The candidacy of Mitt Romney has caused many people to take a closer look at his faith: Mormonism. Not surprisingly, news stories published about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seem to have increased over the last several months.
One Mormon practice has come under particular scrutiny: baptism for the dead and similar ordinances. Even Bill Maher, a man who claims to know a lot about religion, performed a posthumous baptism of George Romney, Mitt’s father, and proclaimed him an atheist. As he does with all religion, Maher performed this ritual to mock both the Mormon practice of proxy baptism, the Mormon religion generally, and Mitt Romney in particular. Compared to Maher’s blatant misogyny and hypocrisy regarding respect for women, this act of stupidity and ignorance is really not that important.
The practice of proxy baptisms for the dead has been especially controversial when it has involved Jews who died at the hands of Nazi villains and oppressors in the holocaust. In 1995, the LDS Church made an agreement with several prominent Jewish groups to cease the practice of performing proxy baptisms for Jewish victims of the holocaust. Since that time, the LDS Church has struggled to prevent these baptisms, as such ordinances performed at the local level. In other words, there is no central Church control over the performance of proxy ordinances.
Before continuing, however, I believe it is important that readers understand the context and framework from within Mormons perform proxy ordinances. Without any context, the practice seems patently absurd to those outside the Mormon faith. With context, the practice will still be viewed as absurd; but at the very least, readers will have some understanding of the systematic theology which motivates the practice of baptisms for the dead (as well as other ordinances).
First, it is essential to understand that the LDS Church, just as the Catholic Church, claims to be God’s “one true church” and therefore, has both the authority and mandate to proselytize enthusiastically and perform rituals in God’s name. Mormons believe that the priesthood, held by most adult males within the Church, is the only priesthood authority with God’s sanction and power. Again, just as the Catholic Church.
Second, Mormons believe that baptism (and other ordinances) are an essential part of receiving God’s salvation through Jesus Christ (just like the Catholics, although the Catholic theology on this matter is much more extensive). From the Book of Mormon, 2nd Nephi 31:
4 Wherefore, I would that ye should remember that I have spoken unto you concerning that prophet which the Lord showed unto me, that should baptize the Lamb of God, which should take away the sins of the world.
5 And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!
6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?
7 Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.
8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.
9 And again, it showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them.
10 And he said unto the children of men: Follow thou me. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?
11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.
12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.
13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.
This teaching is not dissimilar to what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:
1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Third, Mormons believe that rather than immediately being sent to heaven or hell (Mormonism actually rejects this dichotomy) after death, the souls of men and women go to a place of waiting known as the spirit world and wait for the eventual resurrection of the dead. According to Mormon theology, because spirits or souls lack a physical body and ordinances by their very nature are physical, spirits cannot engage in physical ordinances.
Fourth, essential to Mormon theology is the concept of “free agency.” Mormons teach that the ability for humankind (whether alive or in the spirit world) to choose freely is a necessary component of God’s “plan of salvation.” Indeed, without absolute unfettered freedom of choice, salvation would be an impossibility.
Fifth, Mormonism does not believe itself to be a new religion. Rather, Mormonism views itself as a continuation or restoration of truths which were known by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc… a “restoration of all things.”
How does all of this relate to proxy baptisms? As mentioned above, Mormon theology teaches that baptism is an essential component of being saved. However, this creates a problem. The vast majority of humankind has never heard of Jesus Christ, and far far far less have been exposed the “proper authority” authorized by God to perform the ordinance. One of the concepts introduced to address this issue by Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, was that of baptisms for the dead.
Mormon theology became much more complex and extensive as the Church grew from the early 1830s to the early-mid 1940s. Joseph Smith taught early Mormons that they could be baptized in the stead of deceased relatives who had not had the chance to hear, and then choose to accept or reject, the Gospel message. By standing in as a proxy for physical baptism, descendants ensured that their ancestors met this requirement for salvation. The performance of the ordinance indicates absolutely nothing as to what choice the ancestor will make. Mormons teach that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the spirit world but that the same free agency and unfettered freedom of choice, is active there just as it for all of humankind. Therefore, when a proxy baptism is performed, Mormons claim nothing — at least through the official doctrine of the Church (the professions of individual Mormons are not relevant here) — about the posthumous choice made by those for whom the baptism was performed.
Thus, for some in the press ask such rhetorical questions as: “Is Elvis Mormon?” is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic Mormon theology (and a bit of laziness, IMO, as expositions of this doctrine and theology are widely available online). The only ones who claim Elvis, Anne Frank, or other deceased famous and infamous individuals are somehow Mormon are those reporting the story.
Is the practice of baptism for the dead strange? Absolutely. But from the perspective of a Mormon, baptisms for the dead are a small, but integral part of a much larger systematic theology. The practice is simply meant to bridge the gap between two incompatible theological positions that A) baptism by one who holds authority is essential for salvation and B) many, if not most, of the souls who have lived on this earth have not had the opportunity to be baptized by one in authority.
Some Jewish organizations and religious leaders, with a full understanding of the Mormon position/theology regarding baptism for the dead, find the practice offensive to their ancestors’ Jewish heritage. As a result, the Church agreed in 1995 to cease proxy baptisms for Jews who lost their lives in the holocaust. Unfortunately, the Church promised more than it could deliver.
Here we are 16+ years later and holocaust victims are still ending up on Mormon temple roles to be baptized. In my view, this is not because of a lack of desire to implement the policy but rather, the complete impotence to do so.
Names of the deceased submitted for proxy ordinances are submitted by individual Mormons and, at lest until now, been subjected to very little, if any, vetting behond a simple check as part of the software used to do genealogical research and proxy ordinance name submission.
Below, you will find a copy of a letter sent to all Mormon congregations from Church HQ in Salt Lake City:
Any name submission of Holocaust victims since 1995 was in clear violation of the above stated policy. But, as I have said, the Church is completely powerless to enforce this policy because it has no control over the names being submitted by individual Mormons.
I believe there are very few ways for the Church to truly enforce this policy. The first option would be to have all names reviewed by knowledgeable genealogists before any proxy ordinance work is performed. The second, and most feasible in my view, would be to develop and implement a technology solution which forces Church members to prove the appropriateness of the submission based on Church policy. I had a discussion with someone in the Church’s temple department several years ago and from what I understand, the development of a more robust system, capable of enforcing stated Church policy is under development.
The institutional Church has defined the correct policy but has not put the procedures in place to empower it’s enforcement.
Mormons must understand and appreciate that the practice of proxy baptisms is offensive and upsetting to some, absurd to others, and meaningless to most. Likewise, others must respect the Mormon right to practice their religion as they see fit. This, of course, requires meaningful dialogue and mutual respect. None of us, at least in the United States, have a right not to be offended by the religious practice of others. Part of being a member of a liberal democratic republic is to be both tolerant and respectful. Mormons must be more diligent in keeping their commitments to Jewish organizations and others must make at least some effort to understand the Mormon religion before taking offense at its practices. Mormons do not intend to offend Jews and Jews do not intend to disrupt Mormon religious practice. When neither side of an issue see their “opponent” as an enemy seeking to intentionally bring about harm, both parties are more likely to come to a mutually beneficial, and respectful agreement leading to harmonious coexistence.