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. chase

    I do not see this as unorthodox at all. I do not believe one religion is the right religion. That would eliminate all religions making any religion false. I believe in taking the good out of all of them. I think following what you feel is right and what you want in life. Him allowing their adopted child to study the religion of her ancestry is a great thing. Personally I do not study, preach, believe in any religion. I believe in positive actions. Positive plus positive equals positive.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  2. Whoa!

    Wow – I'll skip Huntsman and vote for the babe in the purple dress!!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • jo an

      I'll skip the Mormons and vote for Obama, not that I agree with all he does...I don't but I trust him more than the rest.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  3. mike bedrossian

    i grew up catholic so it was a no brainer for jfk, but somwhere back there i picked up on the idea that mormans where a cult, jsut cant get rid of that idea i was surprised that other liberal democrates where not enthusiastic about either romney or huntsman

    June 21, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  4. pictureunrelated

    allen- all religions are centered around money. and all are violent. no religion is better or less legit than the other. some are just more forthcoming about the hypocrisy.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Zoul

      You sir are an idiot. With no clue what so ever.
      Look up Jainism for example.
      Your atheist hatred of religion is backed by no fact whatsoever

      June 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  5. 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 5:25 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      'Cos TIME magazine is modern scripture and repeating the same post three times will make it so?

      June 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      This article is obviously out of date. ZCMI no longer exists and has not for years.
      All the for-profit businesses the LDS Church has stock in pay income and property taxes just like any other business. And they employ people and pay them salaries. Whoop de doo! Is there something evil about businesses? I guess if you are a communist, you may think so. Americans should not be bothered by it.

      Remember that no individual Mormon owns "stock" in these business enterprises. No individual gets rich from the Mormon Church. They are assets that are used by the Church to do its work. the biggest assets it has are the meetinghosues and temples around the world that have to be built at a rate of a new one every day to accommodate growth of membership.

      There is no career path to be a Mormon pastor. the leaders of Mormon congregations are unpaid volunteers who donate their own time and their own money, earned form regular work as letter carriers, carpenters, artists, l;awyers, and doctors. Mormon minsters work for love of others and love of God, not for money.

      If other churches would have their pastors suppoort themselves, they might have funds left over to invest in building new churches and supporting missionaries, like the Mormons.

      June 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  6. A.Pal

    I really like this cnn religion site and checking out these comments is one of my guilty pleasures but sometimes it just kind of brings you down. I grew up LDS and for the most part still consider myself a Mormon yet one of the things I have a difficult time with my church and all religions is how often the members put other faiths down. There are plenty of things about the LDS faith that I DO NOT agree with as well as plenty of things I do find that bring happiness into my life. I think it is so admirable that Huntsman is raising his daughter as a Hindu and embraces many faiths and philosophies. I am a Democrat who support Obama and Huntsman is the ONLY candidate thus far who could possibly get me to vote against Barack...if he can make it past the primaries I really think he would do a great job. Back to religion, one of the difficulties I find with all faiths is how often the founder is such a revolutionary for their time (in a social and spiritual way) yet often the followers try to implement the exact same teaching thousands of years later when the world has greatly changed. I also like to supplement my faith with other teachings as well...some of my faves: The Dalai Lama, Jim Wallis, Thich Nhat Han, my daily Hadith App, Rob Bell, and Gil Fronsdal among others. All faiths have messages of love that can enrich and enlighten. Does it really matter if there was an angel Moroni, if Jesus was the son of God, if Siddhartha Guatama reached enlightenment, if Muhammad communed with Moses and Allah? I argue that it does NOT. There is so much power in the more than historical meaning that can inspire and uplift. Instead of worrying about who hold the keys to heaven after we die let's instead focus on bringing the kingdom of heaven to Earth through peace, charity, compassion, understanding. After all there is no way any of us can know 100% what happens when you or I kick the bucket but I'll bet you if you sincerely live the golden rule and there actually is some kind of after life not only will you have had a happy life but you'll be sitting pretty there as well. I apologize for my rant but I just hope we may love one another and reach out with understanding despite our differences. Go Huntsman!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  7. lonestar

    Yet another made-for-TV candidate – all flash, no substance bought and paid for by behind-the-scenes corporate masters. I think I'll pass, thank you.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  8. Common Sense

    Another nut who wants to bring his religious agenda to Washington. Those Mormons are really trying to stack the deck aren't they? No chance in hell of getting my vote.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      What religious agenda? Religious freedom for all? Something you can't get behind?

      June 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  9. Analytics Post

    Finally someone Presidential. He is the one to go for. At least he is not like other 7 right wing douchbags.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  10. Who is the lady in red

    Did you notice the lady staring at Huntsman in the picture above? That has to be his mother....only mothers stare at people like that!

