Politics & Policy

How Mormon Is Jon Huntsman?

The evidence, in both word and deed, is ambiguous — and that may not be bad for his prospects.

How devoutly does Jon Huntsman practice his Mormon faith?

It’s a topic the former Utah governor has been regularly quizzed about in the two months since he returned to the U.S. from China. While he identifies himself as a Mormon, he has been reluctant to divulge much in the way of details.

Take his response in South Carolina last week to a question about his faith. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Huntsman said: “I believe in God. Good Christian. I’m very proud of my Mormon roots.”

For Huntsman, it was a typically ambiguous answer. Whereas Mitt Romney decided in 2007 to take critics of Mormonism head-on with a major speech that drew comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s speech about Catholicism in 1960, Huntsman appears to be downplaying his Mormonism.

It might be a good strategic decision: A Gallup poll released last week indicated that 18 percent of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon. If either Romney or Huntsman wins the nomination, the GOP candidate will face even more opposition, with 19 percent of independents and 27 percent of Democrats opposed to voting for a Mormon.

Right now, Huntsman seems to be walking a delicate tightrope on faith-related questions. He told Time in an interview last month that he was “proud of his Mormon roots.” Asked if he was still a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Huntsman said, “That’s tough to define. There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.”

Also in May, responding to a question from a viewer on Good Morning America about whether he considered himself a “practicing Mormon,” Huntsman said, “I believe in God. I’m a good Christian. I’m very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon. Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It’s a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people.”

Last year, Huntsman told Fortune that he receives “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies” and doesn’t consider himself to be “overly religious.” (A New York Times article last week noted that Huntsman’s comments to Fortune made a splash in his home state; “many Utahans can recite from memory” Huntsman’s quote, according to the Times.) In March, the Washington Post reported that “Huntsman’s relatives and friends describe him frequently as an independent thinker, unbeholden to any church or party doctrine,” and that “many Republicans faithful to the church in Utah dismissed Huntsman as a ‘Jack Mormon,’ a derogatory term referring to a non-practicing Mormon.”

In Huntsman’s personal life, there are signs that he does not strictly adhere to Mormon practices. While Mormons are forbidden to consume alcohol, Huntsman occasionally drank the bajisu liquor that is “mandatory” at official dinners in China, according to RealClearWorld.com. (The report added, however, that Huntsman would discreetly try to switch to water after his first glass.) The Huntsmans’ second daughter, 25-year-old Abby, was married last year at the (Episcopal) National Cathedral, with the dean of the cathedral performing the ceremony. During his first weekend home from China, Huntsman chose to attend a non-denominational church in South Carolina rather than any of the Mormon churches in the area.

On the other hand, Huntsman as a young man served as Mormon missionary in Taiwan. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who served as Governor Huntsman’s first chief of staff, told the Salt Lake Tribune that Huntsman would periodically attend LDS services, and the he took time during his 2004 campaign to teach religion classes. Huntsman’s presidential campaign has made efforts to quash assumptions that he isn’t a practicing Mormon: In the wake of his remarks to Time, spokesman Tim Miller told the Deseret News (a Utah paper) that Huntsman “remains a member of the church and proud to be part of the fabric of a large, vibrant faith.”

For Huntsman, the plan so far appears to be acknowledging his faith but refusing to let it dominate how the public perceives him. With no indication that he has a Jeremiah Wright–style controversy in his past, it’s a strategy that might just work.

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Correction: The sentence “Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, are raising their five-year-old adopted daughter from India, Asha, in the Hindu faith she was born into, reports the Salt Lake Tribune” has been removed from this piece.  CNN, which reported the same fact last week, was told by the Huntsman campaign that Asha is not being raised in the Hindu faith, although Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman are raising her “to learn about and appreciate her native culture and the faiths associated with it.” Desert News has been switched to Deseret News, and a reference to Mormon “temples” was switched to Mormon “churches.”

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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