The Mormon “Persecution Complex”

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 The idea and rhetoric of persecution is prominent in the historical documents of that time; early Mormons were vocal about their experiences in documents they composed seeking redress and in their histories, which show us how they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.



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  • Thomas

    Good effort, but this article was really circular and kind of pointless.

  • Bill K

    The “Mormon Persecution Complex” is neither a delusion nor imaginary. As a practicing LDS church member, much of the persecution -singled out for criticism and overt hostility- has come from our fellow “Christian” believers.

    When I was younger, my father was the Bishop of a ward. Each Sunday after our church meetings, a group of local evangelicals would come to our door while we were having lunch. At the age of ten or so I was told as I answered the door that I was “going to hell.” Then they would sing hymns to exorcise the evil that besieged our home and preach against the demonic doctrine we believed. This went on for weeks until my mother, an evangelical before converting to Mormonism, FINALLY told them off.

    Then the same group would approach me on the playground after school with the same claim. It was frightening to be approached by strangers, especially adults who told me that I was “going to hell” because of the way I worshiped God.

    Recently, a similar group was standing in front of a local LDS bookstore at Christmas time. I went to the bookstore to buy inspirational books for my children. As soon as I got out of my car I was again told that I was “going to hell.” Considering that I had not professed any belief by exiting my car while walking toward the bookstore, I think that the “going to hell” statement was again persecutorial.

    Not living in Utah, we recently participated in the dedication of a temple close to our home. Assigned to usher visiting groups through the temple tour, a similar “youth ministry” group from the same denomination went on the tour. Besides the heckling of the docent, several of the young men carried paint balls and dropped them on the carpet in our most sacred sanctuary. Their purpose was to step on the paint balls, but a couple of us identified the problem and quietly picked up the paint balls before the “Christian youth ministry” stepped on them. This was the same group that stood on the sidewalk in front of the temple distributing leaflets exposing the “evils of Mormonism.”

    “Persecution complex?” Target? Maybe just rude, ridiculous, and “intolerant” fellow Christians who refuse to acknowledge that I believe in Christ as my Savior and Redeemer.

  • Sunshine

    While some perceived persecution may be nothing more than simple misunderstanings, persecution is indeed alive and well.

    I lived my first 10 years in a small Utah town and indeed saw very little persecution (most of us were Mormons.) But since I’ve lived in Maine, Oregon, and Tennessee, while my husband grew up in Mississippi. Persecution is alive and well. My seminary building in Oregon was burned down. The second one was burned too, only partially. The last one was attempted to be burned too (but it didn’t take) and the windows bashed in. Kids at school made fun of us. My husband has more stories than I could tell here. But, besides the ostracism as a child, I know he was shot at several times as a missionary while being heckled (granted, in South America, but we ARE a global church.) And we’re in our young 30s, so these are hardly old stories.

    It continues now with my own kids now that we live in Tennessee. People who were friends with us until they found out we were Mormons. People who won’t let their kids play with ours. People who tell us we’re going to hell. But there are good signs too. People who are kinder towards Mormons in what they say once they learn we’re members. People who simply respond with benign interest, or even benign disinterest. The non-Mormon people who continue to be my friend. But I see enough of both to keep my guard up whenever Mormons are mentioned.

  • lurel

    Every time we attend Conference in Salt Lake City we are greeted by an onsaught of people with picket signs and people screaming at us all kinds of cruel things. The last time I attended there were picket holders with signs with pictures of torn apart aborted babies (apparently someone thinks we are pro-abortion, which is not the case), signs with pictures of Christ with REPENT written across it, signs with fire and brimstone, etc. People were yelling all sorts of things at us. People were shoving brochures in our faces, and when everyone silently walked by without taking them they screamed “they won’t bite ya–they won’t bite ya.” Sometimes they are even holding our sacred garments and defiling them and joking about them. I took a group of Young Women to a meeting at the Conference Center and they had to walk through people screaming at them “Your fathers are liars”…etc. etc. The same is true, and has been true for years, for attendees to have to walk through any time they attend the “Mormon Miracle” pageant in Manti. Last year 300 people were bused in for the sole purpose of screaming at us.

    Anyone who has had to walk through this sort of thing–anyone who has had to see the tears well up in their childrens eyes and try to expain to them when they say, “I don’t understand. Why would people do this?” when all they are trying to do is attend a church meeting, will understand why the Mormons feel persecuted.

    • Fred Kratz

      I live in Portland, OR. Beaverton Grace Bible church has a pastor who loves to preach in public against religions which do not absolutely follow the bible to the letter. He shows up at Jehovah Witness conventions and preaches his backward, barking sermons. He also sued one of his former church members for posting bad Google reviews about his church. He lost the case. I think he should be selling pencils from a cup, not running a church, but that’s just me.

      I would be laughing at them. Seriously, consider the source.

  • Central Texan

    Here in Central Texas, it’s not just the offbeat pastors but the community stalwarts. There was a non-denominational start-up church that ran an expose’ series about religion, giving a few wikipedia-depth discussions on Catholicism and Islam — but for their presentation on the Mormons, they brought in an ex-member of the church who spouted ridiculous non-doctrinal statements (blood atonement, oaths of death, etc.) that only could have come from the most depraved of anti-mormon literature. Another member in the area had attended the “seminar” with their 18 year old daughter, who was visibly shaken afterwards. I’m sure she, the daugther, had never witnessed someone attacking her church in such a manner nor heard such strange doctrines attributed to her faith. And I don’t think her parents realized how denigrating the presentation would be. That particular church is no longer operating.

    However, there is another church (of a mainline Protestant denomination) that has been around a long time here and is one of the predominant churches in the area, with many well-known community leaders among its congregation and leadership board. They also have run similar religious seminars where the community is invited to learn about other religions, with the prime slot reserved for the Mormons. For this they hired someone from the Dallas/Fort Worth area to lead the seminars, being similarly done with basic info on Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, but an extensive Powerpoint presentation on Mormonism — with the presenter claiming “inside knowledge” because he has a relative who is a Mormon. Taking notes, I filled three pages with his misstatements, mischaracterizations, and misunderstandings. The last part of his presentation consisted in having the youth in attendance stand and, in an almost pep-rally-like manner, pledge never to taken in by the false doctrines of Mormonism.

    And — if I may add one more example — our local newspaper had no compunction about printing an “editorial opinion” that was a boilerplate hit piece on the church entitled, “Jesus loves me, but he can’t stand Romney.” (You can look this up online and read it yourself.)

    These things don’t bother me personally but I feel bad for those who are mislead by such misinformation. As Jesus himself clearly taught, when prophets have been on the earth there have always been antagonists and persecutors, in one form or other, that rise up in opposition.

  • Jack O’Connor

    A wordy article that makes it unclear as to its real purpose. Even today the Jews, the Irish, Italians, Latinos, the Catholic Church and on and on still carry a sense of persecution. In varying degrees, it drives (mostlygood) behavior just as you may suggest it does for Mormons. The LDS have a very strong foundation which will keep it going in a benign direction regardless of the nature of criticism or persecution now and yesteryear.
    I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church, which has had severe criticism in the last 20 years and rightly so. Hopefully it will drive the RC Church in the right direction. All Christian religions (not excluding others) should produce noble yet humble followers who practise the basics of Christianity every day.