I wondered back in March whether or not the fact that we had two Mormons running for President would create an “LDSapalooza” in the news coverage. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, in part because Jon Huntsman is polling just above Pat Paulsen. Even though Romney is the nominal frontrunner in the GOP primary his faith was quite heavily covered in 2008, and this time around the media seems far more interested in covering — or ginning up — the controversies surrounding Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I bet Romney’s pretty happy about that.
So I’m kind of surprised it’s taken this long to see an article, “GOP rivals have different takes on Mormon faith,” where the raison d’etre is explicitly comparing Romney and Huntsman’s approach to their Mormonism. (If there are any other articles that do this I missed, let me know in the comments.) It’s in Romney’s local paper the Boston Globe, but the focus is mostly on Huntsman.
Despite Huntsman’s failure to spark interest among actual voters, if the GOP primary were decided by East Coast magazine and newspaper editors the former Utah governor would win in a walk. Huntsman has been quite favorably covered by a number of news organs that are usually either hostile or GOP politicians, see for example this this Esquire profile. And Huntsman recently got a large and glowing feature in Vogue(!) of all places, replete with Annie Liebowitz photos. It was even written by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, a journalist who wears his liberal credentials on his sleeve.
So then, what accounts for all of this media gushing over Huntsman, even though he’s been irrelevant to the actual election? It could be that the media is attracted to the fact that on a number of issues Huntsman has rather heterodox, even liberal, views for a Republican. And part of that same appeal is that, while other Republicans are eager to emphasize how fervently religious they are, Huntsman seems lukewarm about many of the cultural and doctrinaire aspects of Mormonism.
This is what the Globe piece focuses on:
But in public remarks they have drawn strikingly different religious self-portraits. Romney is highly active and orthodox – he was a top local lay leader in Massachusetts for years, and he has embraced his church unequivocally: “I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it,’’ he said in a major speech in 2007.
Huntsman has called his adherence to Mormon practices “tough to define.’’ He has described himself as more spiritual than religious and as someone who gets “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.’’
As someone who was raised Mormon, I have to say that a self-professed Mormon saying they get satisfaction from other religions and philosophies is striking coming from a church body whose adherents routinely profess the belief they belong to “the one true church.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg — Huntsman’s sons didn’t go on missions (which isn’t a requirement of the church, but strongly encouraged), his wife plays up her Episcopalian background and they’re raising their foreign-born adopted daughters in their “native faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism.”
Now the Mormon church is very hierarchical and specific about many of its beliefs. While there is room for personal interpretation, there are limits to this as well. I’ve personally talked to several Mormons who are, at a minimum, less-than-enamored with how Huntsman is publicly representing his commitment to his faith.
But oddly, the Globe article by Lisa Wangsness, seems heavily weighted toward those that are very bullish on Huntsman’s heterodoxy:
“Normally it’s either all in or all out – that’s both how Mormons view themselves, and that’s how people view Mormons,’’ said John Dehlin, a Mormon from Logan, Utah, whose “Mormon Stories’’ podcast (mormonstories.org) has drawn a growing audience of nontraditional and ambivalent Mormons. “Liberals and progressive [Mormons] were elated at Huntsman’s characterizing himself that way, at least the ones I know, because it helps contribute to opening up the discourse about unorthodox Mormonism.’’
I also found it a bit strange the way Wangsness treats Huntsman’s at-times ambivalent relationship with the church as some sort of new or emerging movement within Mormonism:
Some of the questions gripping Dehlin’s audience are unremarkable in older faiths but still provocative in Mormon circles. In a strict church that asks much of its members, is it possible to be selectively observant, yet still a part of the community? Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon’’ – as some engaged in the debate have described a person who embraces some church teachings, but rejects others? Do some Mormons, like secular Jews, share cultural and genealogical bonds that remain intact even when religious beliefs fray?
For those of you that don’t live out West, let me explain the problem with this. Wangsness is writing an entire article about “Jack Mormons” without using the word Jack Mormon. It’s a pretty common term in the church, and Wikipedia tells me it dates all the way back to 1846. Basically, Jack Mormons are people that have cultural or family ties to the church, or maybe are even lapsed or half-hearted members who attend sporadically who maintain some positive feelings toward the church. So when Wangsness asks “Is there such a thing as a “cafeteria Mormon”? The answer is yes, and this has been a part of the church’s culture for a great while. And there are lots of people that could talk about this in a historical and cultural context. I will say that perhaps this oversight is not entirely her fault, as Wangsness quotes Joanna Brooks to this end:
Huntsman “may be living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet – the equivalent of reform Mormonism,’’ said Joanna Brooks, a literature professor at San Diego State University and a Mormon who blogs on religion and culture at religiondispatches.org. That is, she said, “someone who is culturally Mormon, who identifies with the tradition, who has been shaped by Mormon thought in his upbringing, but doesn’t necessarily maintain orthodoxy on doctrinal beliefs.’’
As a source, Brooks gets brought into a lot of stories on Mormonism in a cultural context. I doubt I share her politics or many of her views on religion, but I’ve always found Brooks particularly insightful on Mormonism in a cultural context. So I would like to know more specifically about how she thinks Huntsman is “living a brand of Mormonism that doesn’t have a name for itself yet.” It’s true Huntsman is more high profile than most and perhaps a little more eclectic in his dabbling of other faiths, but broadly speaking Huntsman is hardly a new phenomenon.
So why does someone like Brooks specifically avoid the term Jack Mormon? It’s not a pejorative term, but in some select contexts Jack Mormon is not exactly a compliment. It’s often shorthand for “Mormon who drinks alcohol.” Jack Mormon may refer to fully lapsed or inactive members more often than not, though the definition is highly fungible. Given that Brooks seems to have a similar Mormon identity as Huntsman, I wonder if there’s not some overt attempt at rebranding going on. For what it’s worth, here’s how Weisberg handled the same issue in the Vogue profile:
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.
Well, Weisberg did get the Jack Mormon thing. But I also think the comparisons to Reform Judaism are curious — barring a really, really radical change in the culture of the laity and Mormonism’s governing structure, a similar movement would a) probably not emerge and b) if it did, it would be unlikely to remain in the LDS church. But it is an attractive concept to a lot of liberal Mormon intellectuals (yes, they do exist).
So long as the media are very excited about the Huntsman candidacy, it might be helpful to get a few more orthodox Mormon voices and perspectives commenting on Huntsman’s religious approach.