This week I want to talk about religion and politics. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. was recently interviewed by Time magazine, and the subject of his faith came up. Time asked him if he still belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The interviewer was so confused with Huntsman’s answer that she wrote about it:
“‘I’m a very spiritual person,’ as opposed to a religious one, he says, ‘and proud of my Mormon roots.’ Roots? That makes it sound as if you’re not a member anymore. Are you? ‘That’s tough to define,’ he says. ‘There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.’”
It’s no secret that I really don’t care for Jon Huntsman Jr. as a politician. While I’ve tried to keep my public remarks to actual policy, I have slipped up and commented on his private life as well – comments that I ended up apologizing for. And while many people really like Jon Huntsman, he does drive many other people crazy.
Part of his political charm is that he often speaks candidly about his views and doesn’t seem to care too much about what other people think of him. The part of his persona that tends to drive people crazy is when he behaves in exact opposite form, as he did with the Time magazine reporter as he discussed his faith.
So why should anyone care about a politician’s faith? Well, one reason is because faith is important to many people. It’s often a sign of integrity, caring, responsibility, service and humility – all characteristics we tend to encourage among politicians who regularly hold our futures in their hands. Sometimes the particular faith even matters. In Utah, being a faithful Latter-day Saint tends to be important. In Arkansas, being an evangelical Christian is important and, in Boston, being a Catholic seems to carry some weight.
Because Jon Huntsman Jr. is typically candid about his thoughts, his Time magazine interview, among others about his faith, is rather unsettling. Most Mormons understand that acting “faithful” includes very unequivocal and unambiguous statements about where one stands on matters of personal faith. Faithful Mormons bear their testimonies, often in public, about the influence of their beliefs in their lives. So why didn’t Huntsman just say that instead of saying that his faith is “tough to define”?
Huntsman’s explanation bothers me on a couple of counts. First, because Huntsman is an aspiring politician, I don’t care for anything that sounds like equivocation. I’ll admit I prefer clear answers. When asked if he’s still a member of the LDS Church, what’s so hard about saying yes or no? In fact, his name is still on the membership rolls of the church, or it’s not. So which is it? My guess is that he is still a member of the LDS Church.
Which leads me to my second concern. Given that he’s still likely a church member, his equivocation must mean that (a) either he has some disagreements with his church that upset him enough to be vague in public about his religious identity, or (b) he has personal issues that have been unresolved with his church which would call into question his standing, or (c) perhaps both.
Of course, whatever is going on is his business. But he, nor anyone else, shouldn’t be surprised that being vague about such things raises questions for a man considering a run for president of the United States.
I, like many Americans, care that our nation’s highest leader is a person of faith. It matters to me because it becomes a point of commonality and a measuring stick for me as to how I might better understand that person’s politics and policies. I don’t believe in nothing, nor do I want my political leaders to believe in nothing. They can be avowed atheists and that would be better to me than remaining silent or vague about their faith.
More importantly, I want to be assured that religious liberty receives the highest priority among existing civil rights and, in this day and age, anyway, religious liberty is growing in importance. Of course, you don’t have to be a person of strong faith to highly value religious liberty, but the issue is so important to me that vagaries about questions of faith simply won’t do.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.