St. Patrick and the Persecution Complex

RealClearPolicy editor Joseph Lawler had the following to say about this past weekend’s holiday:

All Saints' Episcopal Church, San Francisco

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco

Each year, the days leading up to March 17th remind us of another alarming reality that wasn’t obvious before social media: apparently at least half of Americans think that the holiday is called “St. Patty’s Day.”

Now, imagine that you were were kidnapped as a [British] teenage boy and sold into slavery in a foreign, wild land. Then imagine that you escaped back to your homeland, and daringly returned to your captors to convert them — all of them — to your faith, driving out a country-wide infestation of snakes along the way, establishing yourself as the patron of that nation forever. And imagine you did all this only to be called a girl’s name by millions of [expletive] on the internet centuries later.

That is the situation that St. Patrick, rolling in his grave, faces today.[1]

Though his name may be butchered by an increasing number of social network users, St. Patrick can at least be happy about how far his Irish brothers and sisters have come in American life. More accurately, St. Patrick can be happy about how far his Anglo-Saxon brothers and and sisters have come in their treatment and acceptance of the Irish in American life. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, initiating the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade. This celebrated tradition was, ironically, started by immigrants who were originally considered “people of color” by their fellow Americans: “In general, the Irish were seen as a separate race. They were considered members of the “inferior Celtic race” that could be physically distinguished from the “superior Anglo-Saxon race.” Especially in the decades prior to the Civil War, it was not uncommon to refer to the physical distinctiveness of the Irish.”[2] For example, an 1860 American encyclopedia defined the Irish as a separate race. This was not unusual: “Americans of indigenous, African, Asian, Slavic, and Mediterranean descent” were also considered “non-White.” Italians and other southern Europeans were “racially positioned in a similar manner.”[3] Eventually, Celts, Italians, and others were accepted as fully white.[4] But what does this even mean? The validity of the term “whiteness” has been seriously challenged (rightfully so, in my view) due to inconsistent definitions and glaringly obvious political ideologies in the literature.[5] Nonetheless, sociologists Jonathan Warren and France Winddance Twine define the term as “the norm against which all are measured and all are expected to fit. Whiteness does, however, take shape in relation to others.”[6] Under this definition, I find the concept useful. The racial discrimination against what would now be considered white groups by other white groups reveals the extremely complex history of racism and group prejudice. Like most things, it is not black-and-white (excuse the pun). The point is that these outsiders were seen as physically distinct from insiders.

The late historian George Fredrickson identified two components of racism: difference and power. This is an “us vs. them” mentality that finds the differences between the two to be “permanent and unbridgeable.”[7] This in turn motivates those in power to suppress “them.” “[Racism] either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God.”[8] Fredrickson points to the association of Jews with the devil and witchcraft in the 13th and 14th centuries as the first inklings of a racist worldview. In the public eye, Jews evolved from having false beliefs and the guilt of the Crucifixion on their shoulders to being intrinsically different from their European counterparts. Similarly, the enslavement of black Africans was justified largely because blacks were considered heathens (white enslavement had declined in Europe since the Middle Ages in part due to the belief that it was wrong to enslave fellow Christians). As conversions to Christianity took place among slaves, scriptural justification for continued enslavement was found in Genesis 9 and the infamous “curse of Ham.” Black slaves were no longer heathens, but they did have “heathen ancestry.” The Enlightenment and secular science provided a pseudo-scientific rationale for understanding different races as separate species. If “all men are created equal,” but a group is “scientifically” shown to be subhuman, then those rights do not apply.

