That’s the implication of this angry piece by David Velleman, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan. Reading about the activities of certain evangelical groups to proselytize in the wake of the tsunami catatrosphe (some of which, I agree, are more than a little insensitive), Velleman reflects upon his discovery, over a decade ago, that his long-dead family (Dutch Jews, all) had been subject to some proxy proselytizing themselves:
When I first became interested in genealogy, I learned, as all genealogists do, that the best source of genealogical information is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints….Visiting the Mormons’ Family History Center in Ann Arbor, I found microformed output from a database that listed many of my Dutch aunts, uncles, and cousins, along with their dates of birth and death. The database identified the source of this information, which I was able to borrow from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Entitled “List of Dutch Jews, Prisoners, and Missing Persons Who Died in Concentration Camps During the Second World War”, it collected post-War issues of a Dutch government periodical that had published lists of Dutch Jews and what was known of their fate….
The Mormons had copied names and dates from the Dutch government lists into their own database, whose output was stored on microfiche at my local Family History Center. Next to the columns listing biographical information were three additional columns, containing very recent dates, interspersed with the notations “CLEARED” and “UNCLEARED”. These columns were almost certainly records of proxy baptisms….Ten years after having learned this information, I have still not digested it. It is, I think, indigestible. Missionaries were rushing to the scene of the Holocaust, 40 years after the fact, in order to convert the dead. Mormon proxy baptisms can be performed only for identifiable individuals who are known to have died. The Holocaust, and the meticuluous records kept by its perpetrators, provided a bountiful harvest of souls ripe for saving. As a source of potential converts, the recent tsunami pales in comparison.
I don’t think that my relatives were actually converted to Mormonism. But the Mormons thought so. Of course, the Mormons also thought that they were saving my relatives from an eternity spent in purgatory, or worse. They meant well….[But with] good intentions like these, I say, hell can have superhighways. Try as I might, I have never been able to comprehend what my aunts, uncles, and cousins endured on this side of the gas chamber. Anyone who thinks that he understands what happens on the other side, and understands it well enough to meddle there, is suffering from monumental hubris, self-certainty of a kind that fuels inquisitors, crusaders, jihadists….The tsunami proselytizers and proxy baptists believe that they have divine authority to bypass discussion altogether. They aim to change minds by any means necessary–or, at least, by means that come uncomfortably close to force and extortion.
I’ve no idea how Velleman can move from private religious ceremonies provided by proxy to “force and extortion”; I can only assume that what we have on display here is that particular resistance to religious (as opposed to other forms of) ritual which many secularists suffer from. That is, as Nate observed on his other blog, for many philosophical liberals “there is something uniquely threatening about religion qua religion.” Of course, I may be doing Dr. Velleman an injustice; perhaps he would have been just as wounded to discover, for example, a political party which used the words and actions of Dutch Jews like his extended family to elicit support for some radical movement that he disagreed with to be equally distasteful. One wonders.
That’s not to deny that there is something unique about religion, which is why, all things being equal, our laws and informal habits regarding schooling, the workplace, and social interaction generally are more flustered by the presence of religious demands and perspectives than by any other sort of non-conventionality. And which is also why the church has been right, I think, to put a stop to the proxy baptism of Holocaust victims. The Shoah was an act of religious genocide, despite the fact that outward religiosity did not serve as a marker of who was to be killed and who was not. Of course, the question of Jewish identity is one of the oldest and hardest of all European history; the Final Solution, and the despair and strife which followed it, may not have uniformally revivified the religious interpretation of that identity in the minds of most living Jews, but it certainly made them far more sensitive to it than they might otherwise have been. Hence the reactions of a man like Velleman, who does not believe for a moment that Mormon rituals are effacious, and also nonethless takes deep religious offense (though he does not call it that) at their performance. What is so terrible about jihadists and crusaders of all ilk is that they inject religion into matters of life and death in the most forceful of ways. Our temple work has nothing in common with them, and no serious comparison could withstand the slightest scrutiny–yet I can sympathize with the feeling. Religion is about being bound into a place; for all our talk of “choosing God,” the fact is that the religious sensibility is the least chosen, most beholden, of all our given circumstances. It places us, and hence proselytizers need to be sensitive of how their work (both proxy and live!) can be taken to mean tearing people out of their places. We convert neither the living nor the dead through the barrell of a gun, but at the same time, there is no reason not to be cautious in how we do our work, less over-the-top accusations of duplicity and manipulation like Velleman’s be allowed to hide the least kernel of truth.
Of course, sometimes you want to tear people out of their places–to let the Spirit rip things up as it were, right? Yes, there’s that temptation. Years back, when this whole story first broke, a friend of mine expressed disappoint at the church’s caution and respectful backing off–why give an inch?!, was his thought. Baptize them all! Hitler and Stalin and Joan of Arc; as soon as Mother Teresa dies, he said, let’s nab her too. Why should we care what the world thinks? I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, but I admit I kind of admired his attitude. But it’s not my attitude. Even when it comes to temple work, I think it’s more appropriate to tend to one’s own, than to make it seem as though all the places in the world (including, most horrifyingly, the gas chambers of the Holocaust) are equally just open gates that our proxies can help souls pass right on through.