As the fate of Mitt Romney (and, for those of us in Mormon History / Studies, yet another golden age of national attention surrounding all things Mormon) hangs in the balance, Mormon-Jewish relations have dominated religious news coverage over the past two weeks.
The Mormon practice of "proxy baptism" or "baptism for the dead" typically strikes outsiders as odd, but it offends some. For nearly twenty years, a variety of Jewish groups have complained about proxy baptisms done by Mormons on behalf of Holocaust victims, and the Catholic Church has also expressed concerns about the practice.
Many good essays and posts have appeared over the last ten days that place this ritual in its historical and theological context and attempt to mediate between Mormon and Jewish concerns. In particular, see Jana Riess's Religious News Service blog post and Samuel Brown's Huffington Post piece.
I chime in here. I can certainly understand the complaints of non-Mormons that proxy baptism violates the memory of their ancestors.
Still, in my mind there are primarily two ways to understand the rite. For Mormons, proxy baptism is a sacred task of bringing their ancestors into celestial glory, of rebuilding family connections that will persist for eternity. The church is attempting to provide an opportunity for the departed to respond to the gospel in the afterlife. From the earliest days of the ritual (which Joseph Smith introduced in 1840), Latter-day Saints have not always been content to provide for their own ancestor's salvation. Early Mormons were baptized for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the explorer Zebulon Pike. If memory serves me correctly, Latter-day Saints were baptized for deceased American presidents, with understandable delays for Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. Technically, though, all of the recipients of proxy baptism are non-Mormons, whether related to Latter-day Saints or not.
For non-Mormons, all of this is nonsense. While historians and pundits continue to debate whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, no one believes they were Mormons. Same for Adolph Hitler and Anne Frank. I would be amused, not offended, to learn that Mormons had been baptized for my grandparents (one of whom, technically a step-grandfather, was Jewish). If one doesn't believe that proxy baptisms in the basements of Mormon temples actually provide a opportunity for those gone to the spirit world to posthumously obtain salvation, then there really is very little cause for concern.