Thursday, February 23, 2012

Three Things I Wish Non-Mormons Knew about LDS Baptism for the Dead

Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that despite the LDS Church's repeated assurances that it would no longer baptize Holocaust victims, someone in the Dominican Republic has recently done precisely that. For Anne Frank, no less.

Moreover, she has been baptized in this way before, only to have the ordinance invalidated because of public complaints about Mormon insensitivity. 

The last two weeks have seen an unprecedented display of media attention to the LDS ritual of baptism for the dead, or "proxy baptism." As for the semantics, both terms are correct, but you can certainly see why in recent years the LDS Church has sought to use the "proxy baptism" label to avoid misunderstandings. (A member of my own extended family, for example, was once convinced that Mormons exhumed the bones of dead people and dragged them forcibly to LDS temples. Aside from the obvious ick factor (as Buffy would say, "raise your hand if eeeewwww"), the logistics of such an undertaking would be seriously daunting.) 

I've been following much of the recent media coverage and the popular response. I've already issued a public plea for Mormons to exercise better judgment when thinking about baptizing any deceased Jews, not just Holocaust victims, and explained some theological points of contention. Here I want to focus instead on the actual practice of proxy baptism, and clear up several misconceptions about how and why it takes place.

1) Proxy baptism is a surprisingly decentralized process. 

In a podcast interview on Mormon Matters this week, I made the argument that the public perception of the LDS Church as somehow authorizing Holocaust baptisms is the Church's own fault. That's not because the Church has equivocated in any way about Holocaust baptisms; it has repeatedly insisted that they are simply not acceptable. It's because the Church has a well-deserved reputation -- one that it constantly encourages -- as being a top-down centralized organization that runs a very tight ship.

The problem is that temple work, which includes baptism for the dead, isn't remotely a tight ship. 

Temple rituals happen when individual Mormons around the world -- not the official organization in Salt Lake City -- submit the names and dates of deceased ancestors through software called TempleReady. The first time I ever did this back in 1994, I was surprised by the lack of bureaucratic oversight in the process. I had been doing genealogical research on my ancestors. I submitted those names to the Washington, D.C. temple for approval, then set a date when a group of people from my ward in New Jersey could come with me to perform the baptisms. No one at the temple checked to make sure those names were those of my actual ancestors (though they were). For such a hierarchical organization, the Church's approach to temple work was highly individualistic, even laissez faire. Some oversight has been instituted since 1995 to prevent baptisms of Holocaust victims, or of celebrities unrelated to the church member who submits the names, but it's still all too possible for an individual Mormon to "go rogue" in this matter. I'm almost never one for stricter controls on the part of the LDS hierarchy, which already wants to dictate too much of Mormon life, but in this case greater supervision is essential.

2) Proxy baptism does not equal posthumous conversion.

This week I stumbled upon the hilarious website, a satirical approach that lampoons Mormons' heavy-handedness with the dead and the living. 

Sadly, many Mormons throughout history have died without having known the joys of homosexuality. With your help, these poor souls can be saved.

Simply enter the name of your favorite dead Mormon in the form below and click Convert! Presto, they're gay for eternity. There is no undo.

Don't know any dead Mormons? Click the "Choose-a-Mormon" button and we'll find one for you. You're welcome!

I got a great laugh out of this -- and I "converted" an alleged Mormon named Janet Lee into being gay. But despite the welcome humor, the site is predicated on two errors: a) that any name listed in the International Genealogical Index is of a Mormon (the vast majority are not Mormon, just like the vast majority of the human population is not Mormon); and b) that a proxy ordinance "converts" any individual in the hereafter. As I said in my post last week, it may not matter to outsiders that this is not a ritual of conversion but one of opportunity -- individuals on the other side of the veil are absolutely entitled to refuse the ordinance if they choose -- but it would be nice if outsiders at least knew the facts about what Mormons actually think they are doing. (As a Jewish friend of mine put it last week in an email conversation, he understands that Mormon proxy baptism is like getting a credit card offer in the mail: it's up to him to activate it. He's still not interested, thanks.)

The IGI question is interesting. Last week Elie Wiesel called upon Mitt Romney for moral reform when Wiesel learned that his own Jewish parents were listed in the IGI. But as I said above, the IGI is not an index of non-Mormons who have had temple rituals performed for them; there is a much smaller database of those names. The LDS Church through its genealogical program scans parish registers, census data, military records, obituaries, marriage licenses and the like for many nations and many centuries and consolidates them into a huge public record that is available to all. Some fraction of the people listed in the IGI have had ordinances done, but most have not. So when I "converted" a Janet Lee from being "Mormon" to being gay, chances are actually better that Janet was Anglican, Catholic, or agnostic than Mormon.

3) Mitt Romney is probably not dissembling when he says he hasn't participated in proxy baptisms for a long time.

This is a minor point, but I have gotten the feeling that some members of the media doubt Mitt Romney's veracity when he claims to have participated in proxy baptism in the past, but not in a long time. This isn't flip-flopping. In Mormon tradition, proxy baptism is a ritual usually performed by teenagers and young adults, not middle-aged or older folks like Romney. For many Mormon youth, proxy baptism is their first introduction to a Mormon temple. Although the ritual itself is basically the same as any live baptism performed in an ordinary meetinghouse and open to the public, it takes on a new significance within the "sacred space" of the temple. 

Mitt Romney's older grandkids are probably doing proxy baptisms for the dead nowadays, but Mitt and Ann wouldn't be unusual if they hadn't done so in some time, except perhaps as chaperones on a youth temple trip. 

The last point is a very basic one. Mormons generally have the best of intentions when they perform proxy baptism, and their belief actually benefits the world in a specific and tangible way; because they pour so much energy into collecting geneaological information and making it publicly available, they provide a gift of recordkeeping to the world.

Even considering that, Mormons should try harder -- much harder -- to understand why some people view baptism for the dead as offensive or commandeering. 

Photo of temple baptismal font from RNS Archives.

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