Editor's Note: Also read Brian Kaylor's first installment of coverage of the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference: Religious Conservatives Cheer Trump at Conference.
Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, spoke about his faith only in vague terms that seemed designed to make him sound like the conservative Christians at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference. (Photo: Brian Kaylor)
Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, who recently stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to China, jokingly started his speech at a conservative Christian conference by speaking in Mandarin Chinese.
As he feigned remembrance that he should speak in English, the audience chuckled but his icebreaker failed to warm up the crowd that saved its more enthusiastic responses for other speakers.
Speaking to the second annual conference of the Faith & Freedom Coalition (FFC), which was started by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, the former governor of Utah found himself standing before about 1,000 conservative Christian activists from across the nation.
Unless he said so in Mandarin Chinese, Huntsman never mentioned the issue many in the evangelical community remain suspicious about – his Mormon faith.
Huntsman said the speech was biographical, not political. But he spoke about his faith only in vague terms that seemed designed to make him sound like the conservative Christians at the event – a strategy similar to the one employed by fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, who announced last week that he would be running again for the Republican presidential nomination.
Huntsman began his speech by telling the story of his adopted daughter, Gracie Mae, who had been abandoned in a vegetable market in China. He told how he and his wife felt led to adopt.
"Gracie loves to tell that story," Huntsman added. "And when asked who found her in the vegetable market, she simply replies, 'Jesus.'"
Audience members applauded.
Huntsman offered other vague religious references during his remarks. He thanked the activists at the event for working for "the values that have brought all of us together."
He also spoke of meeting with Chinese dissidents, noting how they "drew strength" from American values like the "freedom of speech, assembly, religion and press."
Huntsman argued, to applause, that Republicans must remain strongly pro-life, even in the midst of an election likely to focus on economic concerns.
"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus only on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," Huntsman said. "That is a trade we should not make. If Republicans ignore life, the deficit we will face is one that is much more destructive. It will be a deficit of the heart and of the soul."
Although Huntsman touched on issues like abortion, he also framed economic concerns as the chief issue in the next campaign.
"I came today not to give a political speech but simply to introduce myself and my family," Huntsman said. "If the Faith and Freedom Coalition were to understand one political thing about me and the state I served, it would be this: Utah had some of the greatest people in the nation. In Utah, people know the difference between freedom and serfdom. The serfdom of high debt and massive government and the toll these take on our liberty, our economy and our lives. And that, ladies and gentlemen, I believe will be the essence of the election in 2012."
In an interview after his speech with Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, Huntsman avoided religious references even when asked about evangelicals.
He did, however, call social issues "the gel that binds us as people" and spoke about "our beliefs" that connect generations of Americans with each other.
Huntsman's effort to gloss over his Mormon faith and use Christological statements to build commonality with evangelicals is similar to the strategy employed by fellow Mormon Mitt Romney during the 2008 campaign.
During Romney's speech on "faith in America" in December 2007, which was intended to ease concerns about his faith and blunt the rise of former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, Romney said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind."
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Despite the speech, Romney lost the Iowa caucuses to Huckabee and the nomination to John McCain.
Romney also spoke at the FFC over the weekend. In his speech, which largely was a repeat of his official presidential announcement address the day before, Romney avoided references to faith. He did, however, begin by trying to build commonalities between his beliefs and those of the audience.
"We're united tonight in a lot of things," Romney said at the start. "We're united in the love we have for this great country. We're united in our belief in the sanctity of human life. We're united in our belief in the importance and significance of marriage between one man and one woman. We're united in our belief in America."
Huntsman and Romney avoided their Mormon faith at the event, but they should be concerned that their faith will cost them votes.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that more than one third of white evangelical Christians say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon (compared to less than one fifth of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants). This finding is nearly identical to numbers in a similar 2007 poll.
The presence of Huntsman and Romney at an event billed as a conservative Christian conference – rather than a Republican event – did not seem to raise any concerns from conference organizers.
Rather, several key personalities at the event worked to define "faith" to be solely in the realm of conservatives working to defeat President Barack Obama.
Calling Obama's election a "catastrophe," FFC founder Reed said he started the organization as a response to Obama's election. Reed urged those present to "pray" to God to give them victory in the next elections.
"We're going to have to do this prayerfully so that it's not by might or not by strength but by His power that His country will be turned back to Him," Reed added.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) made a similar argument, during a prayer at the close of her speech, that conservatives need God's help to defeat Obama.
"Father, we pray again for your Spirit to come down, to come into this nation," she said during a long prayer full of gestures. "We pray for our nation. Lord, we know there are things that we have done in our nation that have not been pleasing in your sight. Lord, we ask your forgiveness for that. We ask that once again you would turn your face towards us."
Bachmann is expected to announce soon she is running for president.
Speaking about his mission "to make Barack Obama a one-term president," Republican National Convention Chairman Reince Priebus urged those at the FFC event to hold onto their "faith in our God and faith in our Savior" to accomplish the difficult task of defeating Obama and winning back the nation.
"In these trying times, I think we'd all be well-served to turn to our faith as we confront the challenges that lie ahead," Priebus added.
Despite all the talk about "faith" at the FFC event, Huntsman's Mormonism presents a hurdle he – and Romney – must overcome. And given Donald Trump's enthusiastic reception by the FFC crowd, Huntsman's mild-mannered tone may also turn conservative evangelicals away from his candidacy.
Perhaps trying to help Huntsman overcome some of these problems, David Brody with the Christian Broadcasting Network asked Huntsman at the end of their interview to say "I'm concerned about the Obama administration" in Mandarin. After Huntsman said something in Mandarin, Brody asked for a translation.
"I basically said it's a pleasure to be with you and although we have some challenges today, America will continue forward as the greatest country in the world," Huntsman responded.
With that, Huntsman left Reed's event without attacking Obama or discussing his Mormon faith.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.