By Dayna Clark, GQ
GQ's resident Mormon, Dayna Clark, weighs in on media misrepresentations of Mitt Romney's religious faith.
The most recent religious controversy in the Romney campaign cropped up late last month when it was reported that some Mormons were posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize laureate and prominent Holocaust survivor, found this practice so egregious that he has actually publicly asked Mitt Romney to denounce it altogether. Luckily, Stephen Colbert was able to reverse the damage by posthumously circumcising all dead Mormons... or at least the ones who were Jewish to begin with. But just in case this ritual en mass didn't soothe your fears, here are a few things you should know about Mormons and the practice of baptizing those who have died.
Baptism for Mormons, like for other Christian-based religions, is a saving ordinance. It is through certain ordinances, baptism being one of them, that we gain individual salvation. Baptism also ties that salvation to membership in a larger spiritual community. Mormon children are baptized at age eight (the age of presumed accountability) to pattern our lives after Jesus Christ, who was also baptized.
For Mormons, baptism by a living proxy for those who have died (so-called "baptism for the dead") is a biblical practice referenced by St. Paul in the New Testament Book of 1st Corinthians, and it is a sincere attempt to allow our family members who were either unable to hear or did not accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in their lifetime the opportunity to accept it in the next. Again, simply performing the ordinance of baptism for someone does not make him or her Mormon. It merely allows them the posthumous opportunity to accept this ordinance, performed in their behalf by the living, if they so choose.
So, how does this really work? Well, first and foremost, you must be dead. Just in case this recent media frenzy has you panicked you might have been proxy baptized by some overzealous Mormon and not known about it, fear not: you haven't been.
There are very specific guidelines about whom a Mormon can submit, or recommend, for baptism by proxy. The deceased must either be an immediate family member, in your direct line of ancestors or part of any adoptive or foster family lines connected to your own family and your descendants. An official church document states, "Do not submit the names of persons who are not related to you, including names of famous people, or names gathered from unapproved extraction projects, such as victims of the Jewish Holocaust."
Even still, after reading this, my very close friend, a committed atheist, thought it necessary to demand in no uncertain terms that I not try to "make him Mormon" after he dies. Duly noted.
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This issue first arose in a political context in 2008, when Newsweek questioned Romney about the practice. His response was a little unsettling both to Mormons and to the masses when he said, "I have [performed the ordinance] in my life, but I haven't recently." Newsweek took this as a deliberate attempt by Romney to distance himself from the "Mormon question." I respectfully disagree. I believe it is part of a more elaborate and conscious effort by Romney to separate his worlds of church and state. Besides, if he wanted to distance himself from Mormonism he could just pull a Jon Huntsman and start drinking coffee.
Regarding the matter of Elie Wiesel, he need not worry either. According to Church policy, just because you're part of the Mormon genealogical database does not mean that your name will be submitted for baptism.
So, the upshot: unless you're distantly related to a Mormon either by blood or through marriage, you can probably rest assured that you're not going to be baptized a Mormon when you're six feet under. You're safe. And by safe, I mean you're definitely going to burn in Hell. Good luck with that!
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