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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. Mike

    Any Christian here lambasting Mormonism for their "wild" and "false" stories is an utter hypocrite. I guess some fairy tales have more merit than others? lmao. Pot calling the kettle black much?

    That said, considering religion in voting for the presidency is essentially anti-American. First Amendment anyone? I don't care if he's Mormon – if he's the most qualified, then I'm voting for him.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Andrew

      I agree with you but just for this guy. Mitt Romney claims to be a staunch supporter and believer of Mormonism, I would never vote for that. We are in a 10 years ongoing war because our president admits he was speaking to 'god' and taking what he heard into advisement... seriously? It's 2011 and I think it's ridiculous to appease people who think it is acceptable to push whatever crazy fairy tale stories they believe in onto everyone else in the expectation that fully grown reasoning human beings will understand. I'll vote for those more common big voting block christians or muslims or whatever that just go to church for photo ops but you can tell there heart isn't in it, but i don't think I'll ever support a fervent follower of any religion much less one of these exotic new-fangled religions like mormonism or scientology.

      June 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  2. Bee

    pretty cool guy

    June 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  3. maxdenn

    By JOSH LOFTIN, Associated Press – Sat May 28, 11:02 am ET

    SALT LAKE CITY – Conservatives who dominate the Republican presidential nomination contests will applaud parts of Jon Huntsman's five-year record as Utah governor: a statewide flat tax, business incentives and private school vouchers.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  4. Little

    I have no problem with neither Huntsman or Romney, or anyone else trying to be selected. But I do believe that if someone is chosen that has a religion, we need to see that they believe and follow it. If they can't follow the religion's rules, how do we know they can follow other rules? Or make and keep promises?

    June 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  5. dave

    Lidsay –the religious republicans catholic,prebytarian,-born again evangelical will not vote for a guy who believes the book of mormon is the bible–you might say,"well they won't vote for obama" and i say you are right–To many republican voters will sit it out if the mormon gets the nom

    June 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • chris344

      Dave, you obviously are NOT educated on the mormon belief. They DO NOT beleive that The Book of Mormon is the bible. Study up and STOP spreading things that are not true. This is really sad. You people are so mis informed about religion. I do NOT condone ANY religion quite honestly but I am well versed in MOST religions because I find the topic of religion very fascinating. So, PLEASE stop this and vote for the candidate that will bring our country back to where it needs to be – be that they are black, Catholic, Presbiterian, White, Mormon, or Jewish.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • SandeeM

      And yet many evangelical leaders have said that they have no problem with voting for a Mormon candidate. I would hope that Christian Republicans in particular would be please to vote for a candidate who lives a moral life with integrity.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  6. chris344

    To all you who judge mormon politicians....you need to betaken out back and beat up. Who cares what the religous beliefs are of acandidate. And the person called "featherknife" OH BROTHER – GET ALIFE. You are obviously NOT educated on the candidates. If you were you wouldknow that Romney is an amazing leader and will do wonders for this countrywhether he is white, catholic, black, hindu, chinese, or MORMON. It does notmatter PERIOD. What are you afraid of...that he will pass legislation that youmust become mormon..good grief. THIS is whats WRONG with this country. So muchegotistical racism. If you would just give WHOEVER wants to run, a chance, andVOTE for the issues they stand for, we will thrive again as a nation. We reallyreally need to STOP this religios stereotyping and let the best person win.PLEASE!!!! I beg you to STOP. Please, lets get back to who we really are andnot let religion get in the way. I mean come on – really? How mature are we, orimmature for that matter? And by the way, I am not mormon. chris344

    June 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Zilla

      I am inclined to agree with you... moral issues are between a man and woman and whichever god they subscribe to.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Lindsay

      If people are concerned about the religion of a candidate it probably has a lot to do with the influence religion has over morality. I don't want someone else's morals shoved down my throat – no matter what book they come from. No one does. But I am perfectly capable of giving someone a chance to NOT do that – if their rhetoric suggests that they won't. Huntsman MIGHT not. But Romeny would. So I'll pass.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  7. Pete

    I'll vote for whomever I feel can lead this country out of bankruptcy and can protect my family and neighbors from terrorists. Two points to Obama for getting Osama. Romney appears to be a stand up guy with a good track record so I say let's give him a shot at the economy, he certainly wouldn't be any more soft at fighting terroism

    June 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Lindsay

      I'd rather vote for someone who can help the economy and protect the environment and the rights of those I love here and abroad. I don't think my neighbors are immediately threatened by anyone, so I'd rather focus on the bigger picture. If only there were a candidate for me!

