When Jon Huntsman announces his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination today, it will represent a remarkable milestone: He’ll become the second Republican candidate in the 2012 race who happens to be Mormon.
Mitt Romney, the leading GOP candidate, and Huntsman, the former Utah governor and Obama administration’s ambassador to China, belong to an “outsider” church still sheathed in misconceptions. But they’re also likely to be the beneficiaries of changing attitudes about religion in politics and Mormonism in particular, experts said.
Ironically, it’s Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president and a man who overcame several religious controversies — rumors that he’s a Muslim, concerns about his U.S.-bashing pastor in Chicago — who helped pave the way.
“The American public is more sophisticated regarding religion than the prejudices witnessed from generations long past,” said conservative political commentator Kevin Patrick.
For Huntsman and Romney, their campaigns come at a significant time in public awareness of Mormonism.
On the entertainment front, Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” and cable TV’s “Big Love” -- however distorted their portrayal of the faith -- have helped usher Mormonism into the mainstream, observers said.
On the political front, there are 14 Mormon members of Congress, making Washington’s climate hospitable to the idea of a Mormon president — or at least a Mormon GOP nominee.
“Being Mormon is only going to hurt them in a Southern evangelical base vote,” said Republican consultant Mike Edelman, who argued, however, that evangelicals would support Romney or Huntsman over Obama.
One major difference between the two is that Romney this year has shied away from discussing his faith, and Huntsman has insisted it’s just one of several religions that influence his life, fueling speculation that he could be distancing himself from the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
“Huntsman is reflective of contemporary trends in Mormonism,” said Matthew Bowman, associate editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.