Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well. This was seen to be particularly offensive to Jewish people and others who felt that this posthumous “claim” of people for Mormonism is a breach of the American “truce” between religions on which our particular brand of tolerance is based.
I have some strong feelings about this situation myself, but have purposely waited until the hubbub has died down a bit before expressing them publically. I think we can well assume that if Mitt Romney indeed becomes the Republican presidential candidate, we will hear about all of this again in the course of the campaign. Therefore, now seems like a good time to express what I have to say about it.
All religions have their way of remembering and honoring the dead. There is nothing about this that should be discouraged. Most of the time, the rituals of remembering and honoring are expressed in prayers. I am not an expert on all Jewish practices, but in the services of my own (Reform) congregation, the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is the culmination of the service itself. Most of the time, those mentioned specifically by name in this part of the service are Jewish people. However, that is not always the case. We are a congregation in which a very high percentage of the marriages are “mixed,” meaning one of the partners does not come from a Jewish background (this is very typical for Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative congregations, less so for Orthodox congregations but rising even there.) If a person requests the name of a non-Jewish relative to be mentioned during this part of the service, there is no objection at all, at least in my congregation. That a non-Jewish person’s name is included in this part of the service is a sign of deep respect and a signal that we are all connected as one human family, regardless of religion or ethnic origins.
Clearly, in every religious service in the country you will find similar ritual inclusions of people who are not members of that religion themselves. I can hardly imagine anyone with any sense objecting to having others mentioned in prayer or other rituals who are not members of that particular faith.
So, apparently, in demonstrating their remembrance and honor for people no longer with us in body, Mormons include not only prayer but baptism in their rituals of respect. Thought experiment. Most of us, I think, would be positively touched to learn that local Mormon congregants had mentioned our recently deceased parent or close relative in prayer. I think this would be true even if we did not particularly believe in the efficacy of prayer itself–we would recognize in any case that such prayer was a signal of respect. Why would we feel any different then, if we do, to learn that in addition to prayer for our deceased parent or close relative, there had also been a ritual baptism?
I think this would be because in our own Christian churches, baptism is associated with inauguration of membership, and so it may feel like Mormons are “claiming” as members those who did not, in life, wish to be members. However, we should keep in mind that the “offense” occurs only because we are reading our own understanding of the meaning of baptism into the Mormon practice. But this is not legitimate. If as part of a service emphasizing Christian love, a minister claimed Gandhi as an “honorary Presbyterian,” of Lutheran, or Baptist, or what have you, would that be so offensive? I think not, and I suggest that the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is no more than that–a sign of remembrance, honor and respect.
Now, baptism of deceased Jewish people has some different undertones. There is a long history in Jewish and Christian history of “forced” baptisms, of living Jewish people being baptized against their will, and we honor in memory those many Jews who chose fines, exile, and even death, rather than to submit to Christian baptism. To learn that Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims have been ritually “baptized” in Mormon memorial services cannot be easily separated from the feelings associated with centuries of forced Christian baptism. Because of this, such baptisms should never be done in the public arena (which Mormons would never do in any case) and it would be good if Mormons did not publicize the specifics of this ritual. But Mormons have never forced baptism on living Jewish people, and so again it is not right to impute the same motives of those who forced baptism on living Jewish people onto Mormons. Baptism of the dead is an inner-church Mormon ritual signaling remembrance, honor and respect for those being symbolically included in the ritual.
If and when discussion of this practice hits the public airwaves again, as it surely will during a Romney run for President, I would hope we can all just chill out a bit, and put this practice in the same context as prayer for the deceased. Building tolerance for each other is anything but easy, so let us not suspicion each other about the rituals we employ for rituals intending remembrance, honor and respect.