The Devil is a good capitalist. Well, that’s the way the story goes. Ever open to increasing his market penetration in the world, the Lord of Darkness was scouting for a low-cost investment with good future earnings potential across the highways and byways of America. And so it is that he encountered a hitherto unknown blues guitarist, or, more precisely, a wannabe blues guitarist by the name of Robert Johnson.
Johnson, it is said, gave/sold his soul in return for mastery of the guitar, an instrument of which Johnson was to very quickly become one of the world’s leading expositors. Whilst it is true that he is now recognised as a true great, he was not recognised as such in his life. Instead, as with many a consumer, it was the proprietors who profit, with many an entertainer dreaming of fame and fortune allegedly following suit in seeking such a Faustian pact.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) should perhaps take it as a compliment that Rabbi Abraham Cooper thinks that LDS’s own brand of malevolence falls short of the Evil One’s trailblazing adoption of the capitalist mode of wealth creation. You see, according to Cooper, when the LDS wants your soul it does not buy it or exchange it for material benefits but rather, more mundanely, simply steals it. Or, more precisely, it ‘hijacks’ one’s soul. Seriously. These are Cooper’s own words as reported by The Telegraph concerning the baptism by proxy of some Holocaust victims.
I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood – the LDS has many things to be sorry for. Off the top of my head: there is the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which approximately 120 individuals, including children, were murdered; there is the horrid (albeit nuanced) history of female subjugation in the practice of polygamy and its continued perpetuation amongst dissident Mormon (non LDS) groups for which LDS owe a continued responsibility, and even the doctrine of celestial marriage is, in my view, a recipe for domestic spousal abuse; there is the history of racism up until 1978; and finally there is Mitt Romney (the last one is – mostly – said in jest).
But there is one thing that the LDS does not have to apologise for, and that is for practising their faith in a manner that does not impinge on the freedom of others – and that is all I can see as happening here. In fact, and I did think how else I could word this but nothing short of bluntness seemed appropriate, Rabbi Cooper’s words of condemnation are nothing less than pure idiocy, particularly given their provenance from a human rights organisation campaigning for tolerance.
It is an idiocy all the more pronounced since this is not an errant statement but an argument that has been pushed time and again over a number of years. That is all the more tragic because it is clear that the Simon Wiesenthal Center does some very valuable work and such puerile tactics threaten their otherwise well deserved credibility. But before getting into that perhaps it’s worth setting out some of the background to the ‘debate’.
Baptism for the Dead
The LDS baptise the dead. (Generally, although inaccurately, LDS is viewed as a synonym for ‘Mormonism’, which is rather like using the term Assemblies of God to describe all Pentecostals, but that is by the by). Saying LDS baptise the dead does not mean a physical rite involving a corpse. If that were the case you can be sure that I would be on the side of Rabbi Cooper! Unlike in much Christianity there is in Mormonism a clear expectation that death is not the end of an individual’s decision to choose God; Joseph Smith, for example, taught that “the greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead.” By performing a rite of proxy baptism (based on 1 Cor 15:29) the LDS believe that those who die outside the faith are offered a way out of Spirit-prison and to enter God’s into salvation – the practice of seeking out the names of all those deceased is, literally, an attempt to declare the universal love of God. Concerning the practice, A Convert’s Guide to Mormon Life sets out this view clearly:
Church members are making every effort to identify every man, woman and child who ever lived on the face of the earth so that baptisms and other ordinances can be performed on their behalf. Until the Millennium, we are seeking out the dead, one name at a time.
This baptism is not, however, sufficient to make a person who died an atheist, Muslim, Christian, Jew or any of the hundreds of other faith and belief system a ‘true mormon’. A confession and decision on the part of the deceased is necessary for that to happen.
And yet, Rabbi Cooper is adamant the LDS are performing a horrendous act of disrespect in baptising by proxy of the parents of Simon Wiesenthal who were victims of the Holocaust. Cooper explains “[w]e are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon Temples. Throughout his life, Simon Wiesenthal especially revered his beloved mother who was deported and murdered at Belzec death camp in 1942,” and further that “[t]heir physical lives were taken, their communities were destroyed and now somebody is coming along, however well-intentioned, and is suggesting that they’re going to rebrand their souls … It just doesn’t compute.”
The difficulty with Cooper’s hyperbole is it misses two points concerning the LDS practice.
First, criticism of LDS’ rebranding of the deceased’s souls is analogous to apologists for Tony Blair or Barack Obama criticising David Icke for stealing their humanity by asserting that they are, contrary to all appearances, actually 10-foot intergalactic reptilians. I assume Cooper shares my conviction that LDS are not actually empowered with the supernatural custodianship of all humanity’s souls and that baptism by proxy is when all is said and done – and with all respect – objectively speaking complete bunkum. So, what precisely is the concern? That Rabbi Cooper could be wrong and Mormonism right? I doubt it.
