Financial Times: The rise of a new generation of Mormons

Ben McAdams is neat, he’s helpful, he’s unfailingly polite. The 35-year-old is a family man, one of six siblings and a father of three. People warm quickly to him, and talk of his modesty and strong work ethic. He neither drinks nor smokes. And when we meet for breakfast in a sparsely decorated canteen in Salt Lake City, he is wearing a dark suit and a tie.

In other words, McAdams is what the world expects of Mormons.

In other ways, however, he is less typical. Until recently, he was a fast-rising star at Davis Polk, a prestigious New York law firm – a job he won straight from Columbia University’s law school. He then worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, before becoming, at 35, Utah’s youngest state senator. His is the most conservative state in the US, and yet he’s a moderate Democrat who won his district – and his reputation – by helping to broker a deal over gay rights. This, mind you, from a man whose church was pilloried for bank-rolling California’s successful 2009 “Proposition 8” referendum against gay marriage. Whose faith was a headache to Mitt Romney throughout Romney’s 2008 presidential run. And whose religion has been unable to shake a reputation for “plural marriage”, officially abandoned in 1890.

Put simply, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS for short, has an image problem; and yet, tellingly, McAdams doesn’t. And he’s part of a much bigger crowd: for the first time in its nearly two-century history – one that began, according to the founding myth, with an illiterate farmhand, Joseph Smith, being visited by an angel in western New York state – Mormons are moving from the periphery of modern American life to the very centre. From Romney’s failed tilt at the presidency to the tales of everyday polygamous families in HBO’s popular drama Big Love, Mormonism has become increasingly visible over the last generation. Where its most famous acolytes were once the Osmonds, leading lights now include politicians such as US Senate majority leader Harry Reid (a Democrat) and Romney (a Republican); Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight vampire saga; Glenn Beck, the popular conservative talk-show host; and self-help guru Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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