Sadly, nobody chose to engage with my Pascalian defense of the Mormon practice of baptizing for the dead. I’ll return to that point at the end of this article. However, let me begin by giving you another illustration.
Mormon proxy baptism and alien spaceship impact coverage
Imagine that when you buy house insurance the insurance company offers to add “alien spaceship impact coverage” for no extra cost. After looking at the policy carefully and determining that there really are no strings attached, why wouldn’t you add the policy? You may think that aliens don’t exist, but on the one in a million (or billion) chance that they do exist and that they are visiting earth, why not have your policy include that protection?
Now shift the picture a bit. Imagine that the insurance company is owned by a fellow who happens to believe that aliens exist and who has been adding the policy for some time to all the people who buy house insurance. He views that as a benevolent action. We may view it as a wacky act based on a wacky belief, but if he’s right at least we’re all covered.
So what’s the problem exactly? Let’s take a look at three arguments that appeared in the thread to my last article.
Argument 1: Proxy baptism will make Jews Mormons in this life
James commented: “If Jews can be “converted” after they die, then who is next? Christians, or any other religious, or non-religious group.”
In fact, Mormons are proxy baptizing for everybody without distinction of race, ethnicity or creed. They are not singling out any particular group, so this comment is just confused.
James then makes a more extraordinary claim: “if you start saying that those who died in the Holocaust are not Jews, but Mormons, then it follows that it was not six million Jews who died, but a few million Mormons.” This comment actually sounds farcical to me, leading me to wonder if James is being serious. Having someone perform a proxy baptism in your name after your death doesn’t retroactively make you an adherent to that religious faith during your life. If it did we’d all be Mormons (assuming they keep up their practice and finish the job). That’s not what the practice is doing and the charge is unfounded.
Argument 2: Proxy baptism offends Jews
One of the best attempts to critique the Mormon practice of proxy baptism comes from Jag who objects on the ground that the practice offends Jewish people: “This practice has had the very real social effect of offending Jews, which means it is not the case that they are not hurting anybody.”
Interestingly, this comment strikes me as culturally and religiously insensitive, for Jag speaks as if Jewish people all share the same opinion and take offense to the same things. Does he go around saying that “The film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ has the very real social effect of offending Christians”? Perhaps he does, I dunno. But Scorcese’s film didn’t offend “Christians”. It offended some Christians, and I’d appreciate it if people wouldn’t take the liberty of speaking for all Christians.
The fact is that Jewish people are not a monolithic group who all think alike and all have their opinions accurately represented by Elie Wiesel. Just compare a particular ultraorthodox Hasidic Jew with a progressive Reform Jew; or consider a pro-Zionist Jew with a Jewish human rights activist working at B’Tselem. The range of opinion is huge. Sadly, it is often the “offended” voices in a particular community that are the loudest and which are erroneously taken as representative of the whole.
So why is it that some vocal Jewish leaders, people like Wiesel, have taken offense at the practice? Jag suggests it is because the practice “symbolically echoes episodes from their past wherein they were forcibly baptized by well-intentioned Christians….” This is a puzzling claim. I know what it means for x to symbolize y, but I am not clear what it means for x to echo y symbolically. Perhaps what Jag means is that the practice will simply call to mind certain regrettable practices of the past, including forced baptisms of Jews.
That’s true, it might. But the mere fact that a practice calls to mind some past trauma doesn’t mean that the practice is wrong or that the person(s) engaged in the practice should cease from doing it, particularly if they believe there are important reasons to do it which outweigh the broad associations that the traumatized individual(s) is drawing between the present practice and the past event.
I understand that for some Jewish people the practice recalls the image of past forced baptisms and other regrettable practices. But from the Mormon perspective the practice is the way of saving people’s lives in the future. So why should the Mormon cease and desist from a practice that they believe is life-saving (a proxy baptism in the name of a deceased individual) because some individuals draw an association between that and a practice that everybody agrees is wrong (i.e. a forced baptism of a living human being)?
Imagine a coastal town near a fault line. The government believes that there will be a tsunami at some point in the future so they plan to build a seawall to protect the town from the anticipated tsunami. Some of the residents are German immigrants who escaped East Berlin and still have memories of the wall and they protest that the seawall ought not be built because of its association in their mind with the wall that once divided Berlin. Based on the government’s belief that the wall is necessary to save the town in the event of an earthquake / tsunami, they would be forced to set aside these concerns and continue the construction of the wall. Similarly, given their beliefs about the afterlife the Mormons ought to set aside the concerns of some Jewish people about the association with past oppressive actions and thus continue their proxy baptisms.
Argument 3: Proxy baptism is a forcible post-humous baptism
Now we get to the final argument against proxy baptism, the claim that it is the equivalent of a forced post-humous baptism. Clamat writes:
“I’m not sure where I come down on the issue of proxy baptism. My mother in law once actually tried to have my kids secretly baptized in the Catholic church. The church told her “uh, we don’t think so,” of course. I was plenty peeved at her personally for her duplicity, but was only a little miffed from a religious standpoint. “
Presumably Clamat was “only a little miffed from a religious standpoint” because he recognizes that his mother-in-law believed that she was saving the child’s soul. (I hope his mother-in-law now knows that according to Catholic doctrine unbaptized infants go to heaven, not limbo.)
But wait a minute. Why is Clamat talking about this unfortunate episode with his mother-in-law? Isn’t it apples and oranges? The case of his mother-in-law was an actual baptism undertaken against the wishes of the child’s parents. But that is not what Mormons are doing. They are engaged in proxy baptisms. They’re not actually baptizing the dead.
Or are they?
This is where things get interesting. In his interview on MSNBC Elie Wiesel repeatedly describes the practice as if the proxy baptisms undertaken by Mormons actually have baptized his deceased relatives and made them Mormon. And that’s where things descend into rank confusion because Mormons have only succeeded in baptizing Wiesel’s deceased relatives if Mormonism is true in which case a rational person would want their relatives to be baptized post-humously.
So this third argument, clearly presented by Wiesel and hinted at by Clamat, is the most brazenly irrational for it entails that the Mormon practice is wrong precisely to the extent that the Mormons are right in doing it.