In Utah, the state that follows the pair more closely than any other, the distinctions between the two are obvious.
One Utahn put it this way: Romney is Brigham Young University, Huntsman is the University of Utah.
The 63-year-old former Massachusetts governor earned his college degree from BYU, the church-aligned Provo college that attracts elite and devout LDS members from around the globe. Huntsman, 50, enrolled at Utah, the dominant state school, which is influenced but not defined by the church that claims the loyalty of 60 percent of the Utah population.
“BYU is the church school — Molly Mormon and Peter Priest,” explained Peter Watkins, a GOP communications strategist in Salt Lake City who worked in the George W. Bush administration. “The University of Utah is part of the culture and part of the state, but they don’t want to associate themselves with the stereotype and are more secular.”
The analogy explains everything about the contrast between Romney and Huntsman. Romney was a local leader in the church; Huntsman downplays his faith. Romney was widely mocked when he claimed to be a hunter; Huntsman can frequently be found on a motorcycle or dirt bike, looking perfectly at ease as a man of the people despite his wealth.
Romney’s biography reveals a man who has taken the traditional path. The son of an auto executive and Michigan governor, Romney matriculated at Stanford, did his two-year LDS mission in France, then returned to the U.S. to finish his degree at BYU. He went on to get a law degree and MBA at Harvard.
Romney and his family, wife Ann and their five boys, are devout Mormons, and Romney has served as a stake president in the church. Called upon to defend his beliefs constantly on the 2008 campaign trail, he gave a defining December 2007 speech on the matter, insisting on tolerance and the inclusion of faith in the public square. With that address, he became to many Mormons what former President John F. Kennedy was to Catholics of his day.
A competition for Mormon bona fides between the two men would end in a draw. Romney’s great-great-grandfather was a 19th-century church leader who moved to the Utah Territory before statehood. Huntsman’s father and namesake is still a top official in the church who lends his Gulfstream jet to other LDS leaders, while his wife’s grandfather was in the church’s Quorom of the 12 Apostles, top figures in the hierarchy.
But Huntsman’s personal story is different. Jon Huntsman Sr. made a fortune in the chemical industry, but his son did not always follow the rules: He dropped out of high school, played keyboard in a rock band, and pledged Sigma Chi at the University of Utah, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania at age 27.
Huntsman, too, went on a two-year mission, to Taiwan. It was there that he became fluent in Chinese. But his family — wife Mary Kaye and their seven children, two of them adopted from Asia — are not strict Mormons, and he has never served in church leadership. More than a few eyebrows were raised in the church when Huntsman’s eldest daughter, Abigail, was married last year not in a Mormon temple, but at the National Cathedral by an Episcopal priest.
Causing even more of a buzz within the tight-knit church was a blunt interview Huntsman gave last year to Fortune that nearly everyone interviewed for this story brought up, without prompting.
“I can’t say I am overly religious,” he told the magazine. “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.” He pointed out that his children attended Catholic schools and his adopted daughters came from Buddhist and Hindu cultures.
- Now my brief experience near the University of Utah campus (at this place) makes much more sense. It had an entirely different feel than any of my other interactions, even interactions across the room, with LDS folks.
- It seems to me the above poses an important question to evangelical voters: Are you more concerned with electing a president whose theology or whose lifestyle more closely aligns with yours? If the former, Gov. Huntsman is your man; he’s clearly not a strict Mormon and would likely run from the doctrinal distinctives that make you squirm. If the latter, it’s Gov. Romney, because he obviously takes his faith seriously and it informs his life in a manner very similar to how ours should, even if we probably differ on some theologically (but not politically) important issues. You know my answer. What’s yours?