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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: Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics

soundoff (1,219 Responses)
  1. John

    I'd vote for Huntsman... in 2016. Not 2012. Sorry Huntsman, you seem like a swell guy, I hope you're just using 2012 as a staging ground, because you'd be a good pick in 2016.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • An Actual Mormon

      sadly i think im goign to have to agree. Loved Huntsman as my govenor, and he really is a moderate republican who i, a bonofied socialist, am very pleased with his civil rights polocies and other such things. But the republican party just cant accept a moderate right now, but in 2016, he's got my vote assuming theres not someone better

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

      Yes, I'm guessing Obama will win 2012. I'm hoping Huntsman will run in 2016, I think he will have a better chance then.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  2. Eric

    Holy crap! The Duggars are going for the White House!

    June 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  3. John

    I've always been werided out by Morms. They seem like they're from another planet.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  4. Jonathan

    "If he's a moderate I won't vote for him"...How dare someone try and be fair.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  5. Jwa

    Its amazing what the american people think about mormanism! The truth is that mormons have better family values and better morals than others religions. And for all of you that see polygamy as mormonism. Your wrong! There are many other religions that practice polygamy. But I don't hear anything about them.The mormon religion has made polygamy a very big no no. In fact you get excommunicated for practicing it. It would be a definent change for us all to see a mormon as a president.

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

      Too many people watch "Big Love" and believe it's factual concerning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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

      The problem with a Mormon candidate is that you run up against a person who may put their religion above country and many Americans will not tolerate that, myself included. On the other hand, Mr. Huntsman seems the most level headed of all the GOP candidates for president, that and his religion will make him unpalatable to the Republican base which is decidedly not level headed. While Mr. Huntsman may gain traction with independent voters, he will be a casualty of the Tea Party influence in the Republican party.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      Jim, I can't speak for any other Mormons, but if I ever had to put religion in front of my country, there would have to be something realy seriously messed up with my country. Really really seriously.

      June 22, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  6. Lori

    I don't understand raising their adopted Indian daughter in her native Hindu faith. When you adopt a child, you bring him or her into your family and all that it believes. Yes you can teach her about India and if she is interested later on, about Hinduism, but otherwise I think raising one child in a faith different from the others just makes her stand out from the rest of the family more.

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

      In the same token, when she grows up, she can choose to become Mormon if that's what she wants.

      I think it's very honorable that Jon raised her Hindi - or at least to the extent you can raise a child in a different environment other than your own. The beautiful thing about people growing up with differences is that differences become more acceptable. Being different itself does not cause separation; the intolerance of being different does. And what better way to teach tolerance than to expose children to differences.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. luvnmyusa*=

    The White House isn't big enough for multiple First Ladys and umpteen kids.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  8. Kylie

    I am a liberal, and I actually really like Jon Huntsman. I hope he stays moderate while he campaigns.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Samuel Raines

      As am I, and I like him too. You know, I think Huntsman is a pretty smart, open-minded, thoughtful person who isn't really going to sway much with the political waters. Good for him. Will still vote for Obama though ha.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  9. Stuart

    He was a great governor, and that's coming from a Utah liberal. I wish he were still our governor. Maybe in 2016 I'd vote for him. But for 2012 – Obama gets my vote! The mormon thing is no less crazy than any other religion. 🙂

    June 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  10. Molly

    Being Mormon myself, I think there is a difference between being a Utah Mormon and a Mormon in the "mission field" (outside of Utah). I think Huntsman has spent enough time away from Utah to experience other religions and other cultures to have an appreciation for them. In my opinion Mormons outside of Utah have a better appreciation for cultural differences and reilgions because we are exposed to them. I've never been to Utah, so I'm making my observations from people who are transplants from Utah. Of course in the South we have churches of all kinds, if you don't like a church just start your own.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • An Actual Mormon

      as a mormon in utah (the reddest republicans in the country are mormons, so why the don't like us ill never know) your spot on, mormon culture, and then utah mormon culture are to completly diffrent things. Huntsman has gotten around in the world and therefor is a lot diffrent from Utah mormons

      June 21, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  11. albert

    It should be of interest to all that in the Bible, Jesus said "“They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.”—John 17:16. Among other things, this included politics. Jesus was not political, nor did he advocate his followers to do so. In fact Jesus only spoke of one Kingdom that he advocated, and spoke of the destruction of the rest -Daniel 2:44.

    The truth is that most so-called "Christians" have no faith in Gods kingdom. Otherwise they would not get involved in politics. This article is further proof that Mormons do not have the truth of the Bible. Many of the worlds problems can be attributed to religion sticking it's nose in politics.

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

      "This article is further proof that Mormons do not have the truth of the Bible."

      Pretty general statement about all Mormons based on an article about ONE of them.

