James Huntsman on the LDS Church: Why he left it, sued it, and what he hopes to change in it

Former member says he isn’t trying to deprive the faith of its tax-exempt status, filed suit only after private negotiations failed, and is especially disillusioned with the church’s many requirements and its continuing doctrine of polygamy.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Huntsman poses for a photograph at the Huntsman Foundation headquarters in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Huntsman hopes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "will finally get serious about deploying its massive billions of dollars to help society."

Until a thunderbolt court ruling in August in his favor, James Huntsman mostly shied away from commenting on personal aspects of his fraud lawsuit against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But Huntsman has opened up since a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California resuscitated his attempt to claw back millions of dollars in tithing after a lower court judge threw it out in 2021.

Recent interviews with the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail and The Washington Post portray him as “Mormon royalty” and de-facto champion for many Latter-day Saints still active in the church who might be questioning how the faith handles its recently revealed trove of wealth, estimated to top $175 billion or more.

In the following Q&A (edited slightly for clarity), Huntsman, who resigned his church membership in 2020, tells The Salt Lake Tribune he never sought that role, speaks of tensions within his prominent Utah family, addresses the arc of his own beliefs, and urges the Utah-based church to change.

(A spokesperson for the faith, which has appealed the latest turn in Huntsman’s case, did not respond to a request for comment.)

What do you believe is at stake in your lawsuit, beyond the tithing you’re seeking to recoup?

This is a simple case of fraud and how I believed the LDS Church misrepresented its financial claims as it relates to tithing funds. To be clear, I have no issue with the First Amendment and I’m not looking to alter, in any way, the tax-exempt status of the LDS Church. That is not my fight. At some point, this case will end, and I’ll move on with my life. But for the LDS Church, this is a turning point on how it deals with transparency both to its members and to the United States government. I also hope the LDS Church will finally get serious about deploying its massive billions of dollars to help society instead of, when asked about its wealth management strategy, using meaningless answers such as saving for a rainy day or preparing for the return of Jesus. I don’t think such dodgy answers will satisfy the very members who are responsible for the wealth in the first place.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Huntsman poses for a photograph at the Huntsman Foundation headquarters in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Huntsman says "at some point, this case [against the church] will end, and I’ll move on with my life."

How has your faith and relationship with the church evolved since March 2021, when the suit began?

It really hasn’t changed much since 2021. I have many friends and family members both inside and outside of the church. I wish them all well.

Some church members might wonder if there were alternative ways to raise your concerns or bring about change within the church without resorting to litigation. Can you elaborate on your decision-making process in that regard?

It was never my intention to litigate. I initially requested a resolution to this matter through a series of confidential demand letters and requests for settlement. Other than my wife and children, I did not mention this matter to anyone, not even my extended family (and we are all very close). I wanted the dispute solved quietly and directly with the LDS Church. However, church leaders did not budge. In fact, unbeknownst to me, they notified one of my siblings of the demand letter with the intention to lean on me to drop the issue. That became complicated for me, as I know my family’s name recognition (especially within the LDS and broader Utah community) and sincerely wished to keep that reputation intact. My father, Jon Huntsman Sr., built a fantastic legacy, one that I’m very proud to be part of. The Huntsman Foundation has and will continue to help thousands of people as a result of his vision, passion and generosity. I had no interest to jeopardize that legacy with a dispute I personally had with the LDS Church’s financial mismanagement. Unfortunately, for me litigation was the only option.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Huntsman, shown in May 2023, says suing the church was a last resort.

How do you view your role as a public figure in this case? And how do you think it has influenced public perception of the church and its financial practices?

I never wanted or asked to be the public face of the LDS Church’s financial quagmire. I have been surprised by the number of active Mormons who quietly and publicly have raised their voices in support of more transparency. The church’s financial practices have certainly improved since the whistleblower documents became public followed by my lawsuit. The church is facing multiple investigations into its adherence (or lack thereof) of the financial laws of the United States. Like it or not, it is a significant creditability crisis for the church. Throughout the LDS Church’s history, public scrutiny has often brought change. From polygamy to Blacks and the priesthood to recognition of the LGBTQ community, pressure was applied in these areas and change occurred.

Why do you believe lawyers for the church have invoked your Latter-day Saint heritage and family connections in the course of the litigation?