“After the Mormon exodus to the Great Basin, Americans came to see Mormons–the majority of whom were either displaced Yankees or converts from Northern Europe–as a foreign race.”[9] The “unnatural” practice of polygamy had given rise to a new distorted race of sexually deviant creatures. Robert Bartholow, a U.S. army surgeon, wrote of the Utah saints in 1858,

The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.[10]

Yet, instead of Mormons being inherently inferior, it was their practice of polygamy (a type of “race treason”) that caused their supposed racial degradation. Much like other races considered separate and unequal, Mormons faced legal opposition that was seen as justifiable based on their racial inferiority.[11]

Mormons have often been described as suffering from a “persecution complex” and to some extent I think this is true. But as philosopher Simon Critchley recently pointed out in a popular New York Times op-ed,

Among  my horribly overeducated and hugely liberal friends, expressions of racism are completely out of the question, Islamophobia is greeted with a slow shaking of the head and anti-Semitism is a memory associated with distant places that one sometimes visits — like France. But anti-Mormonism is another matter. It’s really fine to say totally uninformed things about Mormonism in public, at dinner parties or wherever…This is a casual prejudice that is not like the visceral hatred that plagued the early decades of Mormonism…but a symptom of a thoughtless incuriousness…But every now and then during one of those New York soirées, when anti-Mormon prejudice is persistently pressed and expressed, and I perhaps feel momentarily and un-Mormonly emboldened by wine, I begin to try and share my slim understanding of Joseph Smith and my fascination with the Latter-day Saints. After about 45 seconds, sometimes less, it becomes apparent that the prejudice is based on sheer ignorance of the peculiar splendors of Mormon theology. “They are all Republicans anyway,” they add in conclusion, “I mean, just look at that Mitbot Romney. He’s an alien.” As an alien myself, I find this thoughtless anti-Mormon sentiment a little bewildering.[12]

In essence, Mormons are often the wrong kind of minority and strains of prejudice still run through society.[13] Mormons, however, should not practice this form of prejudice toward others (as they have and may still). President Gordon B. Hinckley made this clear in his April 2006 Conference address:

Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this…I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ…Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children…If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.[14]

But this goes far beyond racism. Race is an obvious candidate. This goes to the heart of prejudice, enmity, and hatred for one’s fellow man. Bigotry and hatred revolve not only around race, gender, or nationality, but also religion, culture, and politics. Each of these elements can be used to dehumanize another. I’ve seen fellow saints respond to counter-cult anti-Mormonism with their own brand of anti-evangelicalism (I admit my own past guilt). I’ve heard anti-Catholic (especially anti-papacy) nonsense in Gospel Doctrine classes. I’ve heard conservative members demonize Democrats (e.g. “Obama is evil”) and wonder how any faithful Mormon could support such a party. I’ve read some of the most vile and condescending things about conservatives from my left-leaning Mormon brothers and sisters. I’ve heard derogatory, ignorant claims about different ethnic groups from otherwise kind and thoughtful members of the Church. Bizarre racial theories still emerge when discussing sensitive topics like the priesthood ban. While this condition is a human plight and in no way unique to Mormonism, that does not excuse it.

Mormons have been at the pointed end of bigotry and hatred (even a form of racism). Instead of seeing persecution in every disagreement, members should take that history and experience and use it to develop empathy with others. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). Based on their history, Mormons should know what not to do unto others. This historical suffering should provide Latter-day Saints with the means to bridge gaps, build friendships, and heal the hearts of the alienated and oppressed. In essence, “mourn with those who mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).

Too often, we act like cheerleaders for secondary groups. We become [insert group here] first, disciples of Christ second. Imagine if St. Patrick had taken such an attitude. Instead, he returned to the land of his kidnappers and sought to bring the grace of Christ to the Irish. Perhaps St. Patrick’s Day could be viewed less as a drinking day (I hope this is already the case among my fellow Mormons) and more as a day of reflection. He introduced potential Irish converts to Christianity by means of their own traditions. His day can be a reminder to us all that despite our different backgrounds and past hostilities, we can all be brought together into one great whole. Even when his native land attacked Irish Christian settlements right after a mass baptism ceremony, Patrick did not embrace British nationalism or justify the raids based on “Celtic inferiority.” Instead, he rebuked the British king Coroticus in A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. “Patrick’s fury is easy enough to understand, all the more so when we recall his own history,” writes religious scholar Philip Jenkins.