The LDS have a host of practices that are just plain weird to all external observers but, let’s face it, so do most other faiths. For example, the Santerians have the rite of Bembe in which they ‘mount the head’ and become possessed of animistic spirits and dance, and Christians eat the very body and blood of a man who died centuries previously. Each of the practices reasonable to their participants often look strange or even objectionable to observers (apart from atheists, of course, who are in the privileged position of viewing us all with incredulity!) The call of Cooper to exclude those of Jewish faith from the LDS baptisms amounts to a call to limit the LDS’ offer of salvation to all the peoples of the earth except those of Jewish faith.
That the majority of people do not believe in this LDS God and consider the baptism a waste of good water does not change the fact that such internal theology has the potential to purvey hateful practise. It is only recently that LDS have turned away from their racist theology that denied the priesthood to followers on the basis of race and they have made genuine improvements in this regard; why turn the clock back to a time when salvation is, again, limited by race and creed? We have seen that happen before and I have no desire to see it repeated, however well-intentioned the call may be on Cooper’s part.
The case of the Catholic church is instructive here. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) felt the need to formalise what we all know instinctively, namely the fact that an LDS baptism is not personally valid if one is not a LDS member. With that blindingly obvious conclusion in place the Catholic church has refused to cooperate with the LDS-sponsored genealogical research, with the result that Catholic records are not passed on. What the Catholic church has not done however is to accuse the LDS of denying the Catholicism of those who have been baptised after their death – which is precisely the charge levelled by Cooper.
Second, even if we are to accept that contrary to all reason The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really are the custodians of the souls of our dearly departed (in which case perhaps Cooper and I should team up for a joint act of contrition – I think we may both have some questions to answer!), this still does not amount to branding the souls of the dead as true Mormons. It remains the case, as I explained above, that even after a dead Muslim dies and is baptised by proxy she will remain a dead Muslim, as will the dead Christian remain a dead Christian, the dead Jew a dead Jew, the dead atheist a dead atheist, ad infinitum. Only a positive act of faith by the dead (enabled by the LDS’ baptism) will make the dead change their faith. That is LDS doctrine.
If, as he states it is, Rabbi Cooper’s concern is that Simon Wiesenthal‘s parents lived good lives as faithful Jews and this is compromised by LDS actions, then he has nothing to fear. A faithful Jew who has no other gods but God alone before them will reject the offer of salvation premised on the post-mortem baptism and remain a Jew – it really is that simple. The same, of course, goes for those of all other faiths and for those of none – no member of the LDS faithful is there by anything but choice. In respect of the baptism of the dead I am, then, of the firm conviction that LDS have nothing to apologise for. According to the tenets of their faith they are seeking to ensure every person irrespective of race or religion is offered a route to divine bliss in the afterlife. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Faustian Pact
And so, if talk of deals between the devil and a cadre of militant Mormon soul-catchers is wide of the mark, must the Faustian reference with which I began this essay be put back into the pseudo-intellectual box whence it came? Not quite. The spectre of Faust hovers still above this issue.
The Faustian LDS had a lot, they were a happy bunch, and even though marginalised could still muster a presidential candidate among their number. But they were still seen as outsiders, as a strange religion. Looking for a way to gain respectability they found that some among their number took the belief in the universal love of God too seriously and actually sought to provide a way for every man, woman, and child who had lived to share in the heavenly bliss that awaited them.
When this altruistic desire was unearthed the Faustian LDS apologised for such wanton generosity. This LDS would prefer that the offer of eternal bliss be offered to all except some of those of a certain faith, not because they are not able to access salvation, not because of a heavenly revelation, but because they received illogical representations from a number of pressure groups, and to avoid critical comment are willing to effectively deny such persons the opportunity to respond to the LDS gospel’s call. In truth, the apology called for by this story is for the LDS to apologise for the Faustian LDS’ earlier apology.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I hereby append this message to this article for the benefit of any succeeding generations who may be members of the LDS and are concerned for my soul’s well-being (thank you by the way) but you should note that I am (was) a Christian and believe I have received all the baptisms I need in my life or death and therefore deny that your post-mortem ritual has any salvific efficacy whatsoever. Nonetheless, if you want to conduct a post-mortem ritual on my behalf who am I to tell you how to waste your time? Please don’t be offended if my sincerely held religious beliefs suggest your equally sincerely held religious beliefs are nonsense but, if you must, I guess that’s the price for religious freedom.
PS: Did anyone remember to feed the cat after I died? If not I have a favour to ask but, be warned, it might not be pleasant …