The Mormon practice of proxy ordinance work has once again made its way into the news, this time involving someone no less prominent than our U.S. President’s late mother. In recent years, the baptism of deceased Holocaust survivors has been a festering sore spot for Jewish groups, which have complained about it repeatedly to both the Church leaders and Latter-day Saint political leaders such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Today, concerns over the proxy work performed by Church members were raised anew when a political blog reported that someone had apparently done the Temple work for Barack Obama’s late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in June of last year. A spokeswoman for the Church today said that the Church is investigating the matter as a “serious breach” of Church policy (given that Barack Obama is not known to have any immediate relatives who are Latter-day Saints and could have properly submitted Ms. Dunham’s name for proxy work). The Daily Herald further reported that Ms. Dunham’s name had been “submitted multiple times by at least three people in three states.”
While the Church has repeatedly sought to prevent these sorts of baptisms (except in cases where it is direct descendants requesting the temple work be performed), the difficult nature of that task makes it not all that surprising that these efforts have fallen short. As a result, the issue has cropped up again and again as the practice of posthumously performing ordinance work, especially for those with no connection to the Church, strikes many as presumptuous and even offensive. In my experience, however, when I’ve taken the time to explain to inquiring colleagues and friends that these proxy acts don’t unilaterally make these individuals members of our Church, but instead merely allow those who have had the work done on their behalf to make a choice to accept or reject those ordinances in the hereafter, it has typically seemed to allay their concerns. Since many faiths damn all those who haven’t been baptized and/or accepted Christ in this life to hell, our proxy work can seem mild in comparison. This has made me wonder whether, for many, the controversy surrounding the practice of posthumous ordinance work would be drastically toned down if they had a better understanding of what exactly was being done and what it signified. The trouble is that news stories and headlines often tend to mislead. For instance, the blog that broke the Obama story alleged that Church members had run into trouble before by “forcibly baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims – in other words, converting them to Mormonism.” To be fair, there were many news outlets today that did a pretty good job characterizing the situation, but even when they have, I wonder whether the nuance is lost on a lot of readers.
Clearly, the Church policy of submitting only the names of one’s family members for posthumous ordinance work is a wise one, but it’s a difficult one to enforce. Church leaders are reportedly making changes to the “massive genealogical database to make it more difficult for names of Holocaust victims to be entered for posthumous baptism by proxy.” It’s not clear, however, how these rumored changes would have prevented the baptism of someone like Ms. Dunham.
I’m curious what others make of this situation. How should the Church respond here? What changes can we make to prevent or limit these sorts of situations going forward? And how can we better explain a much-misunderstood practice?