CURRENT EVENTS XX
Indecent Exposure I
Indecent Exposure II
Chaining Oregon I
Chaining Oregon II
Chaining Oregon III
Chaining Oregon IV
The Guys at the Gym
Chinese Mastery I
Chinese Mastery II
Chinese Mastery III
Anne Frank and the Mormons
Bill Long 2/25/12
Thinking About Proxy Baptism
The news, greatly embarrassing to any thinking Mormon, hit the street the other day that Anne Frank, the legendary German Jewish girl who died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp just before the Allied liberation in May 1945, and whose moving diary was published soon thereafter, was baptized by proxy in the Santo Domingo Temple of the LDS Church. This practice, also known as baptism of the dead, has a sole New Testament reference (I Cor. 15:29; where Paul knows of it but doesn't tell us anything about what it is, and seems neither to approve or disapprove of it), has long been part of the Mormon practice, and involves the submission of the name of a deceased person, in this case a Holocaust survivor, to appropriate officials who, in great solemnity, baptize her in absentia (of course--since she has been dead for almost 67 years). Explanations of the practice are various, but there can be no reason for doing so if it is not coupled with the belief that such a practice makes a dead person either Mormon-eligible or an actual Mormon, albeit after death.
A thinking Mormon could be appalled at this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it violates a specific agreement with Jewish leaders not to conduct these baptisms of Holocaust victims. But disregard for agreements aside, Anne Frank's proxy baptism offers an opportunity to reflect on this relatively new religion, which has gained public visibility of late both by dramatic numerical gain as well as a well-heeled member's (Mitt Romney's) candidacy for the US Presidency. The thesis of this essay is that proxy baptism is a practice that illustrates a terrible tension within the LDS expression of faith--the tension between the clear church teachings to respect all people, along with the deferential and cooperative attitude reflected by many individual LDS believers AND the easy-to-interpret action of proxy baptism as the ultimate disregard of and disrespecting of people. First the respect.
My Experience with LDS Students
I taught for several years at a Western law school that had a large contingent of LDS students. Indeed, some of my favorite and most loyal students were LDS. Not all of them were "cookie-cutter conservatives." Indeed, more than one came to me on more than one occasion to speak about some tensions they felt with their church as well as their commitments to more liberal positions--whether on the role of mental health professionals and drugs in the treatment of mental distress (rather than simply prayer), or on political subjects. Their life experiences ranged all the way from having four kids and coming to class obviously in a no-sleep daze to having no kids and very much wanting to establish themselves economically before beginning families. Of the twenty or so with whom I had friendly relations over the years, none were women. All the men were married. Almost all of them seem to have brought into what I refer (and some of them did, too) as the "program," where clear expectations for almost every age of life were laid out by the church. Most seemed happy with their choices, but I did perceive levels of fear that several were even afraid to open up. They gave me respect; I gave them respect; and they played a vital role in making my teaching a pleasant and worthwhile experience. None tried to "evangelize" me, though one of them asked if I would like to read a book on the Gospels he found meaningful to him, since he knew I had also written a book on Jesus' ministry. I accepted his gift though, as with many books given to me over the years, the book remains unread on my shelf.
The presence of LDS students in my classes caused me to think more deeply not just about the LDS belief system but also the practices of the faith. On one occasions two LDS missionaries came to my home--young men in their late teens, and I invited them in. Instead of having a "religious debate," I asked them about their experience of faith and which verses of the Book of Mormon were particularly powerful for them. I made them open their book and read the texts, just to hear how they read and how they put together their ideas (ever the teacher!). At first they seemed taken aback by the directness of my request and willingness to probe the inner structure of their faith, but we soon had a pleasant conversation. I was appreciative of their words, even though it confirmed for me that a 19 year-old from Wisconsin whose worst distress in life was losing his 85 year-old grandfather probably had little to offer to me in terms of explaining either life or faith.
I was especially interested in asking why they wanted to come talk to me in the first place. Both of them said that all they wanted to do was to "talk about faith" or "explore my faith" or some such thing. I thought the answer was disingenuous, but I felt it was probably the answer that "headquarters" gave them so that they didn't appear to be too intrusive or "pushy." But, I felt that they weren't being honest to their young selves because, as I see it, neither I nor they would spend a year of my life going around on cold "sales" calls just to collect data on what people believed (unless I was doing a sociology doctorate). In fact, they want converts. But I don't think the young men could be honest with me about that one.
So, here is the tension. The ethos of the religion is to cultivate deference and courtesy, to honor all people, but the practice of the religion has to be so that others will be converted. The fact of vigorous evangelism cannot be separated from a belief that the faith the LDS folk have is probably a bit truer than the faith of those with whom they talk. Even if this is denied, and I think most Mormon missionaries would deny it, I can't accept their denial as genuine. You go out in the field because you want converts; you want converts because you believe your religion is better or more true or superior to other people's religions.
Coming Back to Anne Frank
The tension which I have talked about in this essay is never, in my experience, publicly discussed by LDS people. But as with all obvious tensions in life, if you don't "work them out" in a way that tries to resolve them in a satisfactory way, you end up living them out in unsatisfactory ways... and that is how I understand the proxy baptism of Anne Frank. The act of proxy baptism of Anne Frank not only violates an agreement with the Jews, but is the ultimate act of disrespect. Someone may try to explain it as "giving a chance" for the person in their future after-death wanderings to "chose" Mormonism, but this would be as disingenuous as the young missionaries telling me that they weren't interested in my conversion to Mormonism/LDS but rather just wanted to "listen" to my faith experience or "share" theirs.
I think that if the LDS church wants to "mainstream" itself in the culture, and all that I read and see is that this is a strong interest (if not to control significant aspects of the culture), then they will need to overcome the suspicion that their respect of others is not just a ruse, a ruse to convert or to put on a front in order to "get one in the door." If they can't come to clarity on this tension, there will continue to be tortured and unsatisfactory explanations of disrespectful practices, explanations that will certainly derail a Mormon bid for the presidency, but will ultimately make thinking people say, "What are you LDS folks afraid of?"