    June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • KC


      June 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  11. jefffbo

    His nice shinny family tells me he is the perfect candidate, lol !

    June 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  12. KC

    So I guess that means he doesn't wear the sacred Mormon underwear, huh?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      The only person I know who gets asked about his underware is Micheal Jordan, and I have reson to think that even that was staged. 8D

      June 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  13. stella southwick

    It concerns me that anyone will profess to be something but than not stand by it, he is either a Mormon or he is not, he can't be on the fence, well he can be, but who wants to vote for someone on the fence, seems weak to me and see,s like he will be whatever anyone wants as they want it with no real convictions of his own.
    As for the statemnt that Obama has brought more class and honor to the White House than anyone else, wow, talk about just making stuff up, I give the man his due, but I am not going to lie about it

    June 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Many of our "God fearing" founding fathers were Deists; theological fence-sitters.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Rod C. Venger

      You're right. I don't see me voting for Romney...though if it's him or Obama I guess I have little choice...but at least Romney is unapologetic for his beliefs. He's a Mormon, he says so, owns it, and moves on. I respect that. I can't respect someone that seems to claim to be a Mormon in name only. He either is or isn't. Own it, man! What's really most important in life anyway? The opinions that others have of you or the reality of your existence? If the opinion of others is based on a lie, then that opinion isn't worth much, really, a self-serving feel-good to help one get through the day. I look in the mirror and know who I am...I see the warts and say, that's who I am but I'll try to do better. No excuses. Huntsman might want to look in the mirror.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  14. Adam

    You either believe the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni, a resurrected Native American, written upon golden plates in "reformed Egyptian" characters, that stated among other things that Jesus came to America after he was killed, and that Babylonians sailed from the Middle East to the Americas around 600BC… or you do not.

    If you do, then you are sufficiently unreasonable to be called a Mormon. If you do not, then you are necessarily NOT a Mormon.

    Romney apparently believes, or in the least professes to believe, the dogma of Mormonism. That Huntsman is clearly wary of professing such ridiculous belief, yet chooses to call himself a “Mormon,” only evidences the fact that many if not most religious people do not really believe what they say they believe, and that empty adherence to insane propositional claims of absolute truth are infinitely more admirable in our society than humble admissions of metaphysical uncertainty.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • KC

      I agree–the Mormons I have known do not find "satisfaction" in many other religions. They adhere to the teachings or they are not considered Mormons. It seems as if he uses the religion as a social business networking system –so– as a cultural thing rather than a religion.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • To be or not to be a Mormon

      I have grown up mormon, still call myself a mormon, all my closet friends are mormons, served a mission, served in many capacities in the church including Bishop. I have tried to study the church history from an objective point of view and my "belief" in the foundational belief in the "church" vanished in a matter of weeks. All that said, I still want to be a part of the membership because there is not a better group of people on the earth than devout mormons! If all religion is just a bunch of hocus pocus and all we have is to live this life.....living the life of a mormon is a great way to live....some of you haters should go out and make some mormon friends. Mormons are good people trying to do good! What better way to reshape the world than to do some good in it.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Adam

      I understand your position, TBONTBAM, and while I once was an apologist for religion, I have found that position to be untenable. Surely you are not alone in your reluctance to submit your intellectual honesty to a dogmatic system, yet wish to preserve the inclusiveness and community such systems foster. However, I do earnestly believe that we must make a choice, and that religious fence-sitting is an untenable position. As Sam Harris has said "religious moderates provide the shade under which extremism is allowed to flourish."

      June 21, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Rod C. Venger

      Adam, I would bet that there's a high percentage of people in the Mormon church that see the farce for what it is and don't believe any of the nonsense. I suspect that they find a way within themselves to worship God and simply blend in with the community, for Utah is definitely Mormon owned and run. I think that people raised and Mormons and see the light, still go to services as a way to stay connected but with their families and with their peers and society. Mormonism in Utah is like the good-old-boy network, members only, and of you want to succeed there, you have to fit in. So while I think that most Mormons genuinely believe in God...am unsure about Jesus since their view has been so warped...I think, again, that a high percentage have internally dismissed Moroni, the golden tablets, the whole bit. Mormonism reminds me of Scientology in it's level of being purely human-created.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      If you believe Jesus was resurrected after being killed, then his visiting the Americas after his resurrection was EASY compared to coming back from the dead, and ascending to heaven. If you don't believe in the resurrection of Christ, then you are in company with a lot of people–but there are also a lot of people, just as smart and good, who DO believe in it.

