Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor whose name was inappropriately submitted to a genealogical database from which names are extracted for proxy baptisms in temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is outraged.
"I think it's scandalous," Wiesel told the Huffington Post after the story broke earlier this week that his name, along with his father's and maternal grandfather's, appeared on the database. "Not only objectionable, it's scandalous."
The unauthorized appearance of the still-very-much-alive Wiesel's name on an LDS genealogical index reserved for the names of deceased persons contributed to media coverage of LDS baptisms for the dead. Also contributing to that coverage was the inappropriate proxy baptism of the parents of his fellow Holocaust survivor, Simon Wiesenthal.
The LDS Church has publicly apologized for the Wiesenthal baptisms, noting that they were done contrary to church policy that excludes Holocaust victims from eligibility for proxy baptism except if the name is submitted by a direct descendant of the victim. The church has suspended the genealogical access rights of the member who submitted the Wiesenthal names.
As far as the Wiesel name submissions are concerned, a church spokesman said that those names were simply on a database (they have since been removed) and would have been rejected if they had been submitted for proxy baptism.
None of which is adequate to Wiesel. In fact, he wants to take his objections to a higher authority: Mitt Romney.
"I wonder if as a candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney is aware of what his church is doing," Wiesel said. "I hope that if he hears about this that he will speak up."
Not likely, says Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins.
"In fact, Romney holds little authority in the strictly hierarchal LDS Church," Coppins writes, "and any advice he gave to the church's leaders would likely be politely received but not acted on."
Coppins also references a 2007 Newsweek story in which Romney indicates that he has performed baptisms for the dead in LDS temples.
As "a Mormon who has taken part in this ordinance before," Coppins tries to clarify some of the misconceptions this news story has generated in the national media. With clear, concise language he responds to several key questions, including:
How are baptisms for the dead performed? ("Despite claims by the morbid and uninformed, there are no corpses involved in this practice," Coppins writes.)
Do Mormons think they're converting these people's souls when they perform posthumous baptisms? ("No," says Coppins. "Mormons believe that by performing posthumous baptisms, they are giving their ancestors the option of embracing the full truth of Mormonism. The church doesn't consider anyone a Mormon just because they've been posthumously baptized. That's a decision for the individual to make.")
Why do Mormons do this? What's the doctrinal significance? ("Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School, has pointed to a verse in 1 Corinthians that apparently makes reference to baptisms for the dead. 'Now, with the Mormons we have it again as a practice,' said Stendahl, a former bishop in the Church of Sweden, in a video that you can see here. "It's a beautiful thing. I could think of myself as taking part in such an act.’ ”)
Dan Gilgoff of the Associated Press similarly tried to explain baptism for the dead on CNN's Religion Blogs. He also posed a series of questions and included responses from LDS scholars like Richard Bushman of Columbia University and Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond along with his answers. For example:
Why do Mormons practice proxy baptism for the dead? ("Historically, Christians have been exclusive," Givens says. "Catholics have taught that only Catholics are saved, and evangelicals say only if you confess according to their tradition. Mormons say, "No, salvation is open to all people.' In that sense, Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world.")
So are all those who are baptized after death considered Mormon? ("No," Gilgoff wrote. "Mormons believe that baptism provides the deceased with the opportunity to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not the obligation. 'This is about putting names on the guest list,' says Givens. 'They might not go to the party, but they are given the chance.’ ”
What are Mormon baptism ceremonies like? ("Baptisms for the dead happen inside Mormon temples," Gilgoff wrote. "Members of the LDS Church volunteer to undergo full immersion baptism while the names of the dead are read. An LDS member might participate in 10 or so posthumous proxy baptisms at a time. Young Mormons are especially encouraged to participate as a way to participate in temple life.")
All of which is an interesting part of the overarching news story about Latter-day Saints, the Jewish community and baptisms for the dead. But according to Washington Post On Faith panelist and blogger Brad Hirschfield, it isn't the most important part of the story.
"The real story lies in the reaction of those in the Jewish community who are making a mountain of this mole hill, especially in light of the church's unequivocal apology for the event having occurred and their punishing the offender," Hirschfield wrote. "To the extent that such rituals indicate that people who lived and died as Jews still require repair of their souls or spiritual status, there is going to be hurt. That any group clings to doctrines that trumpet their own spiritual superiority or unique access to heaven, to me, is problematic as well, but that is hardly a unique feature of the LDS. In fact, all traditions, including Judaism, have such intellectual strands running through them."
Hirschfield suggests that the events of the past week provide "a genuine opportunity."
"The issue is not what was done," he wrote, "but what comes next."
When faith communities come into conflict, Hirschfield said, the important thing "is how we presume the best about each other and open better lines of communication based not only on being better understood and respected by others, but by showing them greater levels of respect and understanding."
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