What’ve we Learned?

Whichever way one is voting, I think that we can all be thankful together that this election is about to be over.  Polls suggest that, by however thin a margin, in another week Mitt Romney will need to begin considering whether he intends to go for the full William Jennings Bryan.  Another interim period will begin in which we may ask what effect the election had for Mormonism, before we start asking, again, what effect the next one might have.  I think that this election’s effects mean that the question will be less interesting next time.  Three things come to mind for me so far:

1)       Obviously, Mitt Romney’s candidacy has created a greater base of general knowledge about Mormonism among the public.  In 2004, I found myself correcting a group of MBA students who thought that all Mormons practiced polygamy; this seems unlikely to happen today.  A lexis search for “Joseph Smith” and “1890” – terms that suggest an article recounting basic facts about Mormonism – returns about as many stories since January (182) as it does in all of the 1990s (217).

2)      No more “Model [Religious] Minority.”  The public has learned that Mormons are not, actually, always nice.  From the infamous “47%” business, to Romney’s attitude toward the President during the debates, to his diss of the London organizers of the Olympics, you might read him as either tough as nails and brutally honest or as insolent and duplicitous, but either way it seems hard to fit all of those things into a pre-Romney stereotype of the polite missionary.  Confronting one of the early complaints about his candidacy, Romney (if often accidentally) appeared more human as the campaign dragged on, and, to the extent that he will represent Mormonism for much of the public for years to come, I think this has the entirely benign effect of humanizing a faith that has been stereotyped as super-humanly polite.

3)      No more “cult”?  On October 11th, Mitt Romney went to the mountaintop to be blessed by Billy Graham himself.  Many have speculated that this had more to do with Graham’s son Franklin than with the elder Graham – Billy Graham hasn’t been so overtly involved in politics since the seventies – but either way the event had significance for both Mormonism and conservative evangelicalism.  After the event pundits noticed that, not that long ago, the Grahams believed that Mormonism was a cult; such references were quickly scrubbed but the Grahams’ organization has stopped short of accepting Mormons as Christians.  The blessing of Romney’s candidacy, then, is the latest sign that hot-button social issues and distaste for a President they believe to be, variously, a fake Christian or a real Muslim has overcome theological niceties and forced many conservative evangelicals to back a person they believe to be a non-Christian to lead their Christian nation.  The footwork is tricky, but Franklin Graham wants to lead the dance.  It requires acknowledging that “we do not have a state religion” and that “our Constitution provides for the freedom to worship without interference of government” while also maintaining that a commander-in-chief must “ensure God’s moral law will not be violated.”  It requires the simultaneous emphasis on and abstraction of faith that Romney himself has promoted.  “While there are major differences in the theology of evangelical Christians and that of Mormons, as well as those who practice the Catholic faith or the Jewish faith, we do share common values that are biblically based,” Graham writes, which to me echoes Romney’s appeal to the “nation’s symphony of faith” and generic Judeo-Christian values in his religion speech during the 2008 campaign.

Political acceptance of this abstraction suggests that in future elections evangelical support for Mormons or any other appropriately conservative candidates may be a non-issue. This abstraction seems like a thing that ought to be difficult for those committed to a very specific, heart-felt experience of grace as the only path to the only true religion, but I am hardly one to judge.  The Grahams are of course right – Mormonism is not a cult – but it also seems pretty plain that the decision to abandon this false belief arises out of political expediency that may be, at best, explained as service to a number of other false beliefs, such as that President Obama might “create a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods.”  The act of acceptance is to be applauded, but its circumstances make it look an awful lot like a mogul on the slippery slope to the secular society in which people like me would be perfectly happy.  That, then, may be the most surprising consequence of Mitt Romney’s campaign: by forcing those most devoted to religion’s place in politics to make a decision between “values” and “faith,” he may succeed in making the religious element matter a bit less for everyone.


Sharing a Name

A family member of mine shared this photo on Facebook a few days ago. This came as a shock, as I have known this person for most of my life and have never once heard her say anything even remotely religious – she has never used any religious language at all in my presence, not even the commonplaces of funerals or the casual apocalypticism of contemporary politics. Doesn’t attend church, doesn’t have anything in her home to suggest that she harbors any opinion of Jesus at all, actually, one way or the other. But confronted with the knotty challenge of the compulsory share (vile heir to the compulsory email forward, the chain letter, and whatever came before the chain letter) she could not ignore the child’s scrawl of Jesus’ name on notebook paper as a confession of faith, had to say that she loved Jesus if the only proffered alternative was to “keep scrolling” and say that she did not love Jesus.

