This weekend, in Oxford, Mississippi, I sat outside on a bench in the picture-perfect town square and talked with a couple of young religious guys.
They weren't Baptists, which you'd expect in that part of Mississippi. They were Mormons. And Mormons -- once a small, clannish group -- have arrived on the American scene in a big way.
Four years ago, at a swank dinner party in Manhattan, a very prominent -- and intelligent -- conservative journalist and editorial writer intoned with utter confidence that "this country is never going to elect a Mormon president."
It seems, to the contrary, that we're about to.
Today, some religious fundamentalists continue to rail against Mormons, while coastal sophisticates scoff at their earnest approach to life, religion, and family. Yet the methodical Mormon way, which stresses education, ambition, and charitable giving, has succeeded in ways equaled by few religious groups. Mormons enjoy levels of education and wealth higher than the national average, for example. Some 54 percent of LDS men and 44 percent of women have secured postsecondary education; the numbers for the general American population are 37 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Mormons also enjoy the nation’s highest rate of charitable giving.
Sure, they're nice. But they're also businessmen and women:
The best advertisement for Mormonism, though, is the kind of society that it seems able to create. Utah, 60 percent of whose population belongs to the LDS Church, has enjoyed one of the fastest job-growth rates in the nation over the past decade, taking a strong lead in a host of industries, from energy and software to composite manufacturing. It has also seen the highest population growth rate of any state, aside from neighboring Arizona and Nevada—and unlike those “bubble” states, Utah survived the housing bust in strong shape.
The Beehive State’s success is less about low taxes—Utah is not a tax haven like Texas, Nevada, or Florida—than about support for wealth-creating industry. Utahans have a great interest in promoting business growth. Though they revere their state’s handsome landscape, they suffer little from the antigrowth “progressivism” common to the East and West Coasts. Whether backing the creation of a vast mixed-used project in downtown Salt Lake City or encouraging new building for the area’s swelling population, the LDS Church tends to be pro-development.
That applies to residences as well. Unlike such rival states as California, Utah continues to build affordable single-family houses. Many newly minted housing tracts run along the corridor from Ogden in the north to Provo. A handful of tall condo towers dot downtown Salt Lake City as well. A median-price home in the Salt Lake City region, according to an affordability survey by Demographia, costs roughly three times the median family income—much less than in Los Angeles, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area. Not surprisingly, the New York metropolitan area and California have become the largest net senders of migrants to the Salt Lake City region.
And they're growing:
...while many religious groups in the United States—including the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, along with most non-Orthodox Jewish denominations—are struggling with declining numbers, the LDS Church is one of the nation’s fastest-growing. Its American membership jumped from 4 million to 6 million between 2000 and 2010. Its global growth over the same period was 45.5 percent, and today, most of its total membership of 14 million resides outside North America. The fastest growth is occurring in Brazil, the South Pacific, and Central America.
Maybe it's not Texas that we should all be emulating. Maybe it's Utah. And maybe this -- up to this moment -- eccentric and easily-dismissed religion has something to teach the rest of us about community and prosperity.
Either way, it's going to be hard to ignore them. And as I said good-bye to the young missionaries on their surely quixotic quest to convert southern evangelicals to the LDS church, I had to admire their pluck and courage. And good manners, too.
Talk about good advertising.