Five years ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Newsweek magazine that he’d participated in Mormon ceremonies to baptize the dead. He didn’t name names.
At a time when he least needed bad publicity about his religion, Romney is now being dragged into a new scandal over his church’s posthumous baptism of Jews, who are rightly outraged by the practice.
The controversy erupted this week after the church was exposed for the posthumous baptisms of the parents of Simon Wiesenthal, a deceased Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to raising awareness about the death camps and exposing the Nazis who’d participated.
The church has apologized, but Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who also survived the Holocaust, says Romney, a Mormon, should also denounce the baptisms since he wants to be the next U.S. president.
“How come he hasn’t spoken out?” Wiesel asked in an interview with MSNBC. “I’m sure he’s not involved in this, nevertheless, the moment he heard about this he should have spoken out.”
The controversy hurts Romney on two fronts. Throughout his campaign he has positioned himself as an unflappable supporter of Israel. His silence about the proxy baptisms may undercut his support from American Jews.
Secondly, his candidacy has been dogged by public skepticism about his religion, which claims to be Christian but whose views are outside of mainstream Christianity. Last week, however, he appeared to be turning a negative into a positive, by seizing upon the adverse publicity President Obama received from Catholics over health insurance coverage of contraception.
"Remarkably, under this president's administration, there is an assault on religion," Romney told a Colorado crowd, "an assault on the conviction and the religious beliefs of members of our society.''
Romney’s efforts to position himself as a champion on religious freedom may now be undone because the proxy baptism controversy once again shines a spotlight on the atypical beliefs of his religion, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormons baptize people posthumously to allow them the “opportunity” to embrace the faith in the afterlife. It’s the reason why the church has one of the largest genealogical databases in the world.
Although the church says proxy baptisms are restricted to members’ ancestors, in the past, reports surfaced that posthumous baptisms were performed without consent for President Obama’s mother, Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank – none of whom were Mormons.
The Vatican has long denounced the baptisms and has asked parishes not to grant Mormon genealogists access to membership records. In 1995, the Mormon Church agreed to discontinue proxy baptisms for Holocaust survivors.
Even so, this controversy never seems to die.
Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.
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