Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stunt Mormons

Or How Anne Frank Became a Convert (again)

          The scene:  Several men and women, all dressed in white, stand at the diving board while Elder Goodenplenty wades into the tub below them.  The water laps at the bottom the elder’s all-white tie as he lifts his head and bellows out several names.
         Goodenplenty: Karl Marx?
         Proxy #1: Here!
         Goodenplenty: King Henry VIII?
         Proxy #97: Right here!
         Goodenplenty: Vlad the Impaler?
         Proxy #34: Who?
         Goodenplenty: Stephen Colbert?
         [Laughter from the proxies.]
         Proxy #1:  Stephen Colbert’s not even dead.
         Goodenplenty  (smirking): Yeah.  But we’ll get him. Just a matter of time.
         Proxy #34:  And who’s Vlad the . . . ? 
         Goodenplenty:  Vlad the Impaler.  The original Count Dracula.  Supposedly one of the meanest men who ever lived.
         Proxy #1:  What do we want with him?
         Goodenplenty:  Well.  I’m joking.  Mostly. Vlad’s not on the list. Today.  But everyone deserves a shot. 
         Now, let’s keep things moving. Karl Marx?  Calling Karl Marx.  Is Karl Marx in the house?
         Proxy #1: I said he’s here.  I mean, I’m here.  We’re here. [He shakes his head.]  Why do I have to be Karl Marx?  I mean he was, like, a socialist or something wasn’t he?
         Goodenplenty [smiling]: Sort of.  And, yes, you have to be Karl Marx.  But only long enough to get you in the water. 
         [Proxy #1 sulks.]
         Goodenplenty:  Look.  You know how movie actors have stunt doubles to do the hard stuff?  Well, that’s what you’re doing.  You’re doing something that was impossible for the real Karl Marx.  He never had the chance to be baptized.  So, you’re just standing in for him.  Think of yourself as Stunt Marx.  OK? You good with that?
         Proxy #1: I suppose.
         Goodenplenty: All right, then.  Into the water!
         [Proxy #1 marches forward, takes a bounce on the diving board and executes a pretty good swan dive into the shallow pool. As the proxy surfaces, Goodenplenty nods approval.]
         Goodenplenty: Karl Marx?  You are Karl Marx?
         Proxy #1 (suppressing a grin): Yes.
         Goodenplenty:  All right, then.  Remember to hold your nose; the chlorine is a little high today.  Now.  I baptize you in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost.
         [Proxy #1 swoons and Goodenplenty pushes his head into the water until he is completely submerged.]
         Goodenplenty: Abracadabra!
         [Proxy #1 emerges, sputtering and shaking the water from his hair.]
         Goodenplenty: Elder Marx, welcome to the true church. Next! 
                      *                   *                 *
          Those wacky Mormons!  They just can’t stay out of the news.  Once again, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are on the defensive for one of their quirkiest pastimes: Baptizing famous dead people.
         First, it was reported that the parents of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal had been dipped. Then, theologian and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who is still very much alive, showed up on a waiting list.  Before long, it came out that Anne Frank had also been baptized, apparently for the ninth time.  

