Among self-conscious Mormons and attuned outside observers, there is a popular perception that Mormons have a peculiar sense of their own reproach. Both their beliefs and their sociocultural history, some believe, breed Latter-day Saints to be acutely aware that they are beleaguered in broader society, a feeling that’s sometimes called a “persecution complex.” Mormons are, according to this line of thought, highly sensitive to their own social marginalization. Because of this sensitivity, they are likely to see hostility to their faith, whatever the circumstances.
In the historical sense, the Mormon “persecution complex” is not a theory to be verified or disproved. That Mormons, in their distant past, experienced significant and sometimes intense persecution is a matter of historical fact. In historical episodes that are likely unnecessary to repeat for readers here, Mormons were harassed, beaten, and murdered in conflicts that they did not, on balance, instigate. The idea and rhetoric of persecution is prominent in the historical documents of that time; early Mormons were vocal about their experiences in documents they composed seeking redress and in their histories, which show us how they interpreted their experiences and understood themselves. Parley P. Pratt’s well-known autobiography, for instance, leans heavily on the evocative literature he wrote to depict the Saints’ ill treatment in Missouri. Mormons of the time interpreted the opposition they experienced in a number of ways. Many took some level of comfort in the proverbial wisdom that true believers always face persecution, and that opposition is a signal of divine favor. This and other interpretations gave their difficult experiences meaning, and became integral to how they conceived themselves as a distinct, and distinctly persecuted people. These beliefs were the available alternatives to helplessness.
What is open to debate is the contemporary connotations of “complex,” as the term is used: the extent to which Mormons generally continue to feel persecuted, together with the implications of this sensibility for their contemporary sense of self and their interactions with broader society. There is some evidence that Mormons continue to identify as a people singled out for ridicule. Research from the Pew Forum on Religion and American Life, which provides the best and most extensive (public) data on contemporary attitudes about Mormonism and among Mormons, indicates that a majority of Mormons do indeed feel disliked and especially ostracized in American society. Only about half of Mormons, according to one study, feel that depictions of Mormonism in entertainment media (television, movies) are fair to their faith, and more Mormons (46%) identified contemporary discrimination directed at themselves than at African-Americans (31%), an unlikely attitude that prompted some derision.
Yet there also appears to be some legitimacy to Mormons’ feelings. As has been widely reported during this political season, Mormons face considerable suspicion and even hostility from Americans. They are outranked only by Muslims and (oddly) Buddhists as the most disliked American religion. The antipathy is especially strong among evangelical Christians, who have deep aversions to the “heresies” of Mormon theology, and among a far-left fringe of liberal Americans, who resent the LDS Church’s involvement in social politics on issues like same-sex marriage, and who often have a resentment for religion generally. These hostilities manifest show themselves in political surveys, which indicate that substantial portions of these voting blocs would, as a matter of course, refuse to vote for a Mormon running for President of the United States. In circumstances like those reflected in Max Mueller’s recent, brilliant portrait of Mormons’ annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, we see tangible evidences of anti-Mormon hostility.
But does this dislike actually translate into “persecution”? That’s the million-dollar question. Many if not most Mormons in the United States can give anecdotes about an ungracious comment, a slight, or some other form of discrimination that they have experienced at one time or another. But “persecution” is subjective. The treatment Mormons get today is far more favorable than the conflict of times long past, yet it is still significant enough to figure in Mormons’ thinking and experience. Mormons sense persecution, not merely because of a sense of beleaguered nostalgia, but because of real contemporary conditions. While this discrimination isn’t inconsequential, though, most observers would probably agree that “persecution,” which reflects active hostility, is now generally too strong to describe it. “Bias,” which suggests an embedded but largely dormant antagonism, may be still justified.
The extent to which Mormons still entertain a “persecution complex” is important, not only because it informs the way that Mormons understand themselves, but also because it also determines the way that Mormons relate to others. Some Mormons are concerned that relishing or perpetuating a legacy of persecution leads Mormons to isolate themselves from others, and to reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality that can be divisive and alienate Mormons from those outside the Church. To some, it also belies an insecure sense of self and an unhealthy reliance on “otherness” and opposition to others to help form one’s identity. These are legitimate concerns.
At the same time, collective memory and consciousness of the past are vibrantly alive in Mormonism. They are some of the great strengths of the faith and lie at the root of Mormons’ distinctive cultural identity. It would be unthinkable—impossible, in fact—for Mormons to jettison elements of their identity that have given rise to who they are. It would also be disingenuous and unproductive for Mormons, in the name of stoicism, not to acknowledge the real life biases that do continue.
What may help, though, is for Mormons today who are tempted to follow tradition and see themselves as being put upon to first count to the costs. After all, the last two hundred years have improved the lot of Mormons dramatically. Not only have opinions and conditions changed, but steady growth in size and substance have moved Mormonism and helplessness worlds apart. Mormons today have abilities and opportunities–responsibilities, even–in relating to the larger world today that the past couldn’t dream of. Being peculiar at any time certainly means dealing with tensions and ostracism. Certainly that has been the case in Mormons’ history. But given the recent embarrassment of riches, that can hardly be the fullness of purpose for peculiarity in Mormonism today.