Improper use of “improperly”?

salt_lake_temple_baptismal_fontI tend to agree with my fellow libertarian Penn Jillette about people of different religious backgrounds attempting to convert me: I’d be more offended if they didn’t. It shows they care about me temporally and eternally. So I don’t personally share the disdain so many people have for the Mormon practice of baptism of the dead.

But ABC’s Jake Tapper has a rather interesting story headlined “President’s Late Mother Improperly, Posthumously, Baptized as a Mormon.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints confirmed Tuesday afternoon that someone improperly, posthumously baptized the late mother of President Obama into the Mormon faith.

Last June 4 — the day after then-Sen. Obama secured enough delegates to win the Democratic presidential nominee — someone had the president’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995 of cancer, baptized.

On June 11, she received the endowment.

Tiny quibble here but it’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not Latter-Day Saints. I’m not sure what it means that she received “the endowment” a week later and would like to know more about it and how it differs or expands upon the baptism. But what I really want to know is when and how the Latter-day Saints “confirmed” that they improperly baptized President Barack Obama’s mother. Here’s the only quote on the matter in the Tapper piece:

Mormon Church spokeswoman Kim Farah said that “the offering of baptism to our deceased ancestors is a sacred practice to us and it is counter to Church policy for a Church member to submit names for baptism for persons to whom they are not related. The Church is looking into the circumstances of how this happened and does not yet have all the facts. However, this is a serious matter and we are treating it as such.”

I could be reading this wrong but it seems to me that Farah is saying that the church has a certain policy on the matter and they’re looking into whether policy was followed.

I’m also confused by this section:

The Provo Daily Herald notes that the LDS Church “has run afoul of Holocaust groups multiple times,” because of efforts by Mormons to posthumously baptize Jews killed during the Holocaust. “Leaders said in November that they are making changes to their massive genealogical database to make it more difficult for names of Holocaust victims to be entered for posthumous baptism by proxy.”

Those changes obviously did not come quickly enough for the late Mrs. Dunham.

How, exactly, would an effort to make it more difficult to enter the names of Holocaust victims in a genealogical database affect Obama’s mother? And, further, that last line seems to say it’s a foregone conclusion that she should not have been baptized by the LDS. That’s a fine position to take, of course, but it might be nice to get some different perspective as well.

The Daily Herald provides a bit more information about what the Mormon teaches regarding baptism by proxy. And Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune has much, much more on the practice, how the church views it and how people who oppose the practice view it.

Image via Wikimedia.

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  • Jerry

    people of different religious backgrounds attempting to convert me: I’d be more offended if they didn’t. It shows they care about me temporally and eternally.

    I don’t feel the need to convert you because I know you’ll agree with me in some future lifetime so I can have patience:-)

    Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune has much, much more on the practice, how the church views it and how people who oppose the practice view it.

    I found her story incomplete since it said that others were bothered by the practice but did not offer any reasons for being bothered. I would think that the objections would not be theological because from other religion’s perspectives the Mormon practice would not have any effect. So I assume it was from a feeling about not respecting another religion’s beliefs but it would have been nice to see that confirmed.

  • Mike Hickerson

    The ABC News story has been updated with the note “Those changes are specific to victims of the Holocaust, however, and would not have affected the baptism of the late Mrs. Dunham.”

  • Stephen A.

    If the person who performed the baptism for Mrs. Dunham was not a relation of hers, and the church itself says it requires the person to be so, then yes, this was improper. Wasn’t it?

    The ABC clarification on the Holocaust comment was a good one, but the Holocaust point seems only tangentially relevant. I suppose in both cases they baptized people for whom their relations didn’t want them baptized. But in the scheme of things, so what? I’m baffled by the outrage. If the Mormons have it right, then they saved these ancestors from hell (though I’m confused why it’s necessary, since the dead apparently get a chance to accept or reject the Mormon Gospel in heaven.)

    But it it turns out to be a false practice or a false religion, it’s meaningless, and harmless. Why is it newsworthy in either case that this church is doing this, other than to point out the novelty of the practice?

    Other than paperwork coming through a week later verifying the baptism, I’m not sure what that “week later” comment means in this story. I thought the baptism WAS an “endowment.” Am I wrong?

  • Mollie

    Stephen A.,

    I am not that familiar with how baptisms for the dead are performed by the LDS but I don’t think either the person performing the baptism or receiving the baptism by proxy is typically related. However, the church does have a policy encouraging that you only put in for a dead person’s baptism if you are related to them.

    Many times LDS youth groups will go to the temple, though, and each youth will stand in for a number of deceased people who are getting baptism by proxy.

    But I don’t think the church has said that the request for Mrs. Dunham’s baptism was improper — just that they will look into it.

  • Jettboy

    “though I’m confused why it’s necessary, since the dead apparently get a chance to accept or reject the Mormon Gospel in heaven”

    It is necessary because according to Mormon theology a person MUST be baptized in order to enter heaven. The only way around this is if the person who died was innocent, like a very young child. Because baptism is an Earthly (mortal) activity, no spirit can do this for themselves. Therefore, a mortal must do it for them.

    “I thought the baptism WAS an ‘endowment.’Am I wrong?”

    Yes, you are mostly wrong. The endowment is a separate ordinance of the Temple apart from Baptism. Answering what exactly the endowment is can be complicated. Basically, where baptism allows you to enter Heaven, the endowment allows for the full Heavenly blessings and promises. Marriage is yet a different ordinance than the other two and in some ways the culmination of all Temple work as it joins couples and families together for eternity.

