Mormon Baptism Controversy Threatens Romney

An ongoing controversy over a fundamental Mormon practice now threatens to affect the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney, a faithful Mormon. Mormons believe in posthumous baptisms that offer their version of Christianity to deceased souls. Some Mormons have conducted the rite for prominent Jews and Holocaust victims. But that's prompted Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel to call on Romney to denounce the practice. Robert Siegel talks to Howard Berkes, who explains the Mormon baptism ritual and the two decade controversy over the baptism of Jews.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mitt Romney is under pressure today to condemn a Mormon religious practice. It involves Mormons conducting posthumous baptisms of prominent Jews and victims of the Holocaust. The pressure comes from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate.

Romney is not commenting so far, but we turn now to NPR's Howard Berkes in Salt Lake City, where he has covered the Mormon faith for three decades. And, Howard, before we get to Mitt Romney's relationship to all this, can you explain first the Mormon belief about posthumous baptisms?

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Sure. This is a belief that's anchored in the Mormon notion that Christianity strayed after the time of Christ and that the Mormon faith is true Christianity restored. And this means Mormons believe that baptisms that don't and didn't occur in the Mormon faith aren't valid.

Mormon apostle, Quentin Cook had this further explanation of this for me a couple of years ago.

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QUENTIN COOK: The savior said that everybody had to be baptized to enter into kingdom of heaven and so, by proxy, there is a baptism for all of those who are deceased. Now, we concentrate, first of all, on our ancestors and then for the people in the world at large.

This baptism is not binding on them unless they accept it, so we consider this a great effort of love and accomplish our Father in heaven's plan for his children that are deceased.

SIEGEL: And just to clarify, Howard, he's speaking of the deceased accepting the baptism?

BERKES: That's right. These baptisms involve people who have died and have been dead for some time and what happens is that, inside Mormon temples are these baptismal fonts. They're pools of water. They're about the size of a hot tub and they each have 12 carved oxen that are holding them up and there's a line of volunteers who read a long list of names as other volunteers are immersed into the water. They're stand-ins for the deceased.

This is work that is among the most important and sacred tasks for Mormons. They spend enormous amounts of time gathering what has become billions of names and then going to Mormon temples around the world to conduct these proxy baptisms, as they're called.

SIEGEL: OK. Now, how did Elie Wiesel and Mitt Romney get wrapped up in this?

BERKES: Well, Elie Wiesel's name and the names of his father and grandfather recently appeared on a Mormon genealogy list that's used to select people for these posthumous Mormon baptisms. Wiesel called on Mitt Romney, who is a faithful Mormon, to use his stature as perhaps the nation's most prominent Mormon, to condemn any baptisms of Jews and Holocaust victims.

And, you know, this has actually been a major controversy that Jewish groups and the Mormon church have been struggling with for 20 years.

SIEGEL: And, Howard, I want you to explain the argument that the Jewish groups are making to the Mormon church about why they're so unhappy with this practice.

BERKES: This is really pretty simple and I want you to hear what Ernest Michel - he's the chair of the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors - has said about this. He's worked with the Mormon church for years to get some of these baptisms stopped.

ERNEST MICHEL: It is wrong for the church to posthumously baptize dead Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. My parents, who were killed in Auschwitz, would have never agreed to be baptized by the Mormon church and that's why we are so concerned about it.

BERKES: And, simply put, it's people who died because of their faith are being baptized into another faith. That doesn't sit well. Again, Mormons insist that the deceased soul won't accept the baptism if it doesn't want to, so there's really no harm done.

SIEGEL: Howard, the church has apologized for baptisms involving Holocaust victims and prominent Jews and it recently punished a member for doing this. Why does it continue? Why does the practice continue?

BERKES: That's really a good question, since there was this punishment, but that's unprecedented. Maybe that will send a signal. Some want the church to get even tougher.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Howard.

BERKES: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: NPR's Howard Berkes speaking to us from Salt Lake City.

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