SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said it's "tough to define" whether he's still a member of the LDS Church and described himself as spiritual rather than religious in a lengthy profile in Time magazine posted Thursday about the would-be GOP presidential candidate.
Titled "Jon Huntsman: The Would Be Republican Presidential Candidate Democrats Most Fear" online and "The Cool Kid" in the magazine, the story is billed as Huntsman's first interview since he returned to the U.S. late last month after serving as the nation's ambassador to China.
The author, Melinda Henneberger, describes Huntsman as unwilling to spill even "puny secrets," such as his differences with other Republicans eying the White House, especially former Utah Olympic leader and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney.
When asked about whether he still belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Huntsman was so cryptic the author wrote that she knew even less after questioning him:
"'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.'"
Asked about the comments, Tim Miller, the spokesman for what's been called Huntsman's "campaign in waiting," said in a statement that Huntsman "remains a member of the church and proud to be part of the fabric of a large, vibrant faith."
It's not clear how Huntsman's apparent attempt to distance himself from his faith will play with Republican voters around the country, including those evangelical conservatives who don't consider Mormons to be fellow Christians.
"The only thing worse than being a Mormon is being a nothing," said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, a key early primary state. "That might work in California, but it's not going to work very well in South Carolina. They're suspicious of people who are not believers."
Robert George, a Princeton law professor and director of the New Jersey university's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, said the comments attributed to Huntsman raise serious issues of trust.
"It looks to me like he's pandering to bigotry or he's failing in either candor or integrity," George, a member of the Deseret New editorial advisory board, said. "He's not giving a complete and honest answer to the question just because he's avoiding it — or something worse."
George said he has much more respect for how Romney handled questions about his Mormonism during the 2008 campaign, by giving a major address on religion in Texas where he vowed to remain true to "the faith of my fathers."
University of New Hampshire political science department chairman Dante Scala said New England voters may appreciate Huntsman's attitude toward religion.
"New Hampshire, like lots of New England, is a place where people find it impolite to ask about your religion. And so it's not the norm to wear religion on your sleeve," Scala said. "It's the norm that that's a private matter."
Scala said a lot of New Englanders are disenchanted with the GOP because the party is seen as being increasingly dominated by "the religious faithful, those who think religion belongs in the public square."
Quin Monson, associate director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said while Utahns may be surprised by Huntsman's comments, he'll still come off as religious enough for most voters.
Still, Monson said, Huntsman may end up having to be more specific about his relationship with the Mormon church, given the attention paid to Romney's faith in the last election.
"I'm not sure if he can successfully become less overtly religious enough as a Mormon to do away with some of the bias we saw," Monson said. "We'll have to see."
It's not the first time Huntsman has been vague about his religious beliefs.
Last year, a Fortune magazine interview that appeared on CNNMoney.com, called Huntsman's Mormon "soft," unlike his more devout family. His father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is an Area Seventy and his grandfather was the late Apostle David B. Haight in the LDS Church.
"I can't say I am overly religious," Huntsman is quoted as saying by Fortune. "I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."
Huntsman also said then that his children attend Catholic schools, and his adopted daughters come from different religious cultures, one Buddhist, the other Hindu.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter, said it's too early in the race to judge Huntsman's comments on religion.
"Huntsman is a very spiritual man and certainly is respectful of a lot of the world's religions and ideas," Jowers said. "It's always difficult for candidates to discuss such personal issues. If you profess your religion too loudly, people will call you self-righteous."