         In response to the recent spate of spirit-nappings, church officials quickly apologized and promised the proxies who had performed the baptisms would be disciplined.  Which, I suppose, is about all anyone could expect.  There probably is no ritual to de-baptize an unconsenting convert. And proxy excommunication? That would be silly.
        Anyway, I doubt rejoinders from the Church Apostles will make much difference, at least in the long run.  Although church leaders may be sincere in stating that proxy baptisms should be limited to the deceased ancestors of living members, it is inevitable that the famous and the infamous (even Hitler was supposedly baptized) will continue to be targeted. Why?  Because the Mormons think they’re doing all of us a favor.  It may not be apparent now, while we’re still alive.  But Mormons have the lock on reality.  You’ll thank them some day.
         I suspect proxy baptism of the famous also results from the practical limitations of genealogical research.  Even the most diligent family historian will hit a dead end eventually.  What to do when you’ve run out of relatives? When faced with little hard evidence of a family connection and an ongoing expectation to perform regular "temple work," some of the devout simply err on the side of over-inclusiveness, extending the family tree to those who could conceivably be relatives. 
         From here, it is a short step to baptizing dead celebrities. Even if you have no reason to think you’re related to, say, Karl Marx, there no reason not to baptize him.  And since he and his immediate family have been dead long enough, no one’s around to complain.
         Add to this an element of competition and voila! The perfect storm. 
          Yes, there are church members who compete for bragging rights for baptizing famous historical figuresI have been told that there is, in fact, a person who can boast of nailing Karl Marx.  Someone else got Shakespeare.  Gandhi is now a Mormon. And Abraham Lincoln. William Wordsworth, too.
           Still, the church doesn’t want any old riff-raff.  They have standards. For example, in 1877, the church completed baptisms of all U.S. presidents up to that time—except James Buchannan, Martin Van Buren, and Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was still alive and, I suppose, placed on a waiting list.  But Buchannan and Van Buren, although seriously dead, were snubbed by Church President Wilford Woodruff, who “declined the performance of the Temple work for these two deceased Presidents due to the actions they performed against the Saints during their administrations.”  The two ex-presidents were later reprieved, though; both were baptized, Buchanan in 1932 and Van Buren in 1938.  

                 *                              *                             *
         What's my stake in all this?  In Utah, I am what is known as a "non-member"--a status that gives you some idea of just how theo-centric Mormons are.  As a devout non-member, I guess I’m supposed to be indignant about proxy baptisms.  It’s been called spiritual grave-robbing by the leaders of more conventional Christian sects. How dare those Mormons think they can snatch non-believers after they die!
         Truth is, I don’t understand what fuss is about. Although it seems incredibly cheeky for Mormons to presume that they can abduct the souls of people who lived and even died for beliefs that conflict with or contradict the basic premises of Mormonism, it’s a little hard to understand why anyone would get worked up about it.  To me, proxy baptisms are on par with sticking pins in a voodoo doll.  Even if the doll is a proxy for me, I can’t take offense without giving the practice more credence than it deserves.
         Now, I'm not saying proxy baptism is OK.  But for me, it's not a matter of theology.  It's just simple etiquette.  It's rude for Mormons to baptize the recently deceased, especially when the practice is apt to annoy the proxy convert's surviving family and friends.
        In my view, the parents of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was beheaded in 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan, struck the right tone in their measured response to the news that their son had been baptized after his death.  They called their son’s proxy appropriation “disturbing,” but declined to express outrage or indignation.  According to the Boston Globe, Judea and Ruth Pearl said in an email:

To them we say: We appreciate your good intentions but rest assured that Danny’s soul was redeemed through the life that he lived and the values that he upheld.  He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew, and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed. 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.

*                                 *                                *
         What gets lost in the periodic dustups over proxy baptism is that the practice is an ingenious solution to very a vexing theological problem: What to do about those otherwise decent souls who never got a chance to accept or reject the true faith?
         Many religions recognize that requiring baptism as a pre-condition for eternal bliss is a little arbitrary and unfair.  A sense of fair play is the impetus for missionary programs.  They want to get the word out to those who otherwise will be damned through no fault of their own.
         But the bigger problem is this: Since all religions start at a certain point in time, what to do about the millions or billions of people who lived and died before the church came into existence? How can the dead be punished when there was no way for them to have become converts?
         The answers to this problem have varied.  For Catholics, and, I think, for most Christian denominations, those who aren’t baptized are simply out of luck.  This is harsh, but difficult to argue with.  Indeed, this answer is almost a deductive truth.  If baptism in the true faith is the only way to be saved, those who aren’t baptized are, by definition, damned.
         The unfairness of this policy has spawned many unofficial accommodations: Limbo. Purgatory. Oh, and the harrowing of hell, where Jesus descends into Hades to rescue the Old Testament heroes.  Even Dante, in his Divine Comedy, envisioned an antechamber at the gates of Hell, which served as kind of a rec-room for Greek poets, philosophers or other virtuous pagans who couldn’t be allowed into paradise, but still were not subject to the symbolic retribution wreaked on the sinners in the lower reaches.
         Far as I know, Mormons are the first to address this problem with an official church doctrine.  The practice is based on what the Wall Street Journal characterizes as an “obscure New Testament passage.”  Which is putting it mildly.  The passage comes from St. Paul’s letter to Corinthians, in which Paul wonders: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:29 (KVJ). This is, obviously, taken out of context; but trust me: Even if you read the entire epistle, this passage is gobbledegook. 
         No matter.  Proxy baptism has a life of its own, with or without scriptural license.  According to the Journal article,

