Family members of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists while on assignment in Pakistan in 2002, were disturbed to learn this week that he had been posthumously baptized by Mormons at a temple in Idaho. The news came just weeks after Mormon leaders apologized for a church member’s posthumous baptism of the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter. According to the Utah-based researcher who uncovered the records, the list of prominent Jews whose souls have come in for the treatment may also include Anne Frank.
“Mormons think of baptisms for the dead as a service to others, almost like adding family members’ names to a guest list,” Slate’s Forrest Wickman recently explained. In response to outcry from Jewish groups, however, church leaders have removed the names of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims and others from its rolls. Still, they haven’t been able to stamp out the practice entirely. Are the families of those who’ve been baptized posthumously justified in taking offense? Should they be touched by the Mormon Church’s concern? A spontaneous argument broke out among Slate staffers this afternoon, and we’ve decided to publish the back and forth. Here’s a condensed version of the email exchange.
David Plotz: Can I just defend posthumous baptism? I really don’t understand why this is wrong. If you believe Mormonism is nonsense, then what difference does it make? And if you don’t believe it is nonsense, then it helps you get to heaven. Why do people take offense?
Rachael Levy: Daniel Pearl was killed in large part because he was Jewish. Obviously it’s the same for Holocaust survivors/victims. It’s very much an identity issue.
Matthew Yglesias: As a non-observant Jewish person, I feel that the Mormon view that they should posthumously baptize me so I go to heaven is better than the orthodox Christian view that I should just burn in hell forever.
Emily Bazelon: Plotz, I thought John Dickerson and I talked you out of this last week. These baptisms are insulting. You spend your life as a Jew; you die in part because you’re a Jew, in Pearl’s case and certainly Simon Wiesenthal’s; you hold on to that identity at great personal cost. And then when you’re dead, someone else decides for you that no, actually you’re a Mormon? To hell with that, no pun intended. Religion is exclusive—maybe not Buddhism, but all the other major world religions. You choose to be one thing, not the other, and that is your choice, not some other church’s.
Forrest Wickman: I think Emily nailed why the baptisms are insensitive to Jewish people and particularly Holocaust victims and martyrs. That said, the common idea that it makes you a Mormon is a misunderstanding. Free agency is 100 percent sacred to Mormons (you hear about it all the goddamn time), and in Mormonism, baptisms for the dead only offer the opportunity to accept the religion. They look bad, but they don’t make anyone do anything.
Bazelon: That is good to know. But since it’s very different from the common Christian understanding of baptism, I don’t think the misunderstanding is going anywhere, and maybe that is another reason to cease and desist.
Wickman: In the case of Holocaust victims I sincerely believe the Mormon Church is trying to cease and desist, but there are a few well-intentioned bad apples (and some shortcomings in the filing system), so names slip through. To restrict the practice further would be to infringe upon an essential part of Mormon theology and religious life. There needs to be some effort toward tolerance on both sides.
Will Oremus: Any religion whose doctrine holds that nonbelievers are going to hell is inherently intolerant. By my understanding, that includes both Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest faiths.
No one likes to be told his soul is eternally damned, so in civil society we tend to applaud those religious folks who keep their insulting beliefs to themselves. We don’t like it when evangelicals try to convert us, or when Islamists try to fashion public law after the tenets of their holy book, or when Mormons posthumously baptize our friends or relatives. But if these practices are insulting, they’re at least intellectually honest. If mainline Christians and Muslims really, truly believe that Jews, Hindus, atheists and others are headed for hell, isn’t it actually more insulting when they don’t even make an effort to save our souls from that dreadful fate?
Farhad Manjoo: Right. What Will says. If you’re going to get upset about what other people say happens to you when you die, the Mormons shouldn’t be your biggest worry.
John Dickerson: The fundamentalist Christians who believe this about hell have crossed the globe trying to convert people and save souls. They’ve made quite an effort over time.
Bazelon: True enough. Also, Will’s reasoning here, which is similar to what Matt said earlier, seems like some weird pyramid of wrongness to me. Who really cares whether it’s worse to baptize posthumously than to quietly assume Jews and other nonbelievers are going to hell? It’s all an affront, and intolerant, as Will says. But this particular Mormon practice rubs our noses in it. And that’s a problem in and of itself—one that’s not excused by the “everyone else is worse” argument.
And Forrest, I don’t think I quite understand how further restrictions would infringe on an essential part of Mormon theology. I will take your word for it and try to be more tolerant. But I don’t find it easy.
Plotz: What about when Christians say they will pray for you? Does that offend you, Emily, because they are wishing a) some good for you, but also b) some good that is tied up in you accepting their savior? Or is that OK, because it doesn’t impose on you?
Bazelon: I take that as innocuous well-wishing with good intentions. It’s not about changing my identity for me.
Torie Bosch: I’m agnostic, born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother who just gave me a vague sense of right and wrong. Mormons can go ahead and baptize me once I’m dead. I’m open to other faiths posthumously attempting to rescue my soul as well. At worst, I’m dead and will have no idea it happened; at best, perhaps my lack of faith will be proven wrong.
If you don’t know your nose is being rubbed in it, does it matter? Would it help if no one ever “leaked” it when someone who shouldn’t have been baptized was?
Wickman: I don’t think the practice “rubs [anyone’s] noses in it.” It’s done in private, and then someone leaks the information to the media, and then the media and our collective reaction deem the story newsworthy. If many mainstream Christian beliefs were new, and it was just coming out that, for example, all Jews who didn’t accept the Christian faith and get baptized were probably going to hell, then that belief might seem newsworthy, and we might be having a bit of an uncomfortable discussion about that. Instead, the Mormon practices are the new ones, and they’re the insensitive ones we can’t seem to avoid.
Will Saletan: Every faith has its vanity. For Jews, it’s that we’re “the chosen people.” I’m for quietly rolling your eyes at the vanities of other faiths, even the ones that feel insulting, and getting on with life, here and in the world to come.
Oremus: That’s fine when it comes to religious vanities. I draw the line at coercion, as in the Crusades or strict Islamic law. Maybe that’s where the difference of opinion arises: Those who are outraged by posthumous baptism feel it amounts to coercion, albeit of immortal souls rather than living humans. For those who don’t put much stock in immortal souls, it’s harmless vanity.
Levy: I think the discussion has sidetracked from the main issue here: identity, rather than religious observance. Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered largely because of his identity—one, might I add, that wasn’t necessarily self-imposed. The same goes for Holocaust victims. If the reason for your death is your identity, one put on you by others, how dare someone else try, once again, to change it on you? I know this is not the Mormon Church’s intention, but this is how it can be perceived within the Jewish community.
Abby Ohlheiser: Given what Forrest said about what a Mormon posthumous baptism actually means theologically (a choice, rather than a conversion), it seems pretty similar to the goal of Christian mission work: Bring the idea of Christianity to a person so that they can choose whether to accept it or not. The only difference is that the Mormon version can happen after death, too.
How much of this controversy has to do with Mormons being viewed as a cult or cultish? I buy the Mormon Church’s explanation that the baptisms in question are happening against protocol by overzealous (not their word) members of the church, yet it seems that the criticism is being laid on Mormonism as a whole. The institution isn’t free of responsibility—they should at the very least monitor their records better, especially after promising the families of survivors that they would not baptize the Holocaust dead—but there’s an assumed homogeneity of Mormomism here that makes me a bit wary.