  • Mark T.

    I have a question that is tangentially related. Since Jews don’t attempt to convert non-Jews, what does that say about their concern for non-Jews? This question is not meant as an attack – it’s sincere inquiry.

  • Julia

    I think the Vatican has objected to baptizing Popes and other historical church members. I believe the LDS quit doing that.

  • Jen G.

    I used to do a lot of genealogy work and volunteered at the local LDS family history center so I’m familiar with the context of some of these controversies.

    Essentially, as Jettboy pointed out, the ordinances (baptism/endowment/marriage) need to occur by proxy on earth for one who is deceased to receive the benefits of it should they accept the gospel in the afterlife. Members are strongly encouraged to submit the names of their deceased relatives as a type of missionary work. This is where the huge interest in genealogy comes from.

    However, ever since the church began microfilming parish records they have had a continuing problem with members of other faiths over the practice. This stems from the fact that zealous Mormons(who may have already done all the genealogy work for themselves they could or came from heavily LDS families) would go through microfilmed parish records and submit everybody named in them for ordinances. This is in addition to the practice of submitting the names of famous people and their families that had been around since the beginning.

    I don’t think the church really frowned on these practices, until they started creating problems. First, someone submitted all the names of the known victims of the Holocaust. This outraged the Jewish community who felt it was an affront to the memory of those who died because of their religion. Second, after it came out that pretty much every person on the church rolls in Scotland prior to 1855 (which had been microfilmed by the LDS family history library) was posthumously baptized, the Catholic Church decided to refuse permission to microfilm it’s records. Since one event created negative publicity and the other hampered the LDS church in pursuing it’s genealogical work, the policy of ‘only submit family members’ was put into practice.

    Individual members still ignore it, but the church does seem to have done everything it can to discourage the practice.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Regarding Holocaust victims, there is a long history of Christians coercing or forcing Jews to be baptized (for example, in Spain). I’m not Jewish, but I would think that the LDS baptisms are offensive because of echoes of this past persecution. Here is at least one Jewish writer who explicitly compares the LDS baptisms to forced baptisms in medieval Europe.

    For what it’s worth, here’s an official LDS statement regarding baptism of the dead, including Holocaust victims.

  • Judy Harrow

    To Mark T. (#6):

    I’m sure Ari can answer this much better than I can, but, until he gets a chance:

    Jews do not proselytize because they believe that “the righteous of all nations are the beloved of God.” Specifically, this refers to the covenant made with Noah, containing seven basic ethical precepts. The covenant made later with Abraham, which is specific to Jews, also entails a lot of ritual observances. These are not incumbent on non-Jews, and neither are any specific beliefs.

    Since Jews do not claim any particular monopoly on God’s love, they feel no need to woo other people to their beliefs or practices, let alone to impose their ways on unwilling individuals.

  • bob

    Gee, they can baptize anyone they want I figured; they can also name the moon after me or any star in the sky for my dog. It has almost as much religious effect.

  • Stephen A.

    bob’s funny comment hits at something I said earlier, and still hasn’t been answered. Why – it should be asked by those reporting this story – does it offend someone if the Mormons baptize their long-dead relatives?

    What REAL harm is done IF they believe nothing is really happening?

  • Jay

    Can we digress back to the journalism part? (Isn’t this supposed to be a journalism blog?)

    If the decision to baptize her was “improper,” shouldn’t there someone saying on the record that it was improper? A church spokesman? The president? A member of Escaped Mormons USA or the Committee Against Brainwashing? The president of the Provo Democratic Club or the minister of the local UCC?

    I realize that lazy journalists generalize their own opinions or biases into stories and pretend it’s the opinion of others. But if this is really wrong, then there should be someone willing to say so on the record.

  • jeans

    I’m not sure what it means that she received “the endowment” a week later and would like to know more about it and how it differs or expands upon the baptism.

    I know you’re trying to pull it back to journalism but since no one’s addressed your question yet: the endowment is a separate ceremony from the baptism. A person’s temple work done by proxy is considered complete when he/she has been first baptized, then endowed, then sealed to parents or spouse if there’s a spouse. In most temples this is done pro forma, so that once a temple has registered the baptism of a deceased person, that name then goes into the queue for the endowment which is typically done days, weeks or months later.

    Mormons consider temple work to provide necessary ordinances for the salvation of believers. They don’t apply or take effect for nonbelievers. They are done as a service, and since the state of the soul cannot be known, they just cast as wide a net as possible, believing that at least some of the spirits on the other side desire that work performed for them. As noted in comments #3 and #11, if the deceased person doesn’t care, then no harm’s done either way. And it gives living believers a chance to participate in those ordinances multiple times as a way to reinforce the promises and blessings made in their own ordinances. Win-win, Mormons feel.

    I agree that the “improperly” needs to be said by a Church spokesperson, or else it’s just garden-variety discomfort with the idea of LDS temple work, and that’s not news. I’m not a Church spokesperson, but would say that given that this was a notable woman who died recently (in the last 100 years, say), her genealogical information should have been submitted by a relative, not just a zealous researcher.

  • Stephen A.

    Jay, the issues being discussed were relevant to journalism and the questions NOT being asked here of the so-called “victims.”