Posthumous Baptism and Liberal Pluralism
Since I’ve written a couple of posts on the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism recently, a number of people -– Jews and non-Jews alike -– have asked why I care about it or why it bothers me. Their feelings about the issue generally fall into one of these three categories:
- I’m Jewish and it doesn’t bother me because the Mormons aren’t actually making these dead people into Mormons, even if they believe that they are doing so;
- I’m not Jewish but it wouldn’t bother me if Mormons posthumously baptized me because the Mormons aren’t actually making these dead people into Mormons, even if they believe that they are doing so;
- I’m an atheist and so the whole concept of souls and baptisms is ridiculous. Do whatever you want with me after I’m dead because I’m dead and it won’t have any impact on me.
At bottom, no one thinks that what the Mormons are doing really matters to the dead people who are being baptized. But it does matter to me.
My problem with posthumous baptism is that it’s disrespectful. Assuming that the dead people don’t know that they’re being disrespected, we can nonetheless assert that it’s disrespectful to the group deemed to be in need of posthumous baptism. Indeed, I’d say it is about as clear a statement as we can get of one group’s belief in the inferiority of the beliefs of another group. It amounts to an invalidation of the choices that people make in their lives and a direct paternalistic challenge to their agency: “We know better than they do and, thankfully, we’ll be able to help them out.”
It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of selling religion door-to-door. If I want to know more about what some other group of people believes, I’m sure I can find them and ask; I don’t need them to come to my door unbidden. What the door-knocking says is simple: I’m wrong, they’re right, and they can help me out if I’ll just be so kind as to invite them in.
But the posthumous baptism makes my skin crawl so much more than the people who wander the streets carrying their holy books precisely because it’s unseen. I’m on a list somewhere to have my soul saved and there’s nothing I can do about it; there’s no door I can shut, no one to whom I can say, “No thanks, I’m all set.”
One of the real keys to living in a pluralistic society is to accept that others will have different beliefs from one’s own and thus to avoid constantly thrusting one’s beliefs in the faces of those others. You think I’m wrong? That’s just fine. You can think whatever you’d like to think. But when you attempt to do something about it, then it seems to me that you’re crossing a line that liberal pluralists don’t cross.
In shutting the door on the people who wants to talk about their faith with me, I assert my agency; I choose for myself and, even if they think I’m wrong, they have to get off my front porch. The rules of our society force them to leave me alone to believe whatever I want, just as I have always left them alone to do the same. With posthumous baptism, people are actively refusing to tolerate me and others like me. That is what makes it unacceptable.