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. Jimmer Fredette

    Looks like A LOT of talent in that main picture on CNN.com

    such a shame I am mormon though 🙁

    June 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Bob

      Hellz yah, guy on the left got the 2 fer 1 special, must be nice 🙂

      June 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • pam

      Bob, thats the way it is in utah,just keep a low profile.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  2. rubes

    my favorite colors in order are: pink, blue-milf, purple, and orange.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  3. PJ

    He doesn't seem phoney like Romney does. Romney is so slippery, he will say exactly what you want to hear. Flipflop is a good name for Mitt.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  4. tankrothchild

    This guy is a sure win for Obama. Please sir, give the GOP a chance and remove yourself from this race. The average american has no idea about your religion, most think it's a cult. Most will vote a black man over a cultist any day of the week.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  5. jumpinjehovas

    Wow – coordinated dresses! How staged is that? And the women, I suppose, playing their roles... HMMMM

    June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Callmeishmael

      Yeah, why is it all Mormon families look like cheap, generic knock-offs of one another?

      June 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  6. Lisa B.

    Gay-friendly, not-so Mormon Mormon? Me likey 🙂

    June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  7. Kris

    He is raising his adopted Indian daughter Hindu, the religion of her ancestry. How progressive. He may actually be a GOPer I could like.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  8. Bunny

    He might get my vote, but the crazies in the GOP will never give him the nomination.

    We need a third party that is moderate and centrist.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  9. Bert in UT

    I keep hoping the Republicans will nominate someone centrist, practical and sensible like Huntsman. Then I could go back to voting for them. Doesn't seem likely.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  10. Not having it

    “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.”

    In other words it is all or nothing with the far right religious extremists in this country. And if the GOP lets them decide who the nominee will be, then they have no chance to win what-so-ever.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  11. Reality

    Having a politician be honest for once would be a significant plus for said politician. Being honest about Mormonism:

    Mormonism: A business/religious cult based on Joseph Smith's "hallucinations" which has bought respectability with a $30 billion business empire, the BYU "mission matured" football team and a great choir.

    From: lds-mormon.com/time.shtml

    "The first divergence between Mormon economics and that of other denominations is the t-ithe. Most churches take in the greater part of their income through donations. Very few, however, impose a compulsory 10% income tax on their members. Ti-thes are collected locally, with much of the money pas-sed on informally to local lay leaders at Sunday services. "By Monday," says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, the church authorities in Salt Lake City "know every cent that's been collected and have made sure the money is deposited in banks." There is a lot to deposit. Last year $5.2 billion in t-ithes flowed into Salt Lake City, $4.9 billion of which came from American Mormons."

    "The Mormons are stewards of a different str-ipe. Their charitable spending and temple building are prodi-gious. But where other churches spend most of what they receive in a given year, the Latter-day Saints employ vast amounts of money in investments that TIME estimates to be at least $6 billion strong. Even more unusual, most of this money is not in bonds or stock in other peoples' companies but is invested directly in church-owned, for-profit concerns, the largest of which are in agribusiness, media, insurance, travel and real estate. Deseret Management Corp., the company through which the church holds almost all its commercial as-sets, is one of the largest owners of farm and ranchland in the country, including 49 for-profit parcels in addition to the Deseret Ranch. Besides the Bonneville International chain and Beneficial Life, the church owns a 52% holding in ZCMI, Utah's largest department-store chain.

    All told, TIME estimates that the Latter-day Saints farmland and financial investments total some $11 billion, and that the church's nont-ithe income from its investments exceeds $600 million. "

    "Members of the church celebrate the Lord's Supper with water rather than wine or gra-pe juice. They believe their President is a prophet who receives new revelations from God. These can supplant older revelations, as in the case of the church's historically most controversial doctrine: Smith himself received God's sanctioning of pol-ygamy in 1831, but 49 years later, the church's President announced its recision. Similarly, an explicit policy barring black men from holding even the lowest church offices was overturned by a new revelation in 1978, opening the way to huge missionary activity in Africa and Brazil. "

    June 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Ben

      Way to use anti-mormon rhetoric and label it as reality.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  12. Lynn

    Huntsman is playing both sides of the fence. Can't live with a Mormon, then I'm not totally a Mormon, just a tiny bit. Or whatever you want me to be, I'll be - conservative, sometime conservative, liberal, sometime liberal. Just please please vote for me.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Bert in UT

      What's so hard about taking him at his word? Mormonism plays a part in his life, but so do other philosophies. If he were trying to use religion for political advantage, he'd do a Romney and play straight to the social conservatives and ultra-religious.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  13. wallster

    Huntsman stands no chance at all. The Neocons hate that he's a Mormon and he won't slam the President. The liberals hate him because as a businessman, he learned to speak Mandarin so he could do business in China.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Please Stop Talking

      Please stop using buzzwords, especially ones whose meanings elude you. Do you even know what a neocon is? Neocons would be much more likely than other conservatives to embrace a Mormon candidate because they're not social conservatives.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  14. Jim

    Mormons are not Christians. I would never vote for a Mormon.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Jim's Mother

      Jimmy oh Jimmy boy, I thought I taught you better than that. Stop spreading misinformation before I wash your mouth out with soap

      June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Callmeishmael

      And I would never vote for a Christian, so, now what??

