As a progressive with a Mormon heritage, this year has been a difficult one, as I've been forced to witness sheer religious bigotry by the religious right, some of whom have justified opposition to Mitt Romney because he is Mormon. Such evangelical Christians believe this means that he belongs to a non-Christian religious cult—as though this claim, whatever its merits, was somehow relevant to assessing whether Romney could serve adequately as President. Never mind that virtually every set of religious beliefs that each of us does not share are likely to seem strange and foreign. Given this already-unhappy experience, it was especially disappointing to watch Lawrence O'Donnell attack Romney for his church's practice of baptism for the dead. He used a "former" Mormon, Helen Radkey--which any one should know means an anti-Mormon--to foster sentiment against the church. In addition, he interviewed Ellie Wiesel as one who had objected to this practice, and especially its being carried on with respect to victims of the holocaust. Wiesel reported that he had urged Romney to come out against the practice, even as he acknowledged that the church had agreed not to engage in the practice as to the Wiesel family. Though O’Donnell did acknowledge that the practice is universal, and entails the goal of performing proxy baptisms for literally every person who has lived on this earth, he went on to underscore that such baptisms have been performed for Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Wiesel suggested in the interview that this practice put holocaust survivors “in the same category” as Stalin and Hitler.
Wiesel’s rejection of, and even unhappiness with, this particular Mormon belief and practice, is quite comprehensible. But the attempt to sum up the controversy thus engendered, especially as quickly as it was done here, served as a device to reinforce anti-Mormon prejudice—which was the real point. (See a response in the Deseret News) The Latter Day Saint (LDS) belief rests on a widely embraced Christian doctrine; its premise is that it is a divine commandment that those seeking eternal salvation should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The LDS enlargement on this theme is that salvation is universally made available by the practice of individuals being baptized by proxy for, and on behalf of, those who have died. (Wiesel is entitled to his view of Mormon doctrine and practice—but he could have figured out, even from O’Donnell’s presentation, that the only relevant “category” that Holocaust survivors belong in, that also features Hitler and Stalin, is human-kind. Is someone really going to find it unacceptable that Mormon doctrine contemplates proxy baptisms for literally everyone who’s lived on the earth? And if so, what of Christians who insist that Christian baptism really is a universally required commandment, and one implication is that one who never heard of Jesus Christ while living on the earth is simply damned? ) The apostle Paul in the New Testament specifically suggested that this very practice strongly confirmed the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead: “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?”
Religious right advocates ignore the spirit of the separation of church and state, not to mention the constitutional ban on religious tests for federal office. Early state constitutions had prohibited non-believers, and in some cases Catholics or adherents to Judaism, from holding public officer. This is a religious test. But even if some evangelicals miss the point of the constitutional provisions, at least they display a quite sincere set of religious views. One senses, by contrast, O'Donnell's indifference to any theological issues raised by his attack. He just supports the Democratic candidate, President Obama. So anything that portrays Romney in a bad light is “game on” for O’Donnell. He insists, of course, that he just wants to have a good right/left debate, but it isn't hard to perceive his awareness that Santorum would be easier to beat. To seek to enhance any animus that exists, simply to foster partisan ends, O'Donnell exploits the real opposition to the church's practice; but it's an opposition that does not tell any one anything of importance about Mitt Romney. Surely we can all be quite certain that Romney had nothing at all to do with baptisms for the dead of holocaust victims or of the family of Elie Wiesel.
O'Donnell objected on the same program to a political ad that fostered anti-Chinese, xenophobic sentiment. Does fostering anti-Mormon sentiment really rise any higher? At the level of hyper-partisanship, O'Donnell's efforts rival similar efforts by Sean Hannity. Does advancing the cause of partisan victory justify promoting hostility toward a minority religion? Hannity's attack on Obama's minister over-simplified everything. Objections to the reverend’s theological views, and the implications he derived from them, are certainly understandable. But Hannity had not the slightest interest in trying to understand how an African American religious thinker could hold such views. More importantly, it mattered not a whit to Hannity that the attempt to link those views directly to Barack Obama, and to suggest that those views would come directly to the White House, was preposterous. Does O'Donnell's treatment of the Mormon Church raise the bar at all? I think not.