And it’s in the news again. We have Elie Wiesel’s name slated for baptism, baptisms performed for Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s parents, baptism performed for Anne Frank (for the ninth time!), baptism performed for Daniel Pearl (who was killed in part, at least, because he was Jewish), and baptism performed for Gandhi. This in spite of the Church’s agreement (in 1995!) to remove Holocaust victims from the database.[fn1]
And, apparently, the Church has now sent out a strongly-worded letter to be read in Sacrament meetings.[fn2] In the letter, the Church (strongly) reiterates the prohibition on submitting celebrity and Holocaust victim names, with potential penalties to follow for improper submissions.
Will this work? Hopefully.[fn3] But I’ve been thinking about possible ways to police the submissions as a backstop.[fn4] Note that I’m perfectly aware that there is debate over whether we should, as a normative matter, care about others’ perception of baptisms for the dead.[fn5] And there’s debate among those not of our faith about whether proxy baptisms are, in fact, offensive. I have no interest in rehashing those arguments, though. Let’s assume that the Church is serious about its policy statement (which I believe it is), and, just for fun, let’s brainstorm how it can implement the policy. A couple ground rules:[fn6]
- Any solution needs to be administratively feasible. Having a bureaucratic level that looks at every name submission is not administratively feasible.
- The solution shouldn’t unreasonably burden people who are submitting names in accordance with the Church’s current policy and otherwise participating in temple worship.
- The enforcement procedure should be effective both with respect to people aware of the policy and with respect to those unaware (because people constantly join the Church, get older, etc.)
- I’d just as soon that the enforcement be prophylactic; I’m not a big fan of threatening discipline for violations, if we can prevent the violations from happening.
My proposal has two parts. Step one would be to only permit people to submit their direct ancestors for proxy baptism. Until recently, this probably wasn’t technologically feasible, but I suspect it is today. On the new FamilySearch, when I’m logged in, I can only see my direct line of ancestors. I can’t even see my wife’s; if I wanted to look at her family tree, I would need to log in as her.
Step two would be to time-limit this limitation. If a person has been dead for, say, 100 or 150 years (or however many years the Church determines is appropriate), a member could submit even a non-ancestor’s name for temple work.
Step one is in line with the First Presidency letter, which states that our “preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors. Those whose names are submitted for proxy temple ordinances should be related to the submitter.” If that’s the program—and it’s how I understand the program to be—then such a limitation (again, that wasn’t technologically feasible until recently) doesn’t impinge on our spiritual duties or growth.[fn7]
Step 2 provides two things. First, time. Time to educate members, and time for the celebrities to no longer burn as brightly in our minds. And time to educate our neighbors about what we understand baptism for the dead to represent. It also gives us time to make affirmative statements, ones that might be taken seriously, rather than defensive statements, when an improper name is discovered and the Church is forced to respond. Second, it meets the needs of temple attendees. Most of us (meaning, me, and I’m universalizing my experience) don’t submit enough names to the temple.[fn8] In order to provide a temple experience to all of the patrons who come, the Family History of the Church extracts names from old records.[fn9] Step 2 will allow this extraction work to continue; it would make ineligible a swath of names, but a new group would become available every year.
It’s clearly not foolproof; if you really wanted to do the 10th baptism for Anne Frank, you could find a way. But it would force you to be affirmatively deceptive, and to work to run counter to Church policy; that provides a mens rea that, in my mind, is more conducive to loss of privileges or discipline or some other stick.
So what do you think?
[fn1] Yes, I know Gandhi isn’t a Holocaust victim, so he’s not technically covered by the agreement.
[fn2] I say “apparently” because the letter doesn’t seem to have reached Chicago yet; still, I assume it’s coming.
[fn3] At least in the short-term. Letters are read, and then disappear (seriously, there’s no archive that I know of, although the existence of the Newsroom may be changing that for the future). So if you’re not in Sacrament meeting the week it’s read, or your kids are noisy, it may not stick. Moreover, remember that this comes 17 years after the prior letter: in 17 years, we may have people submitting who were those noisy kids when it was originally read.
[fn4] And I’m not the only one.
[fn5] Illustration: read some of the comments.
[fn6] Note that these are my criteria, not the Church’s.
[fn7] With luck, it would also limit the number of times ordinances are performed for the same person.
[fn8] Yes, I know some people do, but I imagine it’s a relatively small percentage of the overall Church membership.
[fn9] You can do it too, if you’d like.