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

      I find this comment amusing considering that Adam, Enoch, and Moses were all political leaders in addition to being prophets. And there are many more. How we believers be good citizens if they are not involved in their communities? How can they be truly involved if they refuse to take any leadership role?

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

      "Adam, Enoch, and Moses were all political leaders"

      First off, Adam was not a political leader. Enoch and Moses were leaders of Gods people and not political. Stop listening to your preachers and priests and actually read/study what the Bible REALLY says.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      Well, the Bible says that David was highly favored of the Lord even tough he did not have a ruddy coutenance. Surely his kingdom had a political aspect to it, no?

      June 22, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  12. JustMe

    He bought out a company my husband worked for years ago. I will say, he treated his employees AND their families, very very well.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  13. Mel

    I don't think any Christian , Jew, muslim will vote for a mormon.. Mormonism is a cult. How can you trust someone who belongs to a cult to run a country?

    June 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • svscnn

      One could say the same thing about any of the other religions you just mentioned. As with most everyone else, he was born into Mormonism and has simply stuck with what he was raised upon.

      Not so different from the vast majority of Americans raised with and still practicing the religions you mention.

      I don't know enough about him to say that I would or wouldn't vote for him. I'm just saying that his religion is no more or less important a factor in that decision than any of the other candidates'.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      What does it mean to call any religion a :"cult"? Most scholars of religioon agree that the appellation "cvult" is just a conclusory term people use to label religions they don;t like. It has no objective meaning, and provides no information about a particular religion or its characteristics. The world "cult" is related to "culture" and refers to "worship,e.g. the "cult of the virgin Mary", that is, the pattern of worship of Mary in Catholicism.

      So the claim that Mormonism is a "cult" has no meaningful semantic content. And the kinds of lists of "cult attributes" that are bandied around by various people out on the fringes of Christianity would apply just as much to the disciples of Jesus Christ during his lifetime and during the period depicted in the New Testament.

      Mormons live and work in the real workld. They are not sleep and food deprived kids who are under hypnosis or drugs. they live in famillies with spouses and children, and often grandparents too. they are not in isilated compounds. They don't mutilate themselves. Like Huntsman, some of them like rock and roll music. They are educated people, with BA, MA and PhD degrees. They are doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists. Like Huntsman, they are pretty smart cookies who speak foreign languages and have lived all over the world. They are free to leave the LDS Church at any time, and some do. The LDS Church has no physical or mental controls over its members. It is a completely voluntary organization. And no one gets rich by being LDS. No LDS minister is paid for his service. LDS do not solicit donations form people who are NOT Mormons. They don't sell things to make money for the church.

      All the usual attributes claimed for "cults" apply more to the Girl Scouts than they do the Mormons.

      June 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  14. DWT

    That wife's got a figure.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • linda

      yes, I noticed his wife's nice figure also. She'd beat out any of the 1st wives.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  15. Heavyarms

    Go grab the popcorn... cuz here... we... go...

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

      LOL!! I'll bring some Junior Mints!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • luvnmyusa*=

      And a soda!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  16. MrBigStuff

    It wasn't that long ago there were fears that a man couldn't get elected because he was Roman Catholic. It was thought to be a real issue at the time. The Mormon issue now seems similar to the discourse about JFK in 1960. The only real issue is, what can you do for your country?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  17. claire

    "Anyone who actually understands the doctrine wouldn't have a problem." It's easy to trick so many people by kind words and good gestures. Ultimately, I not only heard but understood the doctrine, saw the church for what it was and rejected it. Tawanda, you are wrong.

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

      @John...you must love yourself for condemning censorship but promoting intolerance.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  18. CLee

    Hopefully one day we get to a place where we make political decisions based upon experience, skill, and ability vs religious or ethnic backgrounds. Living in Utah I can speak to the fact that I have been impressed with what he has brought to the table and look at him based on those reasons only. His religious choices do not impact that decision for me.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  19. Kevin

    I'm a Democrat and I'd vote for Huntsman.

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

      And it is for that reason alone that I would not vote for him. But then, it's not like he'll make it past the primary anyway.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • An Actual Mormon

      Im a socialist and I'de vote for Huntsman :). Really loved how he handled being govenor of Utah, he truly is a bi-partisian politcian. But saddly the republicna party is a basket case of radicals at the moment so i think he'll have to wait until 2016 if he wants a shot at being the republican canidate. Turns out being a good politician who compromises so everyone can win isn't what the republican party is looking for in 2012

      June 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  20. Larry

    Way to go Republicans!

    2 Mormons. One will run for President, the other will be his running mate.

    Lets see if the the faithful followers of Christianity (Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews and the elderly) will vote for either of them.

    I seriously doubt it.

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

      That might actually be the start of a new and viable third party.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:17 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.