The Spiritual (Not Religious) Candidate?

September 28, 2011

Yesterday, I served as a facilitator for a "Spirituality Dialogue" session at James Madison University, which is an hour-long program to give students an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about a subject that is often difficult for them to discuss and help them think about the ways spirituality impacts their lives and college experiences. One theme that often emerges from these sessions and in public discourse about faith is the separation between spirituality and religion and the growing number of people describing themselves as spiritual but not religious. If there is a presidential candidate testing our system of confessional politics by trying to represent this perspective, it is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Although he grew up Mormon, Huntsman often describes himself in terms of spirituality rather than religion. His Mormon background poses some electoral problems for him--as it does Mitt Romney--since many voters are hesitant to elect a Mormon (see post here). However, his language about spirituality is unique as it might attract some while adding to the concerns of conservative evangelicals.

In a new CNN video, Huntsman offered some interesting thoughts on his religious faith that places him in stark contrast to the type of religious arguments that we generally hear in our age of confessional politics. For instance, he stated:

My faith is a very personal and private part of who I am. I believe in God. I'm a Christian person. I'm very proud of my Mormon roots and heritage. I believe in the goodness of all religions. I believe that they bring a level of strength to individuals that other endeavors in life just can't fulfill. But as for me, I don't wear religion on my sleeve, I wear it in my heart. And I believe that your actions always speak louder than words.
Although he affirms his belief in God, Huntsman calls it a "private" issue and not something to "wear on my sleeve." These comments place him in opposition to much of the religious-political rhetoric presidential candidates have offered over the past thirty-five years. In the video, there is also a shot of Huntsman, his wife, and his adopted daughter from India all with a traditional red Hindu dot (tilaka) on their foreheads. This image will likely be unsettling to many conservative evangelicals, much as a picture of Barack Obama in traditional Somali dress in Kenya was used by some to falsely suggest he is a Muslim.

On a similar note, Huntsman talked last month about how his family blends his Mormon background and his wife's Episcopalian background:
You blend two cultures, you blend two traditions, you try to raise kids in a responsible fashion -- drawing from the strengths of both [faiths], and you come up with something that is kind of a hybrid model that, first and foremost, puts God at the center of your life.
In a recent Vogue profile, he and his family made a similar argument as they stressed the importance of spirituality over specific religious denominations. As the Boston Globe noted, these attitudes make Huntsman a different type of Mormon than Romney.

None of this should matter when voters pick who would be the most competent leader, but unfortunately it probably is part of the electoral equation. Huntsman's religion is not the only--or even main--problem keeping him at the back of the Republican presidential polls right now. However, it certainly adds to the problems he faces as the more moderate candidate in the race when Republican voters seem to instead want someone extremely conservative. After all, he is at the bottom of the polls despite being more qualified--especially on foreign policy issues--than virtually everyone else in the race and much more qualified than some of the candidates (like Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) who are polling better in large part because of their outreach to conservative evangelicals.

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