  baptism by proxy has its roots in early Mormonism,
  when adherents were troubled by the fact that their 
  ancestors had died before the 1830 founding of 
  what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-
  Day Saints. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith taught 
  that baptism was necessary for salvation and that 
  only those baptisms performed by the true, 
  restored church counted. That left the vast bulk of 
  humanity on the outside looking in.

         So, you have give them credit: Proxy baptism is a very practical solution.  In principle, everyone who’s ever lived will become a Mormon.
         Even the not-so-famous.  Especially, probably, people like me: The non-believers who live at the epicenter of Mormonism--Salt Lake City, in other words.  
         I feel quite certain that I will some day be baptized.  My dad was a lukewarm Catholic, but had a lifelong distaste for Mormons.  Still, I have been told that his name was submitted for baptism by an extended family member who is Mormon.
         And, frankly, I just don’t care.  I don’t believe that Mormonism or any other celestial Ponzi scheme has even a remote chance of being true. 
         Then again, on the outside chance they are right, it’s no skin off my soul.  As long as I don’t have give up coffee, Wild Turkey or wild women in this life, the Mormons can do what they want with me after I die. 
         I'm not making any promises, though.  After all, proxy baptism only makes me eligible to join.  I can still say no.  And at this point in my hypothetical eternal life, I’m keeping my options open. I won’t say one way or another whether I’d accept a slot in Mormon paradise. 
          Still, I suspect Mormonism will be a hard sell, even in the afterlife.  In the words of future dead Mormon Billy Joel: 

         They say there's a Heaven
         for those who will wait.
         Some say it's better,
         but I say it ain't!
         I'd rather laugh with the sinners
         than cry with the saints.
        The sinners are much more fun.


  1. So what kind of red tape are we talking about here? How does one "get" Karl Marx? Or The Virtuous Pagan, for that matter?

    Wild Turkey?

    uh oh.

    Danger Alice

  2. "Ponzi scheme" is one of the best characterization of any religion or religous ceremony I have heard. Brilliant.....! All religions rely on large numbers of people to buy into what they are selling...and like any good ponzi scheme new investors, in this case dead or alive, must keep contributing, i.e. joining, in order for the scheme to continue to seem relevent. (And make money) Mormons are no exception and are actually masters of any Ponzi or Multi-level marketing opportunity. It will continue to amaze me that as individuals my Mormon friends are smart, clever and appear rational of thought, but as a group they have absurd and outlandish convictions that when explained would give anyone pause and possibly even make Mr. Mitt Romney crack a cheeky "gotcha" smile.

    Go virtuous Pagan.

  3. What happened to the original post? I really liked the scripted version. I feel betrayed. As if my dopamine fix has been subverted.

    Did the Virtuous Pagan succumb to pressure?

    Rock On! (if you dare)

  4. The Karl Marx vignette is still there; it's hyperlinked to the mention of Karl Marx in the body of the blog. I was told that it was perhaps not the best way to get people interested in the piece, so I moved it. I'm open to suggestions.

  5. By the way, my highly placed sources tell me that Jesus was, in fact, baptized. Even though he started this baptism fad, he still had to be anointed in the restored church. I wonder who got Jesus. That a feather in someone's cap.

  6. It was only a suggestion... the Virtuous Pagan is a free thinker... no outside pressure could change his ways... no matter how hard one keeps trying.... ;)

  7. Didn't this used to be 2 separate blog entries?

    Just out of curiosity, Oh VP, how do you suppose day to day function at the white house might change?