      Claiiming people are less intelligent than yourself because their religious beliefs differ from your views is a proposition that has no supporting evidence, but is a naked assertion, on a par with "I was visited by an angel." Irt takes a greaty leap of faith for you to believe you are superior in intelligence to ALL religious people in the world, or even the 14 milllion who are Mormons. Go to MormonScholarsTestify.org and see if you can match intellectual achievements with the Mormon academics there.

      Your beliefs are not wrong because someone who disagrees with you has better academic credentials than you. But neither can you logically condemn the beliefs of others based on some assertion of intellectual superiority. There will always be someone who disagrees with yoiu, and has better academic credentials than you do.

      You might try to offer an actual argument for your position, reasoning from facts rather than your own mere assertions of superior intelleigence, but that might be beyond your intellectual capacity.

      June 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  15. fuyuko

    who cares what his religious beliefs are? Personally, all that matters to me is his merit and how he runs the country. His religion, as well as his hair-color secrets are his bizness.

    June 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Xman

      I wouldn't care, either, but since we know so little of a candidates' decision making in a time before he actually makes them, it adds to the uncertainty towards them. Religion is an enormous driver of personal morality and decision making. Despite not agreeing with anything Mormon, I like that Hunstman is especially tolerant of many religious faiths. Remember, this isn't about his favorite brand of coffee or what he likes to do to unwind, but his religious views will no doubt influence his thinking as the CIC.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Adam

      Beliefs matter, fuyuko. There are necessary behavioral consequences to what one believes, insofar as they ACTUALLY believe what they SAY they believe. If one believes that the Old Testament, for instance, was written by the Creator of the Universe, then that person necessarily believes that we need to punish, capitally, people who collect sticks on the Sabbath. These beliefs are clearly dangerous to our society which allows people to freely collect sticks on Sunday, and thus this believe MATTERS to me if I am voting for someone who holds this believe. Furthermore, I want to know what peoples beliefs are so that I can evaluate whether or not they have sufficient REASON to believe them! If someone readily believes something upon bad evidence, then they have shown to me that they lack the critical faculties to, in our example, have their FINGER ON THE BLOODY BUTTON! Do you understand?

      June 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  16. ZysPsyk

    Intolerant liberals will shrug in agony at anyone who runs a political campaign and isnt an agnostic/atheist/closet christian. They have no problems with muslims though..hmm..

    June 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Artist

      The christians have ra ped the const it utionthe name of their god. It is hard to trust them.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Wrong. All religions are just ancient mythology, INCLUDING Islam. However all politicians CLAIM to be religious so I guess we don't really have any choice to to vote for a religious retard.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Adam

      There are clearly grievous problems with Islam, which rests upon ridiculous propositional statements with no good reason to believe their truth. You are right in this respect, Zys. However the idea that the only way to adequately oppose the threats of this religious belief system is to adhere with equal fervor to ANOTHER, mutually-exclusive religious belief system which is equally ridiculous and irrational, is equally offensive to me. The rationale that Islamists use to justify violence against apostates and unbelievers is EXACTLY THE SAME rationale that Christians use to justify anti-LGBT violence: God told them in a book. The ONLY difference between these schools is the name of His book. Please consider this.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • SurRy

      I would love to see how the "christians" would pillory an atheist if s/he decided to run. Funny how people who don't believe in an invisible deity sitting in the sky keeping score of stuff are the "odd" ones.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • SCMorrell

      Adam, I agree with you completely here. Which is funny because I'm a Prop 8 supporter down the line. But anyone who is violent or negligent towards anyone because they are LBGT is a good candidate for the ol' millstone around the neck and drowned in the sea treatment (not that I have the inclination to purchase millstones). I would offer the amendment "from a book that they haven't taken time to understand" because there are really good books out there, both religious and not, but that's really a good post. Thanks for writing it.

      June 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  17. Rob

    I don't think I could vote for a president who seems to be abandoning his core beliefs (whether or not I actually share those beliefs). What other core beliefs will he abandon while in office?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Did he abandon them. All I got was, "I can't say I'm overly religious."

      June 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Abandoning his core beliefs just shows that he has SOME intelligence, so it would make me more likely to vote for him.

      June 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Diana

      And why do you think he's abandoned his core beliefs? Just because he was raised in the Mormon faith does not mean that he believed/supported everything in the church.. just like in every other religion. How many supposed Christians do you see living exactly as the Bible 'says'?

      June 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  18. Elan Remford

    Smoking hot women who do as they're told? What's not to like?

    June 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  19. The Half Baked Lunatic

    Gotta admire any religion who's motto is "I don't care how many you bring, just Bring 'em Young!"

    June 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • missy


      June 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      LOL, good one. And oh so true!

      June 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  20. Lub

    The GOP should create a new television show: "Who Want's To Be A GOP Presidential Candidate?"

    June 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
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About this blog

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.