This is actually a mystery to me. Perhaps you should ask them. The church has historically leaned on believing family members and friends to achieve a specific outcome. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, used this tactic many times to expand his polygamous relationships. I believe it’s part of the church’s DNA. It certainly attempted this with me as I mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, I still assumed the church would prefer to settle a dispute with me in private.

You’ve said in interviews you’re pursuing this on behalf of many people still in the church. Can you describe whom you mean? What message or advice would you give to church members who may have similar concerns about tithing, church finances and transparency?

I understand I’m in an unusual position as it relates to having a platform on this issue. Since filing my lawsuit, I’ve heard countless stories from current and former members who feel the church has been less than transparent and honest in its financial management. Specifically, according to a Feb. 21, 2023, Securities and Exchange Commission news release, the SEC “allege[s] that the LDS Church’s investment manager, with the church’s knowledge, went to great lengths to avoid disclosing the church’s investments, depriving the public of accurate market information.” The LDS Church settled and paid a hefty fine but for most members, there is nothing they can do…other than hope for change in the future. I feel that many people are expecting my lawsuit to be a catalyst for improvement within the LDS Church’s financial operations and transparency so if my case can help, even in a small way, I’m humbled to take on that responsibility.

(Andrew Harnik | AP) The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission building in Washington is shown in 2017. Regulators fined the church and its investment arm $5 million for failing to property disclose the breadth and depth of past stock holdings.

When did you start to lose faith in the church and why?

This is a very personal question and one that I would prefer to keep largely to myself. However, to my friends who still believe and practice Mormonism, I will say that I did not leave the church because I stopped praying, fasting, going to the temple, paying my tithing, studying my scriptures, etc. I was as devoted as any Mormon could be. But here is one major issue I will flag: the LDS Church’s continued embrace and active doctrine of polygamy. It has discontinued the practice of performing civil polygamous marriages but make no mistake, the Mormon heaven is a polygamous heaven and every marriage performed today in an LDS temple is designed for the man to add more wives at some future time. Even the church’s current president, Russell Nelson, is “sealed” or married to two women from a theological perspective [his first wife died before he married his second]. They will both be his in the Mormon heaven. I highly doubt that every young woman getting married in an LDS temple today understands that she could find herself bound to several other women in the afterlife.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russel M. Nelson waves to the audience with wife Wendy at General Conference in 2022. Nelson has been "sealed" to Wendy and his late wife, Dantzel, in a Latter-day Saint temple.

Could the church do anything that would bring you back into the fold?

I don’t believe I will ever place myself in any religious organization that demands significant control over every aspect of my life. The LDS Church (in most cases through commandments) required influence and/or control over my time, my health, my finances, my thoughts, my beliefs, my friends, my politics, my sex life, pretty much everything but the weather…but I must confess, in certain times, we were instructed to “pray for more moisture” so I guess I can include the weather, too. Simply put, I have confidence in my own ability to make correct and moral decisions without being dragged into the muddy and controversial waters that make up modern-day Mormonism. It’s really not that complicated to be kind, honest, tolerant, hardworking and generous. I think most people have this covered just fine.

Amid all the reports of the church’s wealth, what would you like to see the faith do with its money and resources that it’s not doing now?

I would like to see the LDS Church get serious about being a beacon to the world. It’s part of the doctrine. It should be doing so much more. But it doesn’t. Here is another way to look at the LDS Church’s missed opportunity. My father and, by extension, our family foundation, have been involved in significant charitable causes since the 1980s. Cancer, mental health, homeless and women’s shelters, education, victims of natural disasters along with dozens and dozens of other noteworthy organizations (including many anonymous donations to individuals and families) have been aided by the Huntsman Foundation. We know how to operate a foundation. The Huntsman Cancer Institute, the Huntsman Hall at the University of Pennsylvania and the Huntsman Mental Health Institute are all symbols of what can be done with a modest foundation. And the Huntsman Foundation is a fraction of the size of the LDS Church’s wealth and influence. To be fair, the LDS Church’s annual donations are respectable, but it’s a drop in the bucket and leaders know it. The church could easily commit billions, not millions, but billions of dollars each year into programs around the world to help address poverty, hunger, low eduction and literacy rates, improve health care and lift the lives of countless people globally. That would be a beacon to the world worthy of a church claiming Jesus’ name.

Editor’s note • James Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chair of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors. This story is available to Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.