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23rd of January 2018

Economy



The Mormon faith builds bridges while staying true to its self

THE Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon faith, has recently had attention from the secular press for two reasons. One is the death of the faith’s nonagenarian leader; the other is a flare-up over a Mormon practice that complicates relations with Judaism. 

Thomas Monson (pictured), the Utah-based religion’s 16th president, died on January 2nd. He was much revered among the faith’s 16m or so followers for his perceived spiritual gifts, zeal for charity and homely preaching style.

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In Mormon terms he was a cautious moderniser. He boosted the role of women in decision-making bodies and as members of the church’s corps of young missionaries, but resisted demands to ordain female priests. The leader of a campaign for female ordination was excommunicated.

Although Monson epitomised the religion’s custom of having long-lived, long-serving white Americans at the helm, he broadened the church’s leadership by elevating to the inner circle of leaders a German, Dieter Uchtdorf, who proved an active ambassador for the faith.

The church went through some stormy times on Monson’s watch, though. In 2008, the year he took office, it joined other religious groups in campaigning successfully for a vote in California to outlaw gay marriage. In 2015 it backed a law in Utah which barred discrimination against gay people; but later that year it imposed a tough internal regulation saying that people brought up by a gay couple must disavow their guardians’ lifestyle before being fully accepted into the church or being allowed to represent it.

Monson was present in 1978 when the church’s then president, Spencer Kimball, declared that under a new revelation from God, black men would be admitted to the priesthood. This year, Monson led the church in condemning the resurgence of white supremacism.

But church members said he will be remembered not so much for his stances on ultra-sensitive public issues as for his pastoral talents. Stories abound of Monson excusing himself from important meetings because of a sense that somebody elsewhere needed his help. In an era when individual Mormons like Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, gained huge prominence, he was self-effacing. But he had the ear of the powerful when he needed it.

Still, in the last few weeks of Monson’s decade in charge, one of the perennial points of tension between Mormons and other faiths came to the surface again.

This has to do with the practice of posthumously baptising the dead—and thus, from the Mormons’ viewpoint, giving those departed souls the same prospect of admission to the highest ranks of heaven as the faith’s living practitioners.

Jews, in particular, object to their departed adherents being the object of such rites. They say it reminds them of dark eras in European history when their forebears were threatened with death or expulsion unless they converted to Christianity.

Mormons generally make use of posthumous baptism for their own non-Mormon ancestors, but they can also perform the rite for another departed soul to whom they feel close, usually with the consent of that person’s living descendants. The impulse to investigate and then posthumously sanctify one’s forebears is regarded by the Mormons as divinely inspired, and it has prompted them to build up the world’s largest genealogical database.

In 1995 Mormon leaders struck an accord with Jewish groups, agreeing to start a vast effort to remove the names of Holocaust victims from their genealogical records. They promised to desist from posthumously baptising Jews unless they were direct ancestors of living Mormons, or all the person’s living kin assented.

But a former Mormon who researches the subject said last month that at least 20 Holocaust victims had been baptised in the last five years. Deseret News, a paper close to the Mormons, quoted a church spokesman as saying these rites were against church policy and had been invalidated. The paper also quoted a rabbi who monitors the Mormons as saying the controversial ceremonies were an “infinitesimal” exception to a generally well-observed practice.

However the investigator who uncovered the baptisms, an ex-Mormon called Helen Radkey, said “some Jews are making fools of themselves if they think everything’s hunky-dory with the Mormons.”

It’s a striking feature of the agreement made in 1995 that, while expressing deep empathy with Jewish concerns, it stops carefully short of saying that departed Jews won’t be posthumously baptised under any circumstances. In explaining the practice, Mormons often stress that it doesn’t impose anything on departed souls, it merely offers them to a path to ultimate salvation which should be open to all human beings.

As traditionally minded religions go, the Mormons bring a certain subtlety to their dealings with other faiths. They are relatively adept at showing sensitivity to the concerns of others but also quietly firm in sticking to their own beliefs and practices. The fact that they have strong and recent memories of being a marginal, persecuted faith probably helps. Both Monson’s life, and their approach to issues that cause difficulties with the Jews, epitomise that point.

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