      June 21, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  8. maxdenn

    One of the glaring things troubling about what the Republican Party has become is that for Republicans, republicanism has darn near become a religion.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  9. Zilla

    feel your reply does have merit, but I am somewhat insulted at the fact that you state "I don't understand politics." I'll concede the point that a majority of political debates and controversies surround a variety of different issues revolving around the issue of moralization. To me, albeit that this is just only MY opinion, who honestly cares about such finite and semantic issues when more important issues should serve as a backbone to any election of a particular candidate. HMMMM... I don't know... Perhaps issues such as trade deficits, energy security, job growth in the United States, immigration reform, and competing internationally over the next century. I don't see how Gay Marriage or Abortion or which book a candidate finds comfort in even touches the same galaxy of importance.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  10. Lindsay

    When the media says "HEY EVERYONE, THIS GUY IS A MORMON, WOULD YOU VOTE FOR HIM?!?" it's only natural that people would jump to conclusions about their merit. HOWEVER, I certainly hope most people have the sense to think about their opinion a little deeper and determine if they agree/disagree based on their religion, or based on the platform that may or may not be influenced by their religion.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  11. maxdenn

    I don't care a twit about what church Mr. Huntsman attends. What concerns me is his Republican leanings.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Pete

      But you are not concerned with Obama and his Democratic leanings?

      June 21, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  12. Garrick

    Ever notice school prayer advocates never want the school prayer to be Catholic, usually saying "I don't want the government forcing another religion down my kids throat"?

    Ironic if you ask me.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • Tim

      If our fear of "religious" candidates is based on how there belief system will affect their policy decisions, then why are we not equally concerned at those who believe in nothing higher than themselves? Would not that belief system, for atheism and agnosticism are indeed belief systems, also color their policy decisions. Ask yourself whose belief system is a better indicator of positive life choices???

      June 21, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  13. Garrick

    We need to get some Scientology up in the White house! Xenu for the win!

    June 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  14. maxdenn

    I'm not inclined to cast my ballot Mr. Huntsman's way. Any time a Republican attempts to bend your ear about how much he, as Huntsman did recently, cares about jobs, then that individual is most likely telling an untruth.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Tim

      Anyone who thinks Republicans have cornered the market on pandering for votes is blind or willingly ignorant at best and delusional at worst.

      June 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  15. Zilla

    People who care about the religion of elected leaders is almost as ridiculous as arguing about faith on a message board. I don't really understand the relevance of what a man or woman does on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and how it impacts their ability to be successful representatives.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Garrick

      You don't understand politics. Do you honestly think a overly christian president wouldn't pass policy that leans in favor of his faith over facts?

      June 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Lindsay

      But Garrick, your perspective doesn't leave room for the very real possibility that MODERATE RELIGIOUS PROFESSIONALS exist out there somewhere. You know, people who can do their job without involving their religion. I do it everyday. Give the guy a chance.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  16. ArmyWife98

    I'm ex-LDS (Mormon) by choice. Technically I suppose I still am LDS because my name is still on the book but I want no association with the church and have not raised my children in the church. I've wanted nothing to do with the church over the past 10 or so years because I feel we've moved to being far too judgemental and out of touch. Of course the LDS church doesn't hold a monopoloy on that in my opinion. That being said, I really like Huntsman. I'm a conservative democrat and I did vote for Obama (voted for Bush once too) but at this point choosing between the 2 of them would be a challenge. Huntsman is the only candidate that could take my vote from Obama. Huntsman's LDS beliefs will not be a factor for me and I'm not even sure they are for him. One example is his support of civil unions whereas the LDS church would just as soon stone gay people to death as spit on them if they were on fire. The level of hate demonstrated to gay people in Salt Lake City is just revolting (I'm not gay, just sympathetic to the way they are treated here). Even though it's not something I personally really believe in anymore, a lot of the comments here are based in lies that have been told for so long about the LDS church that people accept them as facts. Please, educate yourself on the topic for yourself before assuming what you know is true. I will be voting for the candidate, be it Huntsman or Obama, and not their church. What I do look forward to though is when Palin starts spewing all the anti-Mormon venom sooner or later and her huge Mormon fan base in Utah is left with their jaws on the floor. That's going to be fun to watch.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  17. Larry

    Way to go Republicans.

