Baptisms for the Dead: So What?

Earlier today over at Slate.com, a spontaneous debate on the curious Mormon practice of baptizing the dead happened. I actually have a lot of Mormon relatives and both of my parents aaannnd all of my siblings are Mormon too, so I always take an interest when Mormonism pops up in the news. For the record, I am not a Mormon, and even if I tried to convert, I don’t think they would let me!

Anyway, I found the way in which this debate unfolded especially heartening, because instead of bagging on Mormonism, or treating it with disrespect, the contributors actually tried to make an effort to understand why Mormons baptize the dead, and then debate why or why not this practice could be perceived to be offensive to people of other creeds. Here are some of the highlights:

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.

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.

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?

Keep in mind that Slate.com is an almost entirely Left-wing publication. So the next time you hear somebody mention intolerance and Left in the same sentence (including myself) be sure to think back to this debate. I highly recommend reading the whole exchange, if only to remind yourself that deep down inside, human beings really do give a damn.

Religion is an interesting topic, but what I often find myself attracted to in regards to religion is not so much the theology or the big debates, but rather the splinter sects and protest movements that always and everywhere occur in religious communities. I find it endlessly fascinating.

Atheism, by the way, is just an offshoot of Judaism and is more like a cousin or even a sibling of Christianity than a truly polar worldview. I have come this conclusion due to all of the debates I get in to with Atheists. They are by far the most dogmatic of all (I am a skeptic, but not an Atheist; it is impossible to prove that god doesn’t exist, so the whole exercise is moot in my opinion).

Back to Mormonism: despite my strong ties to the Mormon faith, I learned more about it from the exchange I just read than I ever learned from family members. As an avowed skeptic, I am sure my haughty tone towards religion has discouraged them from discussing it with me at the dinner table, but still, Mormons have played a major role in the development and the character of the republic. Despite making up just 2% of the population here in the U.S., there were two Mormons running for President of the United States! They’re like Jewish people, except with less persecution under their belt.

Most of my Mormon friends are Leftists, and they have always expressed their faith in Mormonism through the religion’s communalistic values, which have always been present in its short history (if you were persecuted for your religious beliefs, wouldn’t your religion develop a strong inclination to build strong bonds of community?; This, too, might explain the Jewish respect for communal values).

On last thing: I fully support the right of gay people to get married. I think that, if necessary, the 14th amendment should be invoked to protect this custom. I also think that polygamy should be legal too. What is so bad about these types of marriages? There is absolutely nothing harmful about them! Nothing! Ah well.

Because Romney is going to be the GOP nominee, I think we’ll hear a lot more about Mormonism. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll pay too much attention. I think that the exchange above was probably an anomaly, and that it is all going downhill after this.

Here is the link to the exchange one more time.

6 thoughts on “Baptisms for the Dead: So What?

  1. So in this discussion, Mormon proxy baptism does not coincide with traditional definitions of baptism? I’m not quite sure about how it is an offer to get into heaven. AS far as I am aware (being a Catholic/Mormon), baptism is the washing away of one’s sins–for Catholics, we get it out of the way early so there aren’t too many sins to wash off. Doesn’t washing away someone’s sin imply that they have sin in the first place? As if they did something wrong and had to be forgiven for it?

    • Queequeg Mark,

      Doesn’t washing away someone’s sin imply that they have sin in the first place? As if they did something wrong and had to be forgiven for it?

      I think so, but I just live here dude (on planet earth)…

      As far as the logic behind baptisms for the dead goes, I’ll take a stab: I think it has to do with Mormon understanding of the afterlife. You don’t go to Heaven/Hell after death, you go a “waiting area” first. Nobody can leave the waiting area until Jesus comes back to earth.

      During that waiting time, people will have yet another opportunity to convert to Mormonism and get into heaven, but since they don’t have bodies in the afterlife’s waiting area, Mormons on earth do it for them….just in case!

      Don’t go on a game show with this summary, but I think this covers the gist of it.

      Either way, I think this exchange represents what will be the high point of the Left’s civility towards Anglo-Saxon non-Western religions until the elections are over…

  2. Brandon got it spot on both on the general idea of proxy baptism and the need to study it more before you go on a game show for it. 🙂

    For what it’s worth, as a Mormon who also is a libertarian, I agree with Brandon on his policy stances regarding marriage.

    One of these days you got to tell me the story of how you came to be a skeptic – if only for my own curiosity.

    Your article reminded me of my favorite joke that I used to tease my father with when he was an atheist. I used to tell him that I would inscribe on his tomb stone the following words: Hear lies an atheist, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

    Hehehe good times and a good article.

  3. Despite making up just 2% of the population here in the U.S., there were two Mormons running for President of the United States! They’re like Jewish people, except with less persecution under their belt.

    HAh I love that!

    About the gay marriage do you think that will result in less people to fill the population pyrimyd. Thinking about jobs, less people would mean higher wages, maybe keeping in mind the liquidity of non-service industries, and our immigration policy is generally accepting of others so would that balance the loss of people g-marriage would equal… or would these people even reproduce if they couldn’t be legally bound and recieve all the benefits from federal government programs like welfare, or tax incentives and other forces.

    Another great article. I like what you’re saying, content and direction.

    • Bradswrite,

      Two quick things: wages are a bad measurement of the economic health of a society. It is much better to look at purchasing power parity (in per capita terms).

      I think gay people will probably adopt if they want to start a family. so the population pyramid won’t be affected at all.

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