The Washington Post has a long piece by Jason Horowitz about Helen Radkey, an extraordinarily unpleasant woman who, having been excommunicated from Mormonism, spends her life trying to embarrass the LDS church. Her focus is on the practice of posthumous baptism and marriage, especially of Jews.

The story is well-written and compelling: the weirdnesses of unfamiliar religions are always stranger than the weirdnessess of familiar religions. Mormons believe that they can perform rituals to make dead Jews into Mormons; fundamentalist Protestants and hard-core Catholics believe that a loving God torments dead Jews throughout eternity for not being Christians. One of those beliefs is strange, and the other is familiar; but it doesn’t seem to me that the strange belief is the more offensive of the two.

But the story’s opening paragraphs are something the reporter should be ashamed of, and the headline is something the editors of the Washington Post should be ashamed of. The headline reads:

In Mormon Files, Researcher Helen Radkey Seeks to Cause a Headache for Romney

That’s consistent with the lede:

Mitt Romney has major headaches named Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. This month, he also had Helen Radkey.

Foul! Unconstitutional roughness, journalist. Fifteen yards. First down. “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Let’s say this once, so it doesn’t have be said ever again: Mitt Romney is no more accountable for posthumous conversions than Rick Santorum is for clerical child molesting and cover-ups, or Barack Obama for the Rev. Mr. Wright’s Biblical exegeses. “Sunday beliefs” should be presumed irrelevant to the conduct of public office unless and until a candidate chooses to invoke them. There are a dozen good reasons not to want Mitt Romney to be President, but his religion is not one of them.

Footnote Many Jews will be outraged to read that their forebears have been posthumously converted to Mormonism. But I think we should take it in the generous spirit in which it is intended; if the Mormons, unlike orthodox Christians, want to save us rather than having us burn in Hell, we don’t have to believe that they can succeed to be grateful for the kind thought.

Or we could instead accept it in the the spirit reflected in the old story about the elderly, pious Jew who, on his deathbed, tells his eldest son that he needs something. The son approaches the bedside and says,

“Yes, Abba, what do you want?”

“I want a priest.”
“A priest? What do you want a priest for?
“I want to convert.”
Convert? You’ve been an observant Jew your whole life! Why should you want to convert?”
“Better one of them should die!”

Update From our “It’s-always-even-weirder than you thought it was” department:

A commenter on the WaPo website was diligent enough to search the LDS homepage and discover an official Church discussion of the issue. That discussion points to a passage (First Corinthians, 15:25-19) which seems to refer to a similar practice in the early Christian church. Here’s the KJV translation:

For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy [that] shall be destroyed [is] death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under [him, it is] manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. 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?

Sure sounds as if some early Christians underwent a second baptism on behalf of the deceased (perhaps relatives or friends?). The floor is open to anyone who knows the orthodox Christian take on this passage. As far as I know, non-Mormons no longer practice such a rite, but it does seem like a reasonable reaction to the otherwise intolerable thought that someone is suffering through eternity.

Just a reminder here: the belief in the eternal damnation of non-Christians, attributed above to “fundamentalist Protestants and hardcore Catholics” is indeed held, today, largely by fringey people, most of them with hard hearts and weak minds. But virtually everyone who called himself a Christian up until the 18th Century would have believed it: and believed, moreover, that adhering to the wrong brand of Christianity also led to Hellfire. Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather wouldn’t have considered that belief remotely controversial, and they would have had St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and John Calvin on their side.

Progress comes slowly, but it does come: that’s why conservatives need to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.