Columns Doctrine & Practice Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Don’t posthumous Mormon baptisms = religious freedom?

Two missionaries of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The doorbell rings. It’s two clean-cut guys in dark suits. Mormon missionaries. They ask if I’d like to know more about their religion. I say no thanks, I’ve got one already. Judaism. They evince some interest. Another time, I say. Another time, they say. Good-bye. Good-bye. I shut the door.

Do I appreciate the interruption? No. Do I wish they’d noticed the mezuzah on the lintel and, well, passed over to the next house? Yes. Do I think they have, and should have, every right to do what they’re doing?

Absolutely.

Comes now a news report that some dead Jews — including the late Lubavitcher rebbe, the grandparents of Steven Spielberg and Carrie Fisher, and hundreds of Holocaust victims — have been given proxy baptisms in Mormon temples. This in apparent violation of the 1995 agreement under which authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said they wouldn’t be doing that any more.

This has caused agita in some quarters, including to my RNS colleague, Rabbi Jeff Salkin. Which I get.

Because the idea of baptizing Jews without their wanting to be baptized seems like forced conversion, summoning up ugly images from our collective past. At minimum, it suggests that those performing the act consider Judaism to be a defective religion — which of course they do but which we’d like them not to.

In fact, however, proxy baptism is functionally equivalent to those Mormon missionaries coming to my door. Based on a hint in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that early Christians engaged in the practice, it represents an extension of the effort Mormons make to make it possible for their ancestors to gain access to the highest heaven.

But it’s only an option. As explained by the LDS Church:

Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.

Nevertheless, the Jews are acknowledged to be a special case. What the Church agreed to in 1995 was pretty much the same as what was agreed to in 1988, when Brigham Young University opened its center on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem: no missionizing. And, the recent report notwithstanding, both agreements have generally been adhered to.

As a member of the Tribe, I’m happy that Mormons refrain from baptizing my ancestors. But as a believer in religious free exercise, I have a bit of a bad conscience about it.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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