      June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • mike

      Ya i guess the fact that they worship Jesus Christ and the fact that the official name of the church since it began in 1830 is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints means they aren't Christians. Pretty intelligent. You're pastor tell you that?

      June 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • 7th Son

      And I'll vote for him because he's not a Christian.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • JRod

      I would vote for him if he legalizes bigamy. "Mor" for "Mon". Seriously?! A mormon for president? Don't we have enough problems with the birthers questioning Obama. Now we want to take it to another level and ask the next president about incest or about having multiple wives. Get real.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • cmc

      It seems like most of the Republican candidates are either Mormon or insane. Evangelicals won't vote for a Mormon because they're bigoted. That does, however, leave the insane ones still available to them. People tend to vote for those like themselves. This will be an interesting presidential race!

      June 21, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Mike

      Jim needs to do some research, not just spout ignorance. Mormons are indeed Christians.

      Huntsman is an intelligent, open minded, moderate person who is willing to try inovative ideas but like others have mentioned would never get the GOP nod. Too many radicals running the party. There is no room for common sense in either party. I don't think they are exactly what our founding fathers had in mind.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • brian

      you do not know what you are talking about

      June 21, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • RLP1509

      Hmmmm.... Then why do they have Jesus Christ in their official name? Hmmmmm..... Just because they don't practice their form of Christianity does not mean they are not Christian. They are not Christian in the way that you, I assume, are Christian.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Crystal

      Isn't the definition of a Christian someone who believes in Christ? I hate to break it you but Mormons do believe in Jesus Christ, therefore, making them Christian. Might want to check your facts.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Clarke

      Hey JIm,
      I'm a mormon and I believe in Jesus Christ.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  15. Shaine

    As a liberal democrat fed up with both parties, this guy sounds like a true moderate...someone I could see myself voting for.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Bert in UT

      As a former Republican, totally fed up with the direction the party has gone Huntsman seems like the practical, centrist sort of person I'd love to vote for. Don't care which party that person is in.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  16. russ139

    Just watched his bio on his website. What Sarah Palin claims to be, and what she spends millions on trying to look like... Huntsman actually is. Free thinker, outdoorsman, family man, non-politician, excellent credentials, committed, focused, mature, aware.

    Poor guy probabaly doesn't stand a chance, once the right wing idealougues bear their teeth.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Ian

      Great comment, and very true.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  17. Art

    Are those all his wives?

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Perryboy

      hahahaha...you're funny!

      June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • rubes


      June 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • MMMKAY

      Only 1/3 of them; the rest are at home making babies and sandwiches. Duh.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • 7th Son

      Yes... another reason I'll vote for him!

      June 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      One man, one wife, seven kids, including ones adopted from India and China.

      June 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  18. Patrick

    What a classic example of the typical American Politican – "I get strength from multiple faiths" – Yeah OKAY way to take a stand on an issue. Talk about trying to appeal to everyone. Sorry don't know who you are and judging by this story, I'm not missing out on much.
    Two faced, say anything for votes typical politician.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • helloeyes

      I'm with you on this. We all come from a place of self-serving egocentricism – politicians are the perfect example. They say whatever they need to get votes. Let's see him back-peddle when the faithful start pushing him... "I never said I was a moderate"......

      June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Jen

      Someone's religion should NOT be an issue when it comes to running this country. Yes religion shapes views on actual issues, but that is what should be focused on... his views on current issues themselves not whether or not he considers himself mormon, christian, etc.

      People who vote based on religious beliefs alone should not vote either.... That is being just as uninformed as if you voted based on their hair color.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Kevin

      Cynical. Very typical of voters who don't research candidates.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • NotallThatGlitters

      If you knew Jon Jr and his family–what good works they've done for the world–you'd vote for him in a heartbeat. He truly is an honest, upstanding human being. I am in no way, shape or form a Republican, but I would vote for him in 2012.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • cmc

      Maybe it's not that he doesn't know who he is. Maybe he recognizes he is not the be all and end all of humanity and others have wonderful qualities to learn from and share. What a trait for a potential leader of a diverse country to have, huh? If the U.S. was a theocracy, he should definately have to prove his religious credentials. As a free country, none of this should really matter. I know devout people of dubious character and atheists I'd trust with my life. I don't care about your religion, but your ethics, character and track record are what are important to me.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  19. joe

    Whatev, as long as he's not muslim.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • WasabiPotPie

      what is wrong with muslims?

      June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • joe

      @Wasabi Is that a joke?

      June 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Jen

      @ Joe

      I am with Wasabi... what is wrong with Muslims? I see a sterotype coming from a mile away.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Kevin

      As long as he's American, I could care less if he is Christian, Muslim, Morman or an Athiest.

      June 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  20. Denise

    I'm looking forward to reading more about this gentleman so in the event the GOP wakes up, smells the coffee, and
    nominates him as their candidate, I can make an educated vote. He is, I believe, the one to watch.

    June 21, 2011 at 4:17 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.