He knew at first hand what it was like to see your homeland devastated by soldiers, and to be carried off into slavery. Everywhere he looked in Ireland, he saw enslaved Christian women who had been seized from their British homes. But these latest horrors were the work of men who claimed to be Roman and Christian…This March 17, then, forget the snakes and the green beer. Think of the prophetic Christian leader who demanded that rulers live up to the faith they professed, and who had no hesitation in damning violent oppressors to Hell.[15]

May members of my church follow such an example.


1. Lawler, “Don’t Call It St. Patty’s Day,” RealClearReligion (March 17, 2012): By the way, the lack of Irish snakes had more to do with the Ice Age and less to do with the patron saint. This is one of several myths surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.

2. Jonathan W. Warren, France Winddance Twine, “White Americans, the New Minority?: Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness,” Journal of Black Studies 28:2 (November 1997): 202.

3. Warren & Twine, 1997: 204-205.

4. It turns out 34.7 million U.S. residents have Irish ancestry, which is the second highest reported ancestry in the nation. This will most likely rise along with the increasing intermarriage rates. For further reading on minority ancestry, see Ronald Bailey, “The Silly Panic Over a Minority White Nation,” (Feb. 21, 2012):; Sam Roberts, “A Nation of None of the Above,” The New York Times (Aug. 16, 2008):

5. See Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historans’ Imagination,” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 3-32.

6. Warren & Twine, 1997: 207.

7. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

8. Ibid., 6.

9. Nathan B. Oman, “Natural Law and the Rhetoric of Empire: Reynolds v. United States, Polygamy, and Imperialism,” Washington University Law Review 88:3 (2011): 681.

10. Ibid.: 682-683

11. See Oman’s piece in full for more details.

12. Simon Critchley, “Why I Love Mormonism,” The New York Times (Sept. 12, 2012):

13. See Mona Charen, “The Wrong Kind of Minority,” National Review Online (Dec. 30, 2011):

14. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign (May 2006):

15. Jenkins, “Raging on St. Patrick’s Day,” RealClearReligion (March 16, 2013):


St. Patrick and the Persecution Complex — 24 Comments

  1. “And imagine you did all this only to be called a girl’s name by millions of [expletive] on the internet centuries later. That is the situation that St. Patrick, rolling in his grave, faces today.”

    Do you really think he would be more concerned about the nickname than the fact that people all over the world get fall-over drunk on the day we commemorate his religious accomplishments?

  2. “Yet, instead of Mormons being inherently inferior, it was their practice of polygamy (a type of “race treason”) that caused their supposed racial degradation. Much like other races considered separate and unequal, Mormons faced legal opposition that was seen as justifiable based on their racial inferiority.”

    19th century racism could be complex. Another (more benign) example of the religious based racism that you describe is how the British for the longest time would not recruit Gurkhas from among the Buddhist tribes. It was feared that being born into a pacifist belief-system inherently made one less-warlike. When at last Buddhists were recruited, many officers were amazed to find Buddhists were much like Christians.

    “This was not unusual: “Americans of indigenous, African, Asian, Slavic, and Mediterranean descent” were also considered “non-White.” ”

    In Russia “black” is applied to Caucasians, IE, Chechens, Daghestanis, Adyghe, Armenians, Georgians, and Azeri. It means that you have dark hair and a swarthy complexion. To describe Africans (when the term negro isn’t used), one would say black-skinned.

    Racism and prejudice rear their ugly heads in countless guises.

    Anyway, thought-provoking post, thanks!

  3. Thanks for bringing so much to the table, Allen! I’m always fascinated (and saddened) by how racism and prejudice take shape. It seems like any and everyone is tainted by it in one way or another.

  4. I never said otherwise. But when you use religion to dehumanize people, it becomes bigotry. As Fredrickson pointed out with antisemitism, it went from opposing Jews because of beliefs to opposing Jews because they were intrinsically different. I often think people will say they oppose ideas, but think and treat individuals as “other” because of those ideas.

