GUEST COMMENTARY: The problem of Daniel Pearl’s Mormon baptism

Editor’s Note: Wilmington’s Sister Cities Association organized a Daniel Pearl tribute concert two years ago and plans to do so again in 2012.

By PHILIP A. CUNNINGHAM
c. 2012 Religion News Service

(RNS) A simmering interreligious controversy resurfaced recently with the news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had posthumously “baptized” a number of deceased Jews, including Daniel Pearl, Anne Frank, the parents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and evidently an unknown number of others.

The case of Mr. Pearl is particularly revealing, and holds important questions for Americans’ ongoing experiment in religious pluralism.

Pearl, while on assignment for The Wall Street Journal, was beheaded in 2002 by a radical Pakistani group connected to al-Qaida. Moments before his death, he declared: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish. My family follows Judaism.”

This personal avowal prompted his parents to edit a book, “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.” Dozens of contributors wrote how Daniel’s dying testimony deeply resonated with their own Jewish identities.

Pearl’s Mormon “baptism” through a proxy “stand-in” on June 1, 2011 can seem laughable to non-Mormons who find such rituals meaningless. To others, such secretive rituals seem arrogant. For Jews who understand that Jewishness is communal and that the loss of any member is a loss for all Jews, the LDS practice of posthumously baptizing Jews — especially Jews who were murdered while proclaiming their Jewishness — feels like liturgical grave robbing.

The practice has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Christians because baptism is an initiation into the Christian community based on the free choice of an individual or a child’s parents. At its core, baptism is a public commitment to live a Christian life.

Mormons, who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, feel their proxy ceremonies give the deceased person one last chance to accept Jesus Christ, even in death. They particularly want to extend this post-mortem “invitation” to their relatives and ancestors.

Mormons explain that while they record the dates of the various rites they perform on behalf of the dead, they don’t really know whether their invitations to Christ have been accepted.

Christians who are aware of the long history of forced Christian baptisms of Jews find the LDS practice disturbingly similar, although Mormons argue that no coercion is involved. Indeed, the practice of posthumous baptism, along with other distinctive beliefs and practices, lead many to conclude that Mormonism should not be considered a Christian community per se but a separate (though related) religious tradition.

Mormonism is a distinctively American religious movement with many admirable features. Yet proxy baptisms wound the American experiment in religious pluralism.

The Constitution enables a diverse array of spiritual traditions to flourish; all can freely exercise their own traditions, so long as they do not infringe on the free exercise of others or threaten the common good. But this American religious pluralism implies the need for different religious communities to respect each other’s boundaries and sensibilities.

Perhaps LDS elders felt this to some degree when they agreed in 1995 to stop posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims “out of respect for a group of people unique in all of history.”

However, the case of Daniel Pearl shows that the problems of proxy baptism aren’t limited to Holocaust victims. Because of Judaism’s communal sense of identity, performing this ritual for any Jews without their community’s consent raises basic questions of fairness and respect.

It took Christianity five centuries or more to define key doctrines about Jesus Christ, and it took rabbinic Judaism many centuries to become the normative way of being Jewish. The spiritual customs of all living religious traditions evolve over time, and perhaps it is time for Mormons to carefully reassess this particular practice, as it has others in the past.

Or maybe people of faith who proclaim that God is merciful beyond human calculation should simply trust that God’s graciousness is not constrained by ritual ceremonies — either our own or someone else’s.

(Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.)

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12 responses to “GUEST COMMENTARY: The problem of Daniel Pearl’s Mormon baptism

  1. There is nothing secretive about LDS Temple rites and ordinances. They are sacred and so only authorized LDS members may attend but the who and what is not a secret. Such “authorized only” restrictions are found in ancient Jewish temple restrictions where only certain men were allowed into the most scared places so this is nothing new.

    The LDS Church published a piece in the Deseret News that says the recent Holocaust and Pearly events could only been done by somewho who deliberately subverted and bypassed the rules and safe guards. The implication is that these were deliberate acts of “sabotage”. (My words.)

