A Controversy From Hell for Mitt Romney

If, God forbid, I were part of Mitt Romney’s press operation, this headline from HuffPost popping up in my inbox would make me strongly consider calling it a day and reporting myself sick:

Elie Wiesel: Mitt Romney Should Tell Mormon Church To Stop Performing Posthumous Proxy Baptisms On Jews

Yes, spurring a sudden burst of high-profile attention for a long-simmering controversy, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Holocaust survivor has called out America’s most famous Mormon not named Osmond to try to change an exotic (and to outsiders, a tad bizarre) LDS practice that has drifted into the toxic territory of Christian insensitivity to Jews. Here’s the brief summary from Andrea Stone:

The Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke to The Huffington Post Tuesday soon after HuffPost reported that according to a formerly-Mormon researcher, Helen Radkey, some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had submitted Wiesel’s name to a restricted genealogy website as “ready” for posthumous proxy baptism….

The incident follows years of controversy and efforts by Jewish leaders, including Wiesel, to get the Mormon Church to stop the practice of posthumous proxy baptism that many find objectionable.

“I think it’s scandalous. Not only objectionable, it’s scandalous,” Wiesel said of the baptisms.

Negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons, but Radkey says she found that some Mormons had failed to adhere to the agreement. Wiesel was among a group of Jewish leaders who campaigned against the practice and prompted a 2010 pact by which the Mormon Church promised to at least prevent proxy baptism requests for Holocaust victims. Wiesel said that proxy baptisms have been performed on behalf of 650,000 Holocaust dead.

Wiesel’s complaint comes on the very heels of an apology from LDS officials for an unauthorized posthumous baptism of famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

Totally aside from issues involving Jews generally and Holocaust victims specifically, the controversy is likely to draw unwelcome and potentially hostile attention to the whole LDS practice of posthumous proxy baptisms (baptism of the dead, particularly ancestors of LDS members) an important Mormon rite that is closely connected to the better-known Mormon interest in genealogy.

Presumably Mitt Romney will try very hard to ignore the whole controversy, and/or defer to LDS officials. But if it blows up into a major public discussion, it will obviously be difficult for him to avoid or to address without wading into the weeds of strange-sounding (to “Gentiles,” as Mormons call non-believers) practices or looking disloyal to his Church. I’m sure his campaign would love to see a very active news day to bury–no pun intended–the story.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.