Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. says it is "tough to define" whether he is still a member of the LDS Church in his first interview since leaving his post in Beijing and joining the field of potential GOP presidential candidates.
"I'm a very spiritual person and proud of my Mormon roots," Huntsman told TIME magazine in the interview. Pressed on whether he is still a member, he said, "That's tough to define. There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides."
One of Huntsman's ancestors was a saloon-keeper in Fillmore, Utah. But more recently, his grandfather, the late David Haight, served as a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is currently a member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy.
Huntsman's response in TIME was nearly a straight dodge in the first time the religion question was asked, but it is sure to come up again, just as it followed fellow Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Huntsman's response is a "peculiar dance." It's been widely known that Huntsman has not been as dedicated to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Romney.
"On the other hand, I think what's a little bit striking here, for most people who are LDS, the question of membership in the church is a fairly straightforward one," Burbank said. "For an audience outside the state of Utah, he's trying to frame himself as someone who is spiritual but not necessarily following particular religious tenets very closely."
Although he returned from Beijing only days ago, after serving nearly two years as the U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman has been cautious with the faith issue. During his recent trip to South Carolina, he attended the nondenominational Seacoast megachurch with U.S. Rep. Tim Scott.
Tom Schultz, a Brigham Young University political science student from Iowa, said he would like to hear more honest answers from Huntsman.
"I understand what he's doing to an extent, but why not just come out and say 'yes,' or 'no'? He's been so coy about his beliefs that I just kind of find it somewhat disingenuous," he said.
Huntsman acknowledged in the TIME interview that his presidential plans were accelerated by events.
"The thought in here," he said tapping his temple, "was 2016, but the political marketplace moved," he said. "If there was zero interest, we wouldn't be sitting here. We're encouraged by the level of interest and will let the rest of the month play out."
Huntsman also appears to be backing away from his support for greenhouse gas reducing policies aimed at staving off climate change. "It hasn't worked, and our economy's in a different place than five years ago," he said.