  2. The woman who discovered the evidence of misdeeds is a former Mormon who had been excommunicated. It is odd to me that this woman with so much anger would discover these things during a presidential election year where a stalwart Mormon was running for president. We now know someone had to deliberately bypass the safeguards the church put in place to prevent these things from happening in order to submit these names for temple work.

  3. Mr. Fuller, could you tell us more about the safeguards LDS officials use in these cases?

    • Certainly, first some context. The data base which Holocaust Survivor names were located is the IGI, International Genealogical Index which is available to anyone free of charge that has a computer. From the IGI, LDS patrons take names of deceased relatives and submit them to the local temples for the proxy rites. Only genuine, properly instructed and trained members of the LDS Church can submit names although the information about which ordinances have been performed is available to anyone.

      Each time a patron submits a name they have to acknowledge by a check box that the name they are submitting is a relative and there is no other closer more qualified relative to be consulted. That means that cousin Betty can’t submit grandma’s name if any of grandma’s children are still alive. If so, Betty has to consult them first and they must agree. As long as one of the closer relatives agrees the name can be submitted. This then becomes a family matter. Patrons are encouraged to not submit grandma if there is substantial opposition. Dividing families is antithetical to the whole idea behind temples.

      Also, the Church has marked the names of Holocaust survivors and some others (famous people) in the IGI for whom special permission must be granted. That ensures that only legitimate relatives are submitting these names and they are in compliance with the rules. The names of Holocaust victims have been marked so that no one can submit them however somehow that safeguard was circumvented.

      In the weeks since these latest violations were discovered the Church has added that members are subject to Church discipline (excommunication) for deliberate violations. Non-members who willfully take part in violations will be denied access.

  4. “The spiritual customs of all living religious traditions evolve over time, and perhaps it is time for Mormons to carefully reassess this particular practice, as it has others in the past.”

    How DARE YOU ask Mormons to reconsider a fundamental aspect of the religion. Preposterous declaration! Polygamy was actually abandoned to save this and other ordinances considered a sacred duty COMMANDED BY GOD you jerk! Revelations have declared to stop this is to damn the Church and ruin the world! I am more worried about offending God than I am the arm of flesh such as yourself.

  5. OK, I know this is a heated debate, but let’s keep it friendly, folks.

  6. I will NOT keep this friendly. I am sick and tired of “keeping this friendly” and will defend my faith with passion and power. If you knew anything about Mormonism then you would know how much respect Mormons are supposed to have for Jews. Well, this issue is making it very hard to keep that respect.

    • Keep in mind Cunningham is uninformed about our practices and theology behind them. As many traditional Christians believe, there is only a single version of Christianity and they get to decide who is one and who isn’t. They do not know any better.

  7. I will apologize since this isn’t the original source, and only wish I could tell Philip A. Cunningham what I think of his words.

  8. I would like to add that not knowing is not a sin. Choosing to not know but then telling others you do know is bearing false witness. That is sinful. That practice is very common among pastors and others who should know better.

    For example, any person expounding on Mormonism who has not consulted an authoritative current source or person and uses the Journal of Discourses as his source, is not to be trusted. The ONLY viable source is church leadership. Quoting people who died 150 years ago is not always a good idea and leads to serious misunderstanding of current LDS doctrine and practice.

  9. Thank you, Mr. Fuller for your insight into this matter. Do you live in Southeastern North Carolina? If so, I’d love to meet with you to learn more on this subject. I’m the editor of this site and am always in need of knowledgeable voices in all areas of faith. And thank you for reading!

    • Amanda, I live out west. However, there is a sizable number of LDS people in your area who can provide whatever information you would like. One thing about Mormons is that we are a gregarious people who love to talk.

      One source realtively close to you is Southern Virginia University. They observe LDS standards however it is a private institution. Just about any major university has an LDS Institute of Religion for students and is staffed with full time LDS scholars and teachers. We are really big on higher education.

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