November 19, 2012

My Dinner with Jon (Huntsman)

by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Last week the electioneering ebbed, Democrats heaved sighs of relief, and Republicans began their tortured explanations of the outcome of the presidential race.  Bloggers of things Mormon began to air their own anxieties about the future:  what would Mitt Romney’s loss mean for Mormon studies? 

More important, and at the risk of driving this academic-narcissism-in-the-guise-of-soul-searching into the ground, is what it might mean for the study of religion in the American West.  Enough about Mormon Studies . . . what about us?

Without wading too far into the numbers, it seems quite evident that the evangelical distaste for a Mormon candidate—and more pointedly, the southern evangelical distaste—was vastly overinflated.  Yes, Romney won Utah and Idaho and Arizona, but look at that solid Mormon South!  Equally important is the fact that, even with large numbers of Mormons on the West Coast, he didn’t stand a chance there.  So was his problem a regional thing, a religious thing, or some of both?

Years ago sociologist Armand Mauss used survey data to suggest that there are profound differences in the outlooks and attitudes of LDS who live west of Utah (he was looking at California in particular).  I was reminded of this, and of the complexities of regional and religious identities, when I met Governor Jon Huntsman recently.

Huntsman came to the university where I work to deliver the Weil Lecture on American Citizenship, a series that has brought in a wide variety of illustrious figures of many political persuasions beginning with William Howard Taft in 1915.  I was asked to attend a dinner in Huntsman’s honor and to introduce him before he spoke, an invitation at which I jumped.  I’ve been curious for a long time about his background and his relationship to the Mormon tradition.  He is a descendent of Mormon pioneer stock who served a mission, but who now seems actively to resist the urgings of the press to gauge his level of piety.  Unlike other Republican candidates during the primary season who fell over one another to express their sincere love of Jesus, Huntsman consistently demurred when provoked to discuss his faith.  He and his wife have two adopted young daughters, one from China and one from India, and they are raising them as Buddhist and Hindu, respectively.  What’s up with that?

This might well be my chance to figure it all out, I thought. 

The details, as it turned out, are far more interesting that I had thought.  Gov. Huntsman, you see, is a California Mormon.  In fact, he and I were born one month and about 20 miles apart in the Bay Area.  One of his grandfathers was the mayor of my hometown, and ran the local hardware store there.  When he was an infant Huntsman’s parents moved to southern California, where the young Jon was raised.  We had a lovely conversation about these early connections.

I mentioned to him, by the way, that I also studied Mormons.  But that really didn’t seem to interest him. When queried from the audience by a campus minister about how he understood the appropriate place of religious faith in the political world, Huntsman talked of ecumenism, tolerance, and celebration of difference.  Nary a word about deep personal faith, even of the very private sort.

[As an aside, he wowed the packed audience of young students (many budding business majors).  They cheered his statements about collaboration across political boundaries, about the corrosive role of money in elections, and about the necessity for the U.S. to negotiate with international partners rather than trying to bully them into submission.  He talked with particular passion about the importance of China, a subject about which, as a former U.S. Ambassador and a fluent speaker of Mandarin, he knows a great deal.

I have to say, he impressed me, too.  My jaw clenched a bit when he talked about a limited federal government.  But there was no getting around his centrist politics, his belief in the reality of climate change, and his apparent openness to dialogue.  I suspect that many of us there saw, for the first time in a long while, a way to move forward through partisanship to a shared future.  One colleague of mine even asked him the glaringly obvious question:  why does he remain a Republican when his own club seems to have revoked his membership card?]

Political questions notwithstanding, I was initially frustrated by my failure to gain much traction on his religious self-understanding.  Yet as I thought more about it later, I realized that he, in fact, was like many of the Mormons—and Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Buddhists—that I had grown up with in California in the 1960s and 1970s.  We put a premium on toleration (although we didn’t call it that—in fact, we didn’t call it anything), in part because we had to in order to find common ground as friends and neighbors.  We lived in a region with longstanding communities of Japanese, Chinese, South Asians, Irish and Italian Catholics, and other migrants to the mobile society of the post-World War II coastal industries.  We had no established majority of one particular religious group, and that diversity made a difference in how we thought about religion itself.  It’s hard to describe or to capture, but we wore our religion differently there—certainly, it was different from what I’ve encountered in the Northeast and the South.

From a distance, too, I think that form of religiosity can look a lot like Sheilaism, to use Robert Bellah’s characterization of “do it yourself” faith.  Or, when pressed by journalists for a statement or a faith stance, it can look like indifference.  Pollsters, with their targeted questions framed in other contexts, might well call these people “nones.”  For me, at least, and those I grew up with, it was not any of these things.  We had commitments to religious institutions—sometimes to several, and that was okay.  We may well have family members, as I do, who are Jungian Catholics, born again evangelicals, secular humanists, Buddhists, and mainline Protestants. 

We speak a different religious language as a result.  And that’s the language I heard Jon Huntsman speaking (when he wasn’t breaking into Mandarin).  I’m not saying it is the wave of the future; indeed, his dismal showing among Republicans would suggest otherwise.  It’s not Mormon in the Utah style, but neither is it a turning away from that faith. And it may reflect a particular era of California’s history that has now been overtaken by the western Southerners that Darren Dochuk so engagingly describes. 

But it should prompt us to search for more nuanced ways of thinking about western religiosity, ways that don’t bind us solely to denominational or confessional frameworks.  Let’s get busy constructing some new paradigms that capture cultural affiliations outside those already designated as “religion.”  It’s the “all or nothing” framework, one encouraged rhetorically by those who would like to corner the market on faith as a branding mechanism, that stops us from recognizing the very commonalities that may well be our salvation.


Stan Thayne said...

Great insights, Laurie. Thanks for sharing.

I am reminded of how, being raised in Utah, I grew up thinking of California as something distinctly non-western--as a region outside of "the West," as I understood the West. I think you've articulated well some of the regional differences, in terms of religious identity, that probably informed that gut feeling.

Religion in the American West said...

From Doug Firth Anderson:

Yes, thanks Laurie. As you might recall, we tried to suggest this in Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region, eds. Wade Clark Roof and Mark Silk. However, since few seem to be listening, the point bears repeating!

Last Lemming said...

I only lived in California for one year (72-73) and it was Santa Monica, not the Bay area, but the California Mormons I encountered bore no resemblance to the ones you describe. In fact, having previously lived in Minnesota and Utah, I concluded that Mormon conservatism and intolerance was a function of distance from the Atlantic Ocean. (Not that I still believe this.) John Birch propaganda and the N word were the order of the day.

Konden said...

Great insight Laurie, Thanks!