A billionaire ex-Mormon sues the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He wants back what he donated in 24 years.
by Massimo Introvigne
American media have widely covered the federal lawsuit launched this week by James Huntsman against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church.
One of the reasons of the widespread coverage is who Huntsman is. He is not the proverbial poor man who claims to have been defrauded of his hard-earned money by a religion. Huntsman inherited billions from his father, the late John Huntsman Sr., and his brother John Huntsman Jr. has been Governor of Utah.
Huntsman is not the first Mormon to turn into an angry ex-Mormon but may be the first billionaire to do so, and a billionaire who now wants to add some millions to his billions by recovering them from the Church (although he states that, should he win the lawsuit, he will donate the money to groups critical of the LDS Church rather than pocketing it). As many pious Mormons, Huntsman claims he contributed for 24 years 10% of his annual income to the Church. Now, he wants his donations back.
The rationale for Huntsman’s claim is an expose published by The Washington Post in 2019, where it was claimed that roughly 14.3% of the donations the Church receives annually are set aside and invested in various businesses. The investment in turn supported various Church-owned businesses. Huntsman says that he naively believed that all the money he donated was used for helping missionaries, building temples, and supporting the LDS charitable work, and that he became very upset after he read the Post article, and decided to sue.
Only, I for one do not believe that Huntsman really believed this. Huntsman is a businessman, and runs a successful film distribution company in California. He of all people should know that no organization can survive by spending every year all the money it receives. Those who did so were taught a hard lesson by COVID-19, and went bankrupted.
It is normal that a percentage of the revenues is set aside and placed in various investments and non-religious businesses. The Roman Catholic Church was criticized because some of its investments were adventurous and resulted in catastrophic losses, not because it invested part of its money, which is a normal, wise, and even laudable practice. Some mainline Protestant churches in the US were criticized because they invested in lucrative but dubious ventures involving weapons and even pornography—again, not for the idea of investing in itself.
I do not know what percentage of the yearly donations is really set aside and invested by the LDS Church. Perhaps, it is smaller than 14,3%—and at any rate, why does Huntsman now want to recover 100% of what he donated? I would agree that gross mismanagement of donated funds can be investigated. Absent obvious instances of fraud, however, churches and religions should be free to manage their funds as they deem fit. And it seems to me that not spending everything immediately and investing (wisely) a part of their money is absolutely normal. Churches on this earth are not made of angels, and they need money to support their activities in good days and bad days. The fruits of their investments will one day be used for the church’s religious purposes. If Huntsman wants to donate to anti-Mormon groups, he should use his own money.