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Jon Huntsman and the Jack Mormon Moment

Jon Huntsman is Mormon like Lady Gaga is Catholic. Okay, I exaggerate. Gaga was raised Catholic but her art exists in antagonistc tension with the Catholic Church. Jon Huntsman flouts the rules of Mormonism, but he doesn’t antagonize the LDS Church. Still, Huntsman is barely more “Mormon” in the technical sense than Butch Cassidy was. It would be as accurate to call the late Warren Zevon a Mormon. For while a spokesman for his campaign says Huntsman “remains a member,” it’s difficult to see how this means more than that his name is on the rolls of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a distinction that includes millions of people who only nominally self-identify as Mormon.

Mainstream media often begins any analysis of Huntsman simply by referring to him as a Mormon like Mitt. But Mitt Romney is a temple Mormon, and Jon Huntsman is a Jack Mormon. At her Jack Mormon blog, Marilee Scott digs up the relevant OED definition of “Jack” and discovers some interesting things as to the “quasi-proper name or nickname, often applied familiarly or contemptuously”; thus a Jack Mormon may be either “a non-Mormon on friendly terms with Mormons” or “a nominal or backsliding Mormon”. Scott also points out, astutely I think, that the term itself has been watered down as the Church’s economic control over the Southwest U.S. has changed and diffused. When we call someone a Jack Mormon today, we mean they are a backslider, which is what Huntsman, who drinks, doesn’t attend church, and doesn’t really adhere to LDS theology, decidedly is. He’s candid about it, speaking of “varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.” He says he’s a “good Christian” who is “proud of his Mormon roots.” This is a cultural rather than theological self-identification, and normally when we speak of someone in the present tense as Mormon, we mean the latter.

The fading of the distinction between active and Jack Mormons is partly attributable to mainstream media ignorance—and a bit of Mormon ignorance. But a more articulate group of Mormon scholars (and scholars about Mormons) are assessing Huntsman’s chances as a Mormon running for POTUS, fully aware that the candidate is not technically of the fold. For writers like Joanna Brooks, Russell Fox, Damon Linker and others, Jon Huntsman is a post-orthodox Mormon (my term, not theirs)—something more than merely a “cultural” Mormon, but certainly less than a Romney Mormon.

There are two main places you can find these more nuanced, albeit minimal, articulations of Huntsman’s identity in the Mormon community. The first, unsurprisingly, is a piece by my former Student Review comrade at BYU, Joanna Brooks. Brooks has fearlessly answered the politicization of her church by right wingers like Glenn Beck. Her dissection of Beck’s tears as the clownish Beck’s deployment of Mormonism’s interpersonal patriarchy is brilliant, but she holds anti-Mormons’ feet to the fire as well. In her recent post concerning Huntsman’s characterization of his Mormon identity as “tough to define,” Brooks acknowledges the Jackdom while appealing to the complexity of Mormon identity construction to explain what she sees as the candidate’s reticence to address just how Mormon he is. Brooks argues that it’s tough for less orthodox Mormons to define themselves within their community, that there are often struggles with friends and family members when one’s beliefs diverge or participation lapses, that this is also manifest in politics (where, I should add, LDS voters appear to greatly prefer the orthodox Romney to the martini-drinking Huntsman) and that the entire enterprise is a complicated kind of identity politics. As Brooks observes:

In recent years, I’ve seen Mormon congregations embrace “Jack Mormons” (an insider term for a lapsed member), or liberal and unorthodox Mormons like me. But I’ve also seen Mormons characterize other Mormons as being “not Mormon” or even “anti-Mormon” (a term that carries a charge comparable to that of anti-Semitism) for expressing views that diverge from Church leaders on issues like women’s equality or gay rights. And I’ve seen orthodox Mormons shun their own relatives and encourage or even goad them to leave the LDS Church for perceived lack of orthodoxy.

An orthodox view of what constitutes Mormonism would, of course, judge Jon Huntsman unworthy of temple participation in the Church (it’s curious that some writers on Mormon issues who should know better would suggest otherwise). Within that view, I have a hard time seeing how one could listen to Huntsman’s statements about his Mormon heritage, his affinity for tavern keepers, his self-description as a “good Christian,” combined with his embrace of a cosmopolitan world view, and from that conclude, as Brooks and many others do, that his statements are vague, rather than simply tactful. I think his statements were as clear as the day. He called his relationship to the Church “tough to define” — a not-so-tough-to-define sign that even if he’s of the flock, he’s not in the flock. No temple-going Mormon would ever honestly and publicly say their relationship to the church was hard to define; certainty is a key element of the Mormon testimony, something without which no good Latter-day Saint departs their house.