    2 Mormons. One running as President, the other as his running mate.

    The faithful followers of Christianity (Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jew and Senior Citizens) will not vote for them.

    They will not allow the Country to be presided over by a Religion founded by a false prophet (Joseph Smith) instead of the one founded by the teachings of Christ.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Joy

      I believe it's called the The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints. Just because they believe in modern day prophets, doesn't mean they don't believe in Christ. That's like saying you can't believe in Noah or Moses and still believe in Christ.

      June 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Intelligent

      Um, Jews are not followers of Christianity. Anyway, the only differences between "religion" and "cult" is how long it's been around and how many followers it has.

      June 21, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Pete

      The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ you nut. If you want to understand more of the words of Christ then read the Book of Mormon. The worst that can happen is that you'll want to become more Christlike and love your fellowman.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Tim

      Wow. Glad I came across your post. I was not knowing how to tell a real prophet from a false one. Your word is sufficient for me. Since you grouped a bunch of different denominations in as "faithful Christians" i guess I am no closer to knowing anything definitive, since they all differ on points of doctrine, or as you put it, "the teachings of Christ. Since Paul taught that there would be prophets, apostles, pastors and teachers, until we all come to a "unity of the faith", please be so kind as to tell me where the true prophets are today. Unless God's apostle Paul was kidding around.

      June 21, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Faux Paws

      What's a false prophet, and what's a real one ?

      June 22, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  18. Joshua

    Mormon rhymes with Moron – something anyone with half a brain got to be in order to subscribe to such idiocy. That said – the Mormon religion is not any more dumb than any other religion but given the fact that it is a fairly modern phenomenon coming about at an era when people were supposed to be less dumb, makes it less acceptable for people who subscribe to equally dumb religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam that have been around for thousands of years. Hopefully, when Americans will be willing to vote an Atheist as a president, we will be also enlightened and tolerant enough to consider Mormons.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Sarah

      Mormon and Moron don't rhyme. Sound it out.

      June 21, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • James

      Lol, ok that was pretty funny. Two points for Sarah.

      June 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Matthew

      I'm sorry Joshua, but I've just got to say that you don't know what rhyming means. Mormon rhymes with foreman; moron rhymes with boron. Good try, though.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Matt
      Right. It's alliteration.
      Mormon and Moroni, (angel), and moron would be examples of alliteration if used together in a poem or a sentence, or a piece of music.

      June 22, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  19. Kevin G

    I was born in 1961. I take the same view of my mormon faith that Mitt Romney does. I don't think this is generational, I think Huntsman is person distancing himself from the faith he grew up in because he thinks it will get him elected. I would rather lose an election myself than give up what should be most important to me. but that is the beauty of free agency.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • nagromyrneh

      "Free agency?" Gee is that what they are calling religion these days? Interesting concept you have there.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  20. Bill Fitzgerald

    Answer this one imposter JS. My Nephew just died at six weeks of age. So he cant go to your so called really good heaven? because he was not married in the temple? Where do you come up with this crazy stuff? And how do you proclaim plural marriage in the next life? You convey that you do not believe in that. Why do you even talk about it then? Oh here is a good one for you. The scriptures read that righteous women will outnumber men by seven to one in the latter days. So six out of seven women will not have husbands because, oh well there are not enough to go around? You are sick. sick to condemn them to be single for all eternity. or do you think that the number of righteous men will exactly equal the number of righteous men? Yea right. Plural marrige goes way back to Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Solomon, Etc. and is still practiced in many countries. Joseph Smith received revelation and I know that he was a Prophet who has done more for the salvation of man than any other man except the Savior, than any other man who ever lived on this earth.

    June 21, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Paul

      Bill F.,

      If you're going to rip on someone's religtion, please make sure you are ripping on doctrine that actually belongs to that religion. You know not about which you speak.

      June 21, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Markie Aarvaarkie

      Obvious Bill Fitgerald has no idea about fundamental doctrines of my faith. Its a very telling indicator of intelligence when one;s mouth is opened and nothing but that day's garbage pours out.

      June 21, 2011 at 9:07 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.