How come? I have no intention of judging her sincerity – she may indeed have very strong feelings about Jesus of which I was just unaware – but the fact that this Facebook share is the first time it’s come up might reasonably suggest that she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus or her love for him. What matters, I’d say, is the name: being associated with that name matters a great deal, even to people with no discernible religious convictions. My family member is a good person, a very good person, and I think that to her, saying that she loves Jesus is part of being a good person, or maybe that she equates being a good person with being a lover of Jesus – a Christian. The point is that whatever the name means, she wants to be associated with it.

The name matters so much, it always has. Justin Martyr complained about how much it mattered to Roman authorities in the second century – why, he wondered, was owning the name by itself enough to get you executed, when a mere label really meant nothing beyond the actions that it might indicate. “From a name neither praise nor punishment could reasonably spring, unless something excellent or base in action be proved.”

Justin wanted only to be able to claim the name without it leading to death; today the stakes aren’t quite as high and the social calculus is reversed – most anyone interested in who owns the name thinks that it brings praise rather than punishment, that it’s something to be earned rather than an accusation. Like a lot of evangelicals, Ben Witherington over at The Bible and Culture doesn’t think Mormons are Christian, doesn’t think they have a right to that name. The details of why he thinks that don’t really matter, because the “question” of whether or not Mormons are Christian is not about trinitarianism or canon or the details of how salvation operates – as an accomplished student of church history, Witherington surely knows that there are good arguments about historical variety on all of those points, that neither creed nor canon is as cut and dried as he makes it out to be. Likewise, the Mormon impulse to argue the point comes partly from the sense of insult to something precious (their relationship to Christ), but at the end of the day that’s not the main motivation, because no one, Mormons included, needs Ben Witherington to validate their personal Christianity. The question is about what one thinks is at stake in who gets to own the name, whatever it means.

What does Witherington think is at stake? He is concerned about “false assumptions” – that people in general and Christians in particular not operate under the false assumption that Mormons are Christian. This has immediately to do with voting, of course, but also to the burden that many evangelicals think they are under to combat “false religion” generally (a burden enunciated much more honestly with respect to Mormonism by Warren Cole Smith last year). Traditionally, various sorts of competing Christians have vilified each other for doing it wrong because the stakes are eternal – doing it wrong jeopardizes one’s soul, and talking about your way of doing it wrong jeopardizes everyone else’s.

It’s not clear to what extent Witherington thinks souls are in danger, though. While making the standard concession that Mormons are good people and all of that, he goes a step further and adds this: “It is of course true that there are Christians who are a part of the Mormon religion.” He calls these “confused Christians,” and as far as I can tell what he means is that there are people who are practicing Mormons who lack both a complete understanding of Mormonism (and therefore are not fully responsible for their heresy, not knowing what it is they are claiming to believe?) and a complete knowledge of the true teachings of the New Testament (which would lead them to get out of Mormonism). For one thing, the presence of “true” Christians among Mormons would seem to lower the eternal stakes on the “false” characteristics of Mormonism. For another, though he bases his definition of true Christianity on not just the Bible but also on knowledge of “what the historic creeds and confessions of the church have understood the Bible to say and mean,” here Witherington seems to define it by a lack of knowledge: not knowing enough about your own false religion or about true Christianity might leave one a Christian, it seems.1

If he doesn’t find souls to be in danger, exactly, then what seems to be at stake is protecting the name itself – a fetishization of both the word itself and of how the world might perceive it, concerns which Justin Martyr perceived in a rather different way than does Witherington. Witherington is emphatic that drawing boundaries around theological details is essential and that “to trivialize important theological issues” is “an insult to the earliest Christians, many of whom died for their monotheistic and Trinitarian beliefs,” which Justin might think is an odd thing to say, since he thought they were dying over a name they wanted to be associated with.

[If you think Jesus is a pretty swell guy, share this post on Facebook. If not, criticize me harshly below.]


1 Perhaps Witherington means that these “confused Christians” are people who have experienced grace: the truly converted who are caught up in the wrong outward expression of their salvation.  This would seem to present its own problems from an evangelical perspective, and again begs the question whether or not he thinks souls are in danger.

Transparent Things

When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!

Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things

Last Saturday, my wife and my mom and I visited the Kirtland temple, the site of many of Mormonism’s formative events.  Among many other things, upstairs in the temple we saw a desk said to have been used by Joseph Smith – one of those chairs with a writing surface attached, a nineteenth-century version of something like you’d see in a college lecture hall.  There was a rope across the chair, its meaning obvious, because if you are the kind of person who would find himself standing next to that chair, you are likely to also be the kind of person who would want to sit in it, and, well, it can’t be expected to bear us all. [Read more...]

Other People’s Dead

The most recent controversy over Mormonism’s practice of posthumous baptism reached its peak in February when it came out that Eli Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, had ended up on a to-be-baptized list.  Wiesel called on Mitt Romney to condemn the practice of proxy baptisms for Jews, particularly Holocaust victims, echoing complaints made by Jewish leaders in the early nineties.  The Church has apologized profusely and maintains that they have made every effort to keep Holocaust victims off of the rolls; the latest cases, officials said, are the consequence of overzealous members ignoring the rules.

