches, is not necessarily something that I will stand up for 100% if cornered...? Although a staunch democrat, I still like the guy even though he said this.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  7. ihantotta

    Why is he wearing a tie in the middle of a field? Can't anyone just be natural and run for president?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • jcom

      Since when is Liberty State Park a field???

      June 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • dawn

      I don't think I want to see candidates running in the "natural" state.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  8. Tawanda

    I just don't understand where anyone gets the idea that they can analyze why someone else's religious views are what they are.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • George

      If someone said "I don't use the scientific method to guide my beliefs" wouldn't you want to know a lot more about just what the heck kind of method they *do* use to decide what's true and what isn't before you voted for them?

      June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Cherries

      It's the American way! It's not Ok to understand that others have different religious views. If you don't like others views, you do not have to shove your own onto them!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Tawanda

      If you believe that religious belief should be founded on the scientific method, I guess that makes sense. While I personally believe there is no conflict between religion and science, I also believe that the amount we have yet to dicover through scientific study is so vast, that I accept that there are things in this world that are real, and that we can't explain.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  9. T3chsupport

    He's the least dangerous republican in the field. I still won't vote for him, but it wouldn't be such a disaster if he were elected if it meant the alternative was someone crazy like Bachman or Cain or Gingrich etc.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  10. garwin1

    It would certainly appear from the picture that he holds firmly to the "Make More Mormons" edict.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  11. MarkAZ

    So he's a "Jack Mormon" there's alot where I live!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Joe

      I consider a "jack mormon" one who claims to believe but is lazy/hypocritical about it. That is different than openly disavowing fundamentalism and living according to that belief.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  12. Desjardins

    I will vote for him if he will allow polygamy in the states .

    June 21, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Sheldon

      Mainstream Mormonism rejected polygamy many years back.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • u crazy?

      I can't afford one wife, let alone two or more.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  13. joe

    Mormon or moron seeking the GOP nomination?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • ihantotta

      2 for the price of 1

      June 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  14. wendy5

    he is china's man; they are probly sponsoring him to look after their assets; i hate to say but if ron paul doesnt win i hopw sarah palin does ; anything is better than what we have ; mitt looks pretty good for 64 years old i will say that; but i am sticking with ron paul; google ami allen for the ron paul song its good

    June 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • wetfuse13485

      Sarah Palin.... come on.... then you are really asking for trouble.


      June 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Joy

      I'll bet Wendy can see Russia from her porch too. LOL What a joke!

      June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  15. KC

    Are there any ex mormon women who would like to step and tell us what you think of a woman's place in Mormonism?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Tawanda

      How about hearing from current Mormon women? Anyone who actually understands the doctrine wouldn't have a problem. Period.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Erin

      Ex-mormon women? Why? So she can sympathize with your preconcieved notions and prejudice? I am sure you probably don't want to hear that many Latter-Day saint women love their faith, their husbands, families and country and would give you their shirt off their back if you were in need.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      I have a sister-in-law that was religiously manipulated by my brother so much that they divorced. Do you honestly think she will have an accurate slant of Moromonism after that, or are you just in it for the sensationalism?

      June 22, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  16. Coffee Party Member

    He, like Ron Paul, are both talk-sense and realistic, rare endangered species of the GOP, which has over the years degenerate into a Gang of Republican preaching dogma over common sense, political rhetoric over workable solution, and personal attacks than objective judgement over issues. Sane people like Huntsman and Paul would never be liked by his colleagues. Too sad.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • ihantotta

      his voice would be drowned out by all the tea baggers and other wackos. I think Obama has done an ok job, even if I wish he had pushed harder for some things.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. jefffbo


    June 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Glen

      I guess reading isn't your first language. One of the women, I will let you try and figure it out, is his daugter and the other ,maybe you can figure this out too.......

      June 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • jefffbo

      Look at the picture again, a tad further back...

      June 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Chris

      There is no guy with two women especially in the back. That is two men and one woman. Open your eyes.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Dave

      LOL, notice that they are brothers and sisters, because we are looking at the politicians family.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  18. Cindi

    Well, as long as you know that the Mormans are an occult....I'm not saying they don't have a right to exist but the facts are in. That religion is an occult.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Pusser

      Before you call some thing an occult, learn the difference between the occult and a cult. Seems like you don't know what you're talking about when you make such an error.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • michael

      The 'Occult" is witchcraft. Mormans are not an "occult," they are a 'cult." There is a big difference.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Jensen

      An occult? That makes no sense. I think you mean cult. Dictionaries are readily available and not expensive. There are also many free dictionaries online.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • RandomDude

      The facts are in, you can't spell "Mormon".

      June 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Chris

      Anyone who claims that they are an occult or cult need to do some research instead of blindly believing what haters say. At least try to be smart.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      And as long as you know that you can divide by zero, I can prove to you that two equals one or anything else in the realm of mathematics that I want. But the truth is that your minister has been telling you that Mormonism is a "Cult" in the hopes that you would think he meant "Occult." It's not really lying, or is it?

      June 22, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  19. mc

    You don't hear anyone complaining about Jewish candidates or Catholic candidates, both religions that have just as questionable beliefs.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Chris

      They just love to hate what they don't understand.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  20. pocketa

    As a liberal democrat who voted for President Obama the last time around and probably will again in 2012, Jon Huntsman is the only Republican I've seen as worthy of serious consideration...mostly because he does not have the baggage of the other Republican candidates. Yes he's Mormon...so what? As a former Mormon myself, his faith is his business...just like JFK's Catholic faith when he was running (successfully) for office. He may or may not have a Temple Recommend...again, his business. I look forward to hearing his positions on the major issues facing our great nation and hope he does not stoop to the gutter politics, pandering to the evangelical right, and fear tactics as the other Republican candidates done. Good luck Mr Huntsman and please do us proud!!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:42 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.