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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. Tara

    Will having a morman president mean we will have multiple first ladies in the white house?

    June 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • VegasRage

      I hope so

      June 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  2. hi

    how can you raise an Indian girl in the Hindu faith if she doesnt live in India. My 9th Grade Global course said that Hindus become outcasts once they leave the indus- river valley area

    June 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  3. scdad

    I only vote for athiests.
    Most politicians are christians, and talk about their friend jesus, but they cheat on their wives, sell their souls to Middle Eastern conglomerates who want our port infrastructure, and fondle little boys at choir practice.
    Keep church and state seperate!!!!! Religious cults should have no place in politics.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • 3vix6

      Hey.. Moral values at their finest! I mean, you can have 3 divorces or cheat on your wife as long as you go back to religion afterwards and tell the public you've made a change of face... Rather than owning up to what they've done without an imaginary friend to hide behind.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  4. VegasRage

    An Angel named Moroni and those golden plates no one spare Joseph Smith got to see... what do you get today special undies to gird your loins with truth with.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Aware Ness

      Love your post and its TRUE.... except Joseph managed to get 1-2 people to claim they saw them and felt them. Which I doubt the plates ever existed... but never fear, since Moroni wouldnt return the plates Joseph decided to put his favorite "seer stone" into a hat and spoke the book of Mormon that way to his wife Emma. The first book was lost by I think his name was Harris, who'd taken the book home to show his wife who'd become increasingly disgruntled over the amount of money they were pouring into Joseph's "religion".

      The "history" from which the Mormons came from does NOT exist in any archaeological records.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  5. 3vix6

    I'm waiting for the day where religion doesn't matter in a political race. I hope that Atheists/Agnostics can run and not need to believe in a God to be able to do service for their country.

    I myself am an Atheist, but I believe in my country and I believe in people to do the right thing whether they have a God or not.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • scdad

      Amen!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • VegasRage

      Why not, after all most Republicans don't even know the Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • sara

      I so agree with you. What's religion got to do with politics anyways.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  6. sonofgadfly

    Is America ready to elect a president without inquiring as to his/her religion?

    June 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  7. Bill Carney

    Give me a break! The family picture which accompanied the story was as staged and positioned as a fly-over by the "Thunderbirds" Just another rich phony in my book!

    June 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  8. NO-MORMONS

    Sorry dallasfreeways both those things used to be true about Mormons. Undeniable, very easily provable, fact.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  9. Kerygma

    I don't vote for people passing themselves off as wolves in sheep's clothing.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  10. Cindy Bear

    what about his undies... do Mormon's still have to wear "Special Garments' I am just asking because honestly I don't know any Mormons.. does he wear special undies ????

    June 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  11. Chieflaughingwagon

    Ring ring...vote for me! Ha ha ha...no thanks 🙂

    June 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  12. JB

    Reading these pages is so disillusioning.

    Whatever your feelings are on religion, it seems the definition of cult that is in widespread use is: a group professing some religious beliefs that differ from your own, that is little understood or otherwise feared, and who you are just dying to slander.

    It is also disheartening to see that so many abhor bigotry....unless it is aimed at your ideological opponent. In that case it is more than tolerated, it's celebrated.

    It's so disappointing to see our society in such serious decline.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  13. Kerygma

    I'm anti-false gospels!

    June 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      Excellent choice. So was Saul, and look how he turned out.

      June 22, 2011 at 4:15 am |
  14. annieL

    Obama's religion was certainly made a BIG part of his fitness for the job by opponents. THe pastor of the church he attended, the primary school he attneded briefly as a child, his father's faith, etc. Millions of ignorant Americans to this day insist he is a Muslim!! So why not drag Huntsman and Romney through the same religious-test mudhole Personally, I think of Mormons more as fanatical businessmen rather than fanatical religious men. Once their young "elders" do their door-knocking bicycle-riding "mission" work, they settle down to making millions. Money is their true religion.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      thumbs up !

      June 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      This is a myth too. I could have used an extra million. 🙂

      June 22, 2011 at 4:13 am |
  15. Seamate

    I've met Mr. Huntsman on several occasions, publicly and privately, when he was ambassador to China and found him to be sincere and genuine. Any successful politician MUST be tactically adroit to get ahead, but his record of service is unimpeachable, and the opening tones of his candidacy extremely heartening as he seeks to lay out his vision for the country and stay away from the negativity and disrespect of our current President as a person that seems to permeate the other candidates. Disagree on issues, but respect the man, and more importantly the office while telling us what he is going to do. For now, he's my front runner.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  16. Nurse Lisa

    no Mormon nor atheist will get my vote for president

    June 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Chieflaughingwagon

      Amen!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Jim

      Wow thats a huge generalization. I hate how many Americans are STUPID. I mean are you going to throw Woman in there as well?

