Cafeteria Mormonism

My boss Jacob Weisberg profiles Jon Huntsman in Vogue. You might remember Huntsman. He joined the GOP presidential race in June. Remember? That guy? He’s still running, although his singular inability to get traction is neutering quite an interesting story. The Huntsman clan, according to Weisberg, practices a kind of Mormonism that isn’t terribly strict.

I ask her daughter Mary Anne how she might identify her religion on a census form. “Mormon and Christian,” she says. “Every person is different in the way they feel spiritually.” Her mother adds that spirituality, which the family strongly feels, is more important than the tenets of a particular faith. 

People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren’t question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. He describes his family on his father’s side as “saloon keepers and rabble rousers,” and his mother’s side as “ministers and proselytizers.” The Huntsman side ran a hotel in Fillmore, Utah’s first capital, where they arrived with the wagon trains in the 1850s. They were mostly what Utahans call “Jack Mormons”—people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don’t follow all of its strictures. “We blend a couple of different cultures in this family,” he says.  

You’d never hear a phrase like that from Romney, who has raised his sons as Mormons and sent them on missions. Nor would you see Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, or Craig Romney in a hotel bar, sipping a glass of wine, as you might see one of Huntsman’s adult children.

Mitt Romney’s 2007-2008 presidential campaign may have been a watershed for public opinion of Mormonism. His religion was assumed – correctly – to be an impediment to success in some Republican primaries. The stereotype of Mormons as square-jawed perfect humans was at the root of all the jokes about his handsome, successful family. Romney largely dodged the doctrinal questions that alienate some Christians from Mormonism. But it was all litigated in the primaries. It’s easier, in 2011, for voters to factor in Mormonism then move on. Huntsman’s looseness doesn’t make up for the doctrinal problems that some evangelicals have with the faith (Satan as Jesus’s brother, etc.), but it’s certainly de-strange-ifying the faith.