Is Huntsman distancing himself from LDS faith?
Politics • Ex-Utah guv has different approach than Mitt Romney.
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Columbia, S.C. • A week back in the United States, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. on Sunday didn't head to one of the six Mormon churches in the Charleston, S.C., area where he was visiting potential supporters and donors while deciding whether to launch a presidential bid.

Instead, Huntsman headed to a nondenominational mega-church called Seacoast with a rising star congressman, Rep. Tim Scott, who could be a key supporter in this early primary state.

The move, on top of comments Huntsman made last year about not being overly religious, raises questions about whether Huntsman, a former Utah governor, is distancing himself from his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as he considers a potential White House bid.

It's unclear whether Huntsman is intentionally charting a course to inoculate himself from a possible voter backlash against a Mormon contender but those familiar with his past actions say he has always been broad minded when it comes to faith.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who served as Huntsman's gubernatorial campaign manager and first chief of staff, says Huntsman had taught an Aaronic priesthood class in his local LDS ward during his 2004 campaign and after being sworn into office occasionally attended an LDS service near the Governor's Mansion.

"But the governor went out of his way week in and week out to visit other churches," Chaffetz says. "He felt it imperative to reach out."

Chaffetz said it was typical of the then-governor to show up at churches of all denominations. "This is not an election-year phenomenon," he says.

Huntsman's actions differ from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is also weighing a presidential bid — his second. Romney served as a lay leader in his Belmont ward and also as a stake president in the area, and fellow Mormons say he frequently attends his LDS ward when he's in Massachusetts.

Romney was forthright during his 2008 campaign about his Mormon faith, even taking the step of confronting critics with a major speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

Romney said that his faith defines him but that the LDS Church would not dictate his actions if he were elected and he would be president for all Americans.

"There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts," Romney said. "That I will not do."

Huntsman hasn't addressed his faith to the same degree, though he hinted last year that he wasn't a devout Mormon.

In a 2010 interview with Fortune magazine, Huntsman, then serving as the U.S. ambassador to China, talked briefly about his personal faith, with the magazine terming his Mormon credentials "soft."

"I can't say I'm overly religious," Huntsman said. "I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."

Huntsman is raising one of his two adopted daughters, Asha Bharati, in the Hindu faith in which she was born. Another daughter, Abby Huntsman, was wed in the Episcopal-run National Cathedral, with the service officiated by the dean of the cathedral, The Rev. SamuelT. Lloyd III.

Of course, Huntsman's roots in the LDS Church are strong. His grandfather David B. Haight was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is currently a member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy, an area-governing body of the church.

The younger Huntsman served an LDS mission to Taiwan in his youth, where he learned two Chinese languages that have come in handy in his political career.

More recently, while serving an ambassadorship in Beijing, Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye were occasionally seen at the LDS church.

Robert Oldendick, the executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina, says Huntsman may have learned from Romney's experience in the last election that the Mormon faith can create hurdles for a presidential hopeful.

A candidate shouldn't do anything that limits his or her appeal and should work to "be attractive to as large a group of people [as possible]," Oldendick says. "In terms of strategy and something that limits a potential negative for him as a Mormon, that's a thing he should be doing."

The Rev. France Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, says Huntsman often attended his church on Sundays as a way of trying to make clear that he represented all of the people.

"I think that's what Huntsman has been doing over the years," Davis says. "One of the best things I know how to run on is your record and his record is clear that he has been a part of and participated in and shared with groups of diversity."

Rabbi Benny Zippel, of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, says Huntsman never attended his services but Huntsman invited the Jewish congregation on several occasions to the Governor's Mansion for menorah-lighting ceremonies, and the rabbi joined Huntsman on a trip to Israel in May 2009.

"I think of him as a very strong godly person, with a very powerful, very strong connection with God," Zippel said, who was with Huntsman when they visited some of Judaism's holiest sites. "He has a broad respect for all religions."

tburr@sltrib.com