  5. Can’t say I liked your opening quote. Struck me as a bit misogynistic on Mr. Lawler’s part.

    It’s interesting to note that the idea that polygamy was making Mormons racially distinct was one held by Mormons themselves as well as by the broader American population. The Mormons thought of it as a eugenics program to transform them into a race of supermen.

  6. The quote wasn’t meant to be enlightening. While this guy is up in arms because St. Patrick is called a “girl’s name” by FB users, the people he is the patron saint of have made major progress in America. That’s all that was meant by it.

    Kind of like one of Allen’s (?) stories about a sacrament talk: “This was said by St. Hilary. Now I don’t know who she was…”

    “The Mormons thought of it as a eugenics program to transform them into a race of supermen.”

    You have a way of putting things that make reanalyze the way I think about a particular subject. 😉

    Some of the persecution in Mormon history I think stems from arrogance on our part. Which is why dwelling on persecution doesn’t do much good. It gets complicated. Seeing the potential to use the history and experience for good? Now that seems fruitful.

  7. >> You have a way of putting things that make reanalyze the way I think about a particular subject.

    lol. Well in this case, I’m mostly just parroting B. H. Roberts:

    “[The purpose of polygamy] was to give succeeding generations a superior fatherhood and motherhood, by enlarging the opportunities of men of high character, moral integrity, and spiritual development to become progenitors of the race. To give to women of like character and development a special opportunity to consecrate themselves to the high mission of motherhood. Race culture, then, was the inspiring motive of the plural wife feature of this revelation on marriage. It was in the name of a divinely ordained species of eugenics that the Latter-day Saints accepted plurality of wives.”

    Roberts also said polygamy was instituted “that the day of the super-man might come.”

    I also have a really interesting newspaper article from 1917 talking about how the Germans were considering following the Mormon example by adopting polygamy as part of their eugenics program. I haven’t dug into that yet, but it may become a WWE blog post at some point.

  8. Another interesting link between Mormonism and the early 20th century progressive movement. Fascinating. I hope you end up blogging about it. Do you have the article? If so, will you send it to me?

  9. “Kind of like one of Allen’s (?) stories about a sacrament talk: “This was said by St. Hilary. Now I don’t know who she was…””

    Yep, I heard that one Sunday.

  10. Several church members in Utah/Idaho were very supportive of Hitler in the 30s, due to his economic policies, his stance against communism, and him being seen as the underdog. I heard of one case from that person’s daughter. It really is important to realise just what they were supporting, and when. As the war progressed, of course, sentiment changed (kind of like Beethoven’s view of Napoleon), and to give credit where credit is due, they were extremely supportive of Wasserman, the noted Polish Jewish musician (colleague of Szpylman), when he moved to Utah. After hearing that story I considered conducting further researches- I am in a position to conduct much of it- but decided against the idea, I think it might prove too personal. At any rate, it is a complex relationship that members of the church had with Hitler.

  11. Looks like you probably already found the source of the Roberts quote, but for anyone else who’s interested, this is from his magnum opus, “The Way, the Truth, the Life.” It wasn’t published during his lifetime, but is available in a Signature Books edition. If I recall correctly, he made similar remarks in the Comprehensive History of the Church.

  12. “Some of the persecution in Mormon history I think stems from arrogance on our part.”

    There definitely was a good deal of apocalyptic arrogance displayed by Mormon newcomers to Missouri. It would be interesting to compare that to other examples of arrogance which seem to afflict apocalyptic and messianic movements.

  13. Of course, how can one forget Blazzing Saddles, “But we don’t want the Irish!”

  14. You mentioned that one to me, I think. It is a great book, I was thinking of his Xhosa example in connection with similar behaviour by Yemenite Sabbatians.

  15. You are right if you mean that Patrick was a Briton, but the Anglo-Saxons had already made inroads into Britain by AD 400.

  16. I used “Anglo-Saxon” for those who finally accepted the Irish in American life (way after Patrick). I said they were Patrick’s “brothers and sisters” in universal sense mainly, but also because of the Anglo-Saxon relation to Britain.