The Audacity of Jon Huntsman’s Pluralism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 7, 2012 — 19 Comments

There are a lot of reasons, and a lot of commentary, for why Jon Huntsman isn’t a front-runner in the Republican presidential nominee race; he’s seen as too liberal, or he’s too nice, he’s a Mormon not named Romney, or maybe it was that bizarre first campaign ad. What hasn’t been alleged, until now, is that he isn’t sufficiently Christian, and might be a Chinese “Manchurian candidate.” However, thanks to a racist attack ad that’s so extreme it almost plays as a parody, those allegations are now removed from conspiratorial toxic message boards and white supremacist conventions and given their fifteen minutes in the 2012 presidential race.

The ad begins asking of Huntsman, “The Manchurian Candidate,” “What’s he hiding?” It features “traditional” Chinese music and clips of Huntsman doing things in China: speaking Mandarin, taking interviews from Chinese press, walking around in China– you get the idea. It then asks a series of questions during the montage like, “American values, or Chinese?” and “Weak on China? Wonder why?” It also takes a detour to slam him for being Mormon (“A man of faith?”) before the coup de grace, a doctored photo of Huntsman in what appears to be Maoist military garb. Essentially, it makes “Willie Horton” look like Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” ad.

The ad was placed by an independent group calling itself “New Hampshire Liberty 4 Paul,” and was quickly disavowed by the Ron Paul campaign, who said it should be taken down (Paul supporters have also traveled down the rabbit hole of trying to prove the ad was a “false flag” designed by Huntsman to discredit their candidate). Naturally, the ad was condemned by a variety of critics, including the Hindu American Foundation, who took exception to the implication that Huntsman raising his adopted Indian daughter Asha within a Hindu context was something that should be attacked.

The Huntsmans with daughter Asha Bharati

The Huntsmans with daughter Asha Bharati

”This deplorable ad is blatantly racist and religiously intolerant, and crosses all lines of acceptable political discourse,” said Suhag Shukla, Esq., HAF’s Managing Director and Legal Counsel. “Instead of vilifying Governor Hunstman, he should be applauded for being open minded enough to raise his adopted daughter as a Hindu.”

This ugly ad, however, does highlight qualities about Jon Huntsman that I think are admirable, and speak to the best qualities of our nation. The willingness to put duty above party affiliation by accepting the position of Chinese ambassador from President Obama, the willingness to learn a second language in order to better communicate our values, and understand another culture’s values, the recognition that diplomacy can be a strength, and a commitment to religious pluralism that includes raising an adopted daughter “to learn about and appreciate her native culture and the faiths associated with it.” I may not agree with Jon Huntsman on a number of issues, but if he were elected president I wouldn’t constantly worry that he would try to imprint his beliefs on the many religious minorities that call this country home, something that can’t be said for several other candidates.

Indeed, from all accounts Huntsman’s personal religious life is a mirror of America’s unique mix of faiths and philosophies, far from the political will of the Republican Party’s Christian conservative base, who see any non-adherence to a certain religio-political rigorousness as a heresy that must be punished at the ballot box. Just read this excerpt from a National Review article on Huntsman’s religious outlook.

Last year, Huntsman told Fortune that he receives “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies” and doesn’t consider himself to be “overly religious.” (ANew York Times article last week noted that Huntsman’s comments to Fortune made a splash in his home state; “many Utahans can recite from memory” Huntsman’s quote, according to the Times.) In March, the Washington Post reported that “Huntsman’s relatives and friends describe him frequently as an independent thinker, unbeholden to any church or party doctrine,” and that “many Republicans faithful to the church in Utah dismissed Huntsman as a ‘Jack Mormon,’ a derogatory term referring to a non-practicing Mormon.”

As the Pew Forum has pointed out, “the religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories.” 35% of Americans attend more the one place of worship, and sizable minorities mix Western and Eastern forms of religion into their daily lives. Huntsman and his “satisfaction from many different types of religion” is mainstream, yet every election cycle the Christian character, and only the Christian character, of each candidate is scrutinized. Any hint that a candidate might enjoy, or even tolerate, the practices the other faiths instantly make him suspect, and a target for attack. If you need an example, just look at what happened when Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, who is an ardent Christian, attended a traditional Hindu blessing.

If Jon Huntsman’s campaign has little chance of succeeding, and there’s every indication that’s the case, then perhaps he could be that prophetic voice for American pluralism within the Republican Party. That conservative politics shouldn’t be hijacked by an all-or-nothing strain of Christian belief, that melding religious orthodoxy to political stances can become toxic if left unchecked. Perhaps Huntsman could be the voice of all those Americans who attend multiple churches, or have children who are Wiccan, or Buddhist, or atheists, or those who like to do Yoga and enjoy reading their horoscopes. You know, normal Americans, the “mushy middle” that actually gives some credence to our country being a “melting pot” of ideas and cultures. Maybe Huntsman can embrace the audacity of his pluralistic life and bring us something new.

Jason Pitzl-Waters