      June 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Kunst

      Shame on you.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  17. Kerygma

    I'm anti-Morman!

    June 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • kayaker247

      there weren't any ugly chicks in that main page pic, that's for sure. well placed. those republicans sure know how to market themselves. I'd vote for him just to see more of the eye candy. lol. kidding.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  18. Eric

    So what he is saying is that he is a fence sitter. That's exactly what we need in a president... What's the matter with having conviction to your beliefs? Mitt Romney has shown that he is not willing to change or downplay his beliefs to get into office.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  19. Janice Purser

    You are all very funny!!! Before you write off a Mormon you need to learn more about the religeon. It is not a cult. They do not have multiple wives. (The reorganized church does but they are not connected to mormons). You have to admit that having a preisdent office that is true to his wife and not having an affair is a candidate that has self control and a sense of moral rightness. I would choose Romney first and then Huntsman just because I respect Romney for being so forth right
    and not trying to get votes at any cost. He is a good man with high standards and he is a family man and very capable of getting America out of this economic mess. He also will not comprmise his high standards at any cost. You need to learn more about Mormons by going to this web site: LDS.org. Then make an enlightened decision for yourself not based upon hear say.... Good luck I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • NRPJim

      IT is a cult and I will not vote for anyone that wears magic underwear!

      June 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • NO-MORMONS

      WOW you are seriously delusional and completely clueless.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Merrilyne

      Where I live, there are plenty of polygamous Mormons. They live on the border between Idaho and Wyoming, one family on one side of the state line one on the other. Polygamy is alive and kicking here, and they are definitely Mormons.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Aware Ness

      The reorganized church IS related to mainstream Mormons. How so you may ask? Well mainstream, re-org and even fundamentalists all came from the same root origin – that is the convicted fraud Joseph Smith Jr.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • sugarmama

      I agree, but to augment your education, please Google the following terms in conjunction with the letters LDS : 'groupthink,' 'Mountain Meadows,' 'excommunication,' 'Proposition 8,' 'racism,' 'tax exempt status' and 'cult.' Very interesting.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      The LDS church is a cult because many of their teachings differ significantly from historic Christian theology. To list a few of their teachings – they believe in many gods, that God was created and has a body; that Jesus was the first of many sons; that humans pre-existed before birth and that we can become gods. Ok so many think Mormonism isn't a big deal and think the religiously wishy-washy Huntsman and strongly convicted Romney are good guys – but is being good men enough?

      June 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Mark

      I almost hope we do have a Mormon candidate because it will force Americans to learn about the bizarre world of Mormonism. While there are so many claims, and defenses (..no, we don't have multiple wives...actually they still think they will have multiple wives in the afterlife...), they are some unbelievable things that "regular" Mormons believe. For example, every Mormon who leads the right life, thinks they will be "exalted" and be god of their own planet...no kidding...that nice Mormon living next door to you thinks that...ask them...they'll be embarassed about it, but won't deny it...and this is just the tip of the iceberg

      June 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      In defense of the Reorganized LDS Church, they never beleived in polygamy and claim that all of Joseph Smith's wives were fabricated by enemies of the Church, so they definitely win the polygamy issue. You are thinking of the FLDS Church and Warren Jeffs. I'm sure both LDS and RLDS would like to distance themselve from the FLDS as much as possible.

      June 22, 2011 at 4:27 am |
    • SCMorrell

      Mark, I will deny it right now. At no time have I ever considered being a god of my own planet. When you ask this to LDS members, we just try to imagine what germ of truth has made you think we would beleive in this. That embarrassed look means we are embarrassed for you.

      June 22, 2011 at 4:43 am |
  20. abby

    Son of a billionaire? Well, I guess he's another candidate who thinks he can buy the presidency.... but his moderate views will turn off the rabid right, the righteous right....

    June 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • jcom

      Huntsman has behaved, his whole life, about as far from the son of a billionaire as one could. For this reason, I tip my hat to the man. He is very humble considering his background and upbrining. Quite the opposite of Romney and, being a non-Mormon from Utah, I've seen both front and center, up close and personal.

      June 21, 2011 at 7:06 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.