The second source of serious treatment of Huntsman’s Mormonism–the recent New York Times roundtable on the new “Mormon moment” in presidential politics—is less satisfying to me than Brooks’s work. The entire roundtable seems to conflate Romney and Huntsman, thereby conflating faithful Mormons with Jacks. Russell Fox (more about him later) argues that Huntsman’s political freshness leaves him free “to craft different responses to Republican primary demands, moderately employing his Mormon identity while still drawing on the socially conservative reputation of the faith.” Damon Linker calls Huntsman a “luke warm” embracer of the LDS faith, but retains the candidate’s public Mormon identity. Kathleen Flake begins to get it right: Huntsman is a “believer of convenience.” Although Flake correctly applies this to Huntsman’s policies (he’s not extraordinarily conservative), it applies equally to Huntsman’s cultural and family-based relationship to the LDS Church. In Fox, Linker and Flake, we have a group of writers who should know better, but who seem overexcited and underscrutinous, eager to ride the “Mormon Moment” as far as it can take them, reluctant to grasp this opportunity to actually explain to their readers the difference between an orthodox Mormon and a cultural Mormon.

In sum, while some bloggers on Mormon issues have explained the distinction, it’s been lost on much of the media and understated even by those in the know. Why turn a jack Mormon into a Mormon? Why speak of Huntsman and Mitt Romney in the same “Mormon” breath? One might respond that Huntsman’s Jack-ness won’t make him any less a Mormon to the general public, particularly those 20% thereabouts who won’t vote for a Mormon candidate (down from twice that much in 2008, to be fair). It’s true that the distinction is too nuanced for some of the haters, but surely taking a few moments to explain the distinction would reach some, and would be valuable simply for accuracy’s sake.

There may be other reasons at play:

The Mormon crush. There is an understandable desire to make Huntsman part of what Sarah Gordon and Jan Shipps giddily call the “New Mormon Moment.” This identity-based excitement has swallowed up the distinction between a Mormon and a Jack Mormon as quickly as it has set aside questions of politics and policy.

The Mormon ethnic desire. Huntsman has been called a “cultural Mormon,” a term that is accurate but which may exaggerate the extent to which Mormonism is a “culture.” Which is to say, Mormonism is a culture, but it’s difficult to say what that really means. One thing Mormonism clearly is not, however, is an ethnicity, in the Judaic sense or in the sense we may speak of Italian Catholics or South Asian Muslims. There has long been a desire on the part of Mormon commentators to turn Mormonism into an ethnicity, to derive a Mormon cultural geography that will accommodate a kind of benign Mormon nationalism. Thinking Mormons understandably wish theirs was a religion with the ethnic strength of Judaism and the intellectual diversity of the Jesuits. It’s neither of those just yet, but the effort is forgivable. Culturally, the candidacies of Romney and Huntsman may indeed form a “Mormon moment.” But each candidate’s relationship with the LDS Church makes it a moment of a distinct and complex kind.

Mormon exaltation of wealth and power. It’s this factor that may be exercising the most subtle, but forceful, distortive effect on the current sympathetic Huntsman narrative. In her piece cited earlier, Joanna Brooks, almost in passing, refers to the candidate as “Mormon royalty.” It’s not just Huntsman’s bloodlines that make him royalty in the Church, though. The Mormon hierarchy is, consciously or not, a material hierarchy and its practical theology (while not explicit in, and often the opposite of, LDS scriptural canon) includes a prosperity theology modeled after Pentecostal Protestantism.

The upside to this, for Mormons, is the image of industrious LDS inventors and business visionaries, as well as an army of obedient workers. The downside is illustrated in Utah’s infamous image as the scam capitol of America, and well-established negative images of Mormon business ethics. The Huntsmans may not be responsible for multilevel marketing scams and snake oil salesmen along the Wasatch Front, but Jon Huntsman’s political career has been rendered possible by his fabulous wealth. His image as a philanthropist makes him an iconic example of the socially responsible (Mormon) businessman. The Huntsmans, with more active Mormons than Jacks, make their private planes available to high-level church officials.

More than religion, Huntsman and Romney have inherited wealth in common. And, somewhere below the surface of rational consciousness, a good many Mormons (in fact, a good many Americans) equate that wealth with deity-approved goodness.

A few brave Mormon writers have dipped their toes in the waters of political economy. And Russell Fox, another of my former partners-in-crime at the Y, has shed his clothes and jumped all the way in, with his wholehearted embrace of alternative economic systems. But it remains to be seen whether Fox or others on the Mormon left will connect the dots between the Huntsmans, the Church hierarchy, economic hierarchy, and presidential politics. 

With the public relations possibilities and the tremendous mainstreaming advantage the LDS Church gains from a President affiliated with Mormonism, a church normally willing to exclude is more eager, in this instance, to include. But the institutional Church, and the theologically conservative troops in the field, will not be able to control the consequences of an emerging post-orthodox Mormon icon. If Jon Huntsman succeeds politically, which he has the potential to do in the next 10 years, this will not constitute a Mormonization of politics so much as a cultural redefinition of Mormonism.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.