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Rachel Esplin Odell: Rock bands, Harleys and Mormonism

By Rachel Esplin Odell

Published: Friday, July 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Many devout Mormons balked at Jon Huntsman Jr.'s comment that his faith is "hard to define." Perhaps this indignation has arisen from a sense of betrayal. In our yearning for mainstream approval, we Latter-day Saints want the most prominent of Mormons — a presidential candidate — to be as unabashed in our faith as we are.

But the simple fact is, for Huntsman, his faith is hard to define. As he notes, "there are varying degrees" of activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neither active nor apostate, Huntsman takes pride in his Mormon heritage, but also finds satisfaction in many spiritual traditions. Would we want him to pretend otherwise?

Although political pundits allege Huntsman is only recently distancing himself from the LDS religion, painting it as a calculated political move, the Huntsmans' relationship to the church developed from the personal decisions he and his wife made many years ago. In the words of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, "This is not an election-year phenomenon."

While active Mormons may not approve of Huntsman's level of activity in the Church, we should nonetheless grant Huntsman the "privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of [his] own conscience." Rather than judging him by what we perceive to be his degree of faithfulness, a matter deeply personal and highly individual, we should judge him by his moral character, leadership quality and policy positions.

On these counts, Huntsman affirms the values of Latter-day Saints and people of faith the world over. He is foremost family-oriented, devoted to his wife, Mary Kaye, and their seven children. He is "forever pro-life," and signed measures as governor to restrict abortion. His insistence on taking the high road in his campaign and avoiding personal attacks on other candidates exemplifies the "Mormon ethic of civility."

As ambassador to China, Huntsman was a tireless advocate for the rights of Chinese citizens. He regularly met with political dissidents, supported them at their trials and called for their release from unjust imprisonment. The Chinese leadership was doubtless aware of his Mormon ties, which, along with the admirable behavior of countless Latter-day Saints in China, likely contributed to the progress toward "regularization" of the Church's activities in China announced in August 2010.

Huntsman supports traditional marriage between a man and a woman, while making allowance for same-sex civil unions as a matter of fairness. Similarly, after the passage of California's Proposition 8, Elder Whitney Clayton of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy stated, the Church is "not anti-gay but pro-marriage" and generally "does not oppose civil unions or domestic partnerships."

And in supporting in-state tuition for law-abiding illegal immigrant students, Huntsman has pursued a middle ground similar to that of the LDS Church, which endorsed the principles of the Utah Compact and supported compassionate immigration reform.

Importantly, at this time of governmental extravagance and indebtedness, trends that violate gospel principles of provident living, Huntsman has demonstrated he has the wisdom to rein in government spending, reduce America's tax burden and spur market-led innovation and growth. This was most evident when Huntsman enacted $400 million in tax cuts and balanced Utah's budget in spite of the revenue shortfalls brought on by the recession.

Finally, Huntsman's candidacy is already having a positive impact on public perceptions of the Church. He is consistently identified as a Mormon alongside Mitt Romney, making the idea of a Mormon president more palatable to voters. His appeal to a broader and different electorate than Romney expands the positive influence LDS public figures exert.

Huntsman represents some of the diversity within the LDS tradition, making people less likely to assume all Mormons must fit the Mitt Romney mold. In fact, his bio would jibe well on the new mormon.org: "I played in a rock band. I ride a Harley. I'm a Mormon."

Rachel Esplin Odell is a foreign policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She was president of the Harvard College Latter-day Saint Student Association from 2008-2009.

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