The LDS Church performs posthumous baptisms to give the dead the opportunity to accept the faith and be united with their families in eternity, even if they failed to hear or listen to the Mormon message during life.  Intense public controversy over the practice goes back more than twenty years and has come from Christian as well as Jewish groups – both the Anglican and Catholic churches have taken steps to restrict LDS access to their historical records, objecting, as a 2008 Vatican letter put it, to the “erroneous practices” of Mormons and seeking to protect “the confidentiality of the faithful.”

Institutional churches and certainly Jewish leaders such as Wiesel have an undisputed prerogative to police the boundary that is crossed by proxy baptism, but our immediate acceptance of this fact has occluded the question of what boundary, exactly, that is.  By definition, no one who objects to the practice believes that it has an actual effect on the dead – the Catholic Church and many others do not recognize Mormon baptism as valid for the living, let alone for the dead.  Moreover, while the central word in many critics’ objections has been identity – that the Jewish identity, for example, of the dead is impugned when they are posthumously baptized by Mormons – this implies that the practice has a rhetorical power for non-believers that actually seems to be as lacking as the practical.  Do non-Mormons really think differently about the baptized dead or believe that a dead person’s rights of self-determination have been meaningfully impugned by being listed on a Church form?  If one believes that what happens is that a Mormon gets wet and the eternal adoration of God continues unaffected, or the Universe remains silent, or Grandma goes right on playing checkers with Jesus, why condemn a practice that even critics can recognize as well-intentioned?  The answer, I think, is that the objections – like the practice itself – are not really about the dead, but about us, the living.

There are two related factors that motivate both proxy baptism as a practice and the opposition to it, and both of them have everything to do with the living.  One is our natural desire to feel that we are doing something for the dead.  Like gravesite flowers and memorial funds, asserting the interests of the dead is an act of memory and honor, the “she would have wanted it this way” that lets us continue to feel a connection to those who are gone.  This desire for connection animates proxy baptism and the objections to it.  A couple of weeks after Wiesel’s statement, reports circulated that Daniel Pearl, the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter executed in Pakistan in 2001, had been posthumously baptized, and the heartfelt statements of opprobrium from his parents and his widow are moving enactments of this ongoing connection.  “He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed,” Pearl’s parents wrote.  “For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this un-called-for ritual.”

Such statements are also, though, assertions of authority over Pearl’s memory from the people who knew him best, simple observations that as a member of their family he belongs to them, not to the Mormons in Idaho who baptized him vicariously.  This rhetoric of possession is everywhere in the controversy over posthumous baptism.  As an Anglican official stated in 1991: “The concern is that the baptism of the dead is an interference with the souls of dead Anglicans which the Mormons want to acquire” (“Church fears Mormon bid to take over dead souls,” The Observer, March 24, 1991; emphasis mine).

The question of staking a claim to the dead is particularly fraught when it comes to those who become fixtures of public memory.  Soldiers, victims of disease and violent crime – these dead become our symbols, ways for us to talk about the value of a cause, the consequences of a problem.  What they as symbols are likely to mean or are capable of meaning is affected by the way they lived or the way they died, but those meanings are ultimately decided by the living, because all graves are equally silent.  Holocaust victims, obviously, fall into this category, and the borders of their memory and their meaning as symbols are forcefully policed, with good reason.  In addition to echoing the forced conversions of earlier eras, for Jews proxy baptism appears to be an attempt to make a claim on these most sacred dead.  Applauding Mormons’ ready commitment to the 1995 agreement to stop baptizing Holocaust victims, a Canadian rabbi summarized the problem, making these connections and the stakes of possession explicit.  “In the classic format of a medieval scenario,” he wrote, “without consultation with their surviving descendants, our martyrs were being posthumously baptized” (Jordan Pearlson, “Involuntary conversion out of style,” The Toronto Star, October 21, 1995; emphasis mine).

The affront found in posthumous baptism is to the belief that the dead belong to us, which is, ironically, precisely the belief that motivates Mormons to practice it – the goal of proxy baptism is to unite you with your dead for eternity.  This sense of possession is affirmed in the Church’s official policies, sternly reiterated in the wake of each scandal: “The policy of the Church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors” – that is, for the dead who belong to you and to whom you will belong.

As not just a non-Mormon but a non-believer altogether, I’m inclined to think that the dead are indifferent to all of this, but not that the stakes are lessened for having more to do with us than with them.  For my own part, I freely hope that some LDS friends will remember me in the event of my demise – I don’t expect it to make a difference, but I can’t see any downside to hedging my bets.  Like the other dead, I’ll be beyond caring, but the living keep their own counsel.