Our Mormon moment continues (click here for the best article I’ve seen on this one). Baptism for the dead is under scrutiny again, mostly due to 2 incidents: 1) baptizing holocaust victims (despite the church previously stating this would not happen), and 2) Mitt Romney’s family proxy baptizing wife Ann’s father who was a vocal atheist.
Baptizing Holocaust Victims
Elie Weisel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and advocate for Holocaust survivors (he wrote Night about his survival from the Buchenwald Nazi death camp) has called on Mitt Romney to publicly correct the church’s behavior. The church had already promised to stop the practice that was so repugnant to relatives of those who survived the Holocaust who felt it was disrespectful of their identity as Jews, since these people essentially were murdered for being Jewish. The church is in the unenviable position of having to apologize yet again for baptizing Holocaust victims. Even more scandalously, the church has also baptized the perpetrators of the Holocaust, war criminals who tortured and murdered millions of Jews. I can see Elie Wiesel’s point. However, while the actions taken by the church won’t prevent someone from submitting the name of a Holocaust victim through the genealogical system, it will prevent the work from actually being done for names that have been flagged.
Mitt’s Father in Law
The logical answer (which is the church’s policy) is to only allow people to perform proxy work for their own deceased family members, not for others they have no claim or rights to. But that brings us to the situation with Mitt’s father-in-law. What is the objection here? Perhaps because the practice is misunderstood and viewed as weird and sinister to outsiders who may believe a variety of things about it:
- That it somehow involves actual corpses being baptized. Ick.
- That somehow Mormons consider these proxy baptisms in our membership records.
- That we are forcing someone to convert to Mormonism, which any Mormon knows is not the case.
- That the intent is not to give a choice to the deceased person from a point of caring for that person but about . . . total world domination maybe?
- That it somehow changes the identity of the deceased person or disrespects their individuality and choices.
Limiting proxy work to one’s own direct relations also means that we will likely run out of names. Members who’ve worked in the temple have reported that names are often done multiple times, perhaps accidentally due to mistakes in tracking, but it is apparently not an issue to repeat ordinances. There have also been stories of people with a close relation they wanted to do the work for who found out that some very distantly related person already did it, at times not respecting the waiting limits imposed.
I don’t see much personal value in doing work for people not in my own family tree, but it can be a very loving gesture toward our own deceased family members, one that provides emotional closure to the family and a bond to the deceased. Bill Maher obviously felt it was worthy of ridicule when he “unbaptized” Mitt’s FIL in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat, but this disrespects the family’s desire to honor Ann’s father.
We’re not the only ones.
When my mom was in hard labor in a Catholic hospital, they said they would not help her deliver the baby unless she signed an agreement to have my sister baptized by the hospital when she was born, despite my mother’s objection to infant baptism. To me, that’s an even more invasive religious practice than baptizing for the dead. Yet, my mother’s reaction was probably what my own would be: “I don’t believe in it anyway, so do what you want. Now get this friggin’ baby out of me right now!”
This seems like a byproduct of authoritative churches. If you believe you have the authority and others don’t, you feel responsible to ensure the work is done for all. In my mother’s case, they made her sign an agreement to allow it (obviously under duress). Perhaps that’s a good rule of thumb for the LDS, too – if we would not be able to obtain permission from the person’s surviving relatives, we shouldn’t do it.
However, for some of our detractors, nothing will satisfy them but a complete cessation of baptism for the dead.
Where do you sit?
I’m a bit torn on this one myself. I tend to think that for those who don’t believe in Mormonism (possibly including the deceased), it’s a practice that is simply irrelevant. For Mormons doing proxy work for total strangers, it seems like busy work to keep us in the temple and out of trouble. For people whose identity is either very controversial (e.g. Hitler) or very clearly wrapped up with their religion in life (e.g. Mother Theresa or Gandhi) it seems tone deaf to perform proxy work for them. I’m not a fan of celebrity baptisms for the dead (e.g. Michael Jackson or Obama’s mother). I like the waiting period and the rule that you must be related. Those zealots who submit celebrity or non-related names should have their access to the PAF revoked and perhaps someone should buy them a paint-by-numbers kit. They obviously have too much time on their hands.
I also wonder if the church is being disingenuous in its efforts to stop the practice of baptizing non relatives, otherwise, why does it keep happening? Someone could even come up with an equivalent of a DNC (do not contact) list. But again, I don’t really see the point. Elsewhere a comment was made that someone would be very upset if Scientologists did some ritual involving them from afar against their will or without their prior consent. I guess you can put me down in the camp of people who just don’t care. Burn a candle for me in the Catholic church. Do an ablution in a mosque on my behalf. Write my name on a Tibetan prayer scroll. I’ll take all the help and well wishes I can get.
Let’s find out what you think.