The Mormon Church has a ritual known as ‘baptism of the dead.’ In this ritual, people who have previously died are baptized as Mormons. Relatives are then ‘sealed’ together with the rest of the family. This ritual, which allows a family to stay together in heaven for eternity, is a source of comfort.
Unless you are a Jew. Or an anti-Mormon. Or Mitt Romney, who has been publicly identified with this practice.
Last Tuesday, the Mormon church apologized for what it termed a ‘breach of protocol’ after certain baptisms were brought to light. Two of these were for the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, a Nazi hunter and speaker on the horrors of the Holocaust. Another baptism was for three relatives of Elie Wiesel. Wiesel, perhaps the more famous of the two, is the author of Night, an amazing memoir that records his experiences as a child in the concentration camps. He has also written other books where he has grappled with the meaning of the Holocaust and the challenges facing Jews in the 20th century.
A third was for Anne Frank, the most famous Holocaust martyr in literary history – and Alois Hiedler, the Jewish father of Adolf Hitler. And, while we are at it, Hitler himself.
The Mormon Church agreed in 1995 to stop baptizing victims of the Holocaust. A second pact was signed in 2010. However, the practice continues in defiance of the official stance, prompted by zealous believers who stand in as proxies for the people being baptized. While most of these people are antecedents of the Mormon church members, some are not. According to the Washington Post, ‘the LDS Church interprets the phrase “direct ancestors” to include all descendants of an ancestor and had done so for decades prior to the ‘95 agreement. So a church member can baptize his 3rd great-grandfather and all of the descendants of that 3rd great-grandfather, even though he/she is not a direct descendant as that term is generally used.’
Rabbi Levi Brackman does not find this process offensive. He states that ‘when a Mormon posthumously Baptizes a Jew it has no impact on that person’s Jewishness. They, in actuality, become no less Jewish and no more Mormon. They become Mormon in the eyes of Mormons only. Why would we care if the Mormon church considers our ancestors to be Mormon simply because one of their members used a substitute to posthumously Baptize them?’
Others are not so sanguine. Elie Wiesel has publicly called out Mitt Romney, the LDS candidate for US President, to push the church to stop this practice. The comic Stephen Colbert, in a humorous vein, has challenged the LDS church by reversing the situation. Because the Jewish religion does not have a practice of baptism, he ‘will now proxy-circumcise all the dead Mormons.’
Scott Gordon, an LDS member writing for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, reminds us that the Nazi Church condemned baptism of Jews as poisoning the church. He cites a Nazi children’s book as stating ” ‘Be on your guard and beware; Jew remains always Jew! Baptismal water helps not a jot. That does not make the Jew any better! He is a Devil in Time And remains so through Eternity!’ ” Showing ecumenical compassion, he then states ‘we as Latter-day Saints should be hypersensitive to anti-Semitism. I am grateful that I have never had to endure the level of antagonism that the Jewish people have had to endure over the centuries.’
The controversy rages on, even to the snopes.com website. An LDS member identifying himself as ‘Cowboy Joe’ claims ‘it has been made very clear since 1995 that we are to baptize only those who are our own ancestors… at this point in time, when we are struggling for legitimacy, this was a stupid move by someone who thinks that the wishes of people of other faiths can simply be ignored. That is not what our church teaches.’
As I continue to research, I am reminded of the similarities between the history of the Jewish religion and that of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.Both have been victims of hatred and bigotry. Both have gone on to establish themselves as important religions of the world. In the United States, members of both have had trouble in pursuing career goals because of their religion. And, of course, both have members that are bigoted themselves.
I remember as a child hearing my relatives talk about ‘the Schwartz’s” and having trouble understanding how someone who has been persecuted can then turn around and persecute. I still do. I work at a school where many Latinos are hypersensitive about issues related to immigration then turn around and condemn ‘maricons’ (homosexuals.) I read the newspapers and hear about how some Christians have trouble voting for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon. All of these are examples of bigotry in action, non-compassionate in the same vein as the baptism of a Holocaust survivor. Each of these is characterized by the lack of thought.
I personally don’t like the idea of someone baptizing my ancestors, or those who are fellow Jews, as Mormons. I don’t like Mitt Romney’s politics, and I consider the entire current Republican raft of Presidential hopefuls to be misguided at best and crazy at worst. But I am angered by those who use Romney’s religion as a reason for their dislike. I consider it no different from the continuing brouhaha over Obama’s supposed birth in a different country, or the ongoing rumors that he is a Muslim. When Santorum calls Obama out for a ‘different theology,’ he forgets that back in 1960, John F. Kennedy won the election by the narrowest margin in history, in part because of fears that, as a Catholic, he would rule according to his religion rather than according to his politics. When people call out Romney because of misguided members of his church, how is this any different?
This controversy will no doubt continue in the media, and it may well become a problem for Romney’s campaign. It shouldn’t – unless Romney himself has participated in baptizing Jews and then refuses to apologize for his unthinking bigotry. All of us are at times guilty of this. All of us need to be vigilant about our own behavior. And all of us need to regard this present controversy as an example of the worst — and the best — all religions. Let us remember that, in the same way that not all Jews are misers, not all LDS members are baptizers of Jews.