Is It Mitt Romney's Problem that Mormons Posthumously Baptize Dead People?


"It's bad that Mormons posthumously baptized Daniel Pearl. It is far far far worse that radical Islamists beheaded him," the New York Daily News' Josh Greenman tweeted this afternoon. That remark is a response to a report from the Boston Globe that a Mormon congregation in Idaho baptized the murdered reporter in 2011: 

Members of the Mormon Church last year posthumously baptized Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was captured and killed by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to records uncovered by a researcher in Utah.

Helen Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon who combs through the church's archives, said that records indicate Pearl, who was Jewish, was baptized by proxy on June 1, 2011 at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Mormons baptize deceased Jews and members of other religions as part of a rite intended to give them access to salvation.

But the practice has stirred outrage among some Jewish leaders. In 1995, the church, after meeting with Jewish leaders, agreed to stop baptizing Holocaust victims. Current church policy encourages church members to baptize their ancestors, but does not explicitly forbid the baptism of deceased Jews and people of other faiths.

Back when I was a Charismatic Episcopalian, the bombing of Baghdad brought me to tears, as I imagined the number of Muslims who would die that night without having accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. An agnostic now, I can still sympathize with the Mormons: In religious traditions that claim a monopoly on salvation, praying for nonbelievers is both a non-negotiable duty and an act of charity. 

If you don't believe their teachings, of course, these symbolic rites can feel like insults. But is it actually bad that Mormons posthumously baptize members of other sects? Who, exactly, is harmed by that act? Certainly not Pearl. In fact, if the Mormons have a monopoly on salvation, Pearl stands to benefit. If they don't, no harm done. His fellow Jews may feel insulted that Mormons think Pearl needed an assist, but that sword cuts both ways. Orthodox Jews have rules that prevent interfaith families from being buried together. I can imagine scenarios in which that would feel like a complete slap in the face. But Jews who abide by these laws don't see them as insulting

"We bury our people with our people," said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva at the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. "We maintain our social relationships after death as well, hence we bury Jews with Jews. We don't bury Jews with non-Jews because we don't have a social relationship with them," he said, referring to communal obligations among Jews.

"The main thing is it shouldn't be looked upon as a derogatory view of other religions," Tendler said. "It's a highly personal, family concept."

I don't mean to conflate the two practices (posthumous baptism, like Mormonism, is inclusive; segregated burial, like some forms of Judaism, is exlusive), but they are similar in that neither harms the dead or the living.

And while I certainly don't mean to suggest that any religious group should wave a white flag, I do think it's odd that anyone would ask Mitt Romney to condemn his church's harmless traditions, which the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has done. Not only is Pearl's posthumous baptism a non-issue compared to his capture and horrific execution, there are far more substantial reasons to put Romney's feet to the fire. 

Commentary's Bethany Shondark has alerted to me a piece by Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby that's also worth your time: 

In Judaism, conversion after death is a concept without meaning; no after-the-fact rites in this world can possibly change the Jewishness of the men, women, children, and babies whom the Nazis, in their obsessive hatred, singled out for extermination. I found the Mormons' belief eccentric, not offensive. By my lights, their efforts to make salvation available to millions of deceased strangers were ineffectual. But plainly they were sincere, and intended as a kindness.