Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has been the subject of media speculation for years, although his religion seems to be less of an obstacle than his political past, despite the efforts of a handful of bigots. The Mormon Church, like all large religious institutions, certainly has a history warranting some legitimate criticism. But that history did not enter the mainstream until Elie Wiesel — a Nobel-prize-winning Holocaust survivor and advocate for religious freedom — told the Huffington Post that Romney should "speak up" about the Mormon Church's posthumous baptism.
The baptism issue is not a new one. Over a decade ago, researchers discovered that the Mormon Church was secretly inducting deceased non-Mormons into the religion. Although members of other faiths obviously had no reason to believe Mormon ceremonies had any effect in the afterlife, they were rightfully offended by the disrespect for the deceased beliefs. The outrage was exacerbated by the baptizing of religious martyrs, including Holocaust victims, who died or suffered for their non-Mormon faiths. Unfortunately, the Mormon Church refused to stop the practice entirely (claiming a "right" to baptize the non-Mormon ancestors of Mormons) and instead negotiated with Jewish leaders. The Church has since been caught violating the negotiated agreement by baptizing Holocaust victims with no Mormon decedents.
Whether this is due to a centralized decision to prioritize the saving of souls over temporal agreements (certainly nothing new in world history) or merely the dysfunctions of a large bureaucracy with insufficient self-policing is an issue unto itself. Either way, it is disturbing to see an advocate of religious tolerance try to link this issue to a presidential candidate.
To be fair to Wiesel, he was asked about the practice in an interview. Instead of blaming Romney, he said he did not know if Romney knew about the practice, but if he did, he should speak up. Romney, on the other hand, has already expressed his unwillingness to speak on these and other theological practices. This is a completely fair position, and it was unreasonable for reporters to even ask Romney to speak on behalf of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He's a politician, not a theologian, and he knows that what he says will often be used against him. If Romney tried to use his public office or his campaign to influence Church policy, pundits would read into whatever he said. His policy and Church policy would become linked in the public eye, to the detriment of both parties. And he would almost certainly be violating the spirit, though not the letter, of the First Amendment.
Eli Wiesel's comment certainly doesn't overshadow his past achievements and since it was made in a larger discussion about the Mormon Church's scandal, he shouldn't be judged too harshly. Rather, we should see his comment as a litmus test. Many Americans, even Nobel Peace Prize winners who really should know better, still don't understand or trust Mormonism. Romney has not been attacked as harshly as Kennedy was before becoming the first Catholic president. Yet, ironically, it is the nation's progress in reducing anti-Catholic bigotry that exposes its double standard towards Mormonism. Nobody has asked Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about Catholic child abuse scandals — even though that issue, unlike Mormon baptisms, is actually affected by U.S. law. Santorum is being treated like every other kind of Christian Taliban who wants to shove their religion down the nation's throat. Santorum even goes beyond most of the Religious Right, letting the Catholic Church's outdated policies on birth control (which most Catholics don't even follow and which have probably killed thousands of people) influence his policy making. Romney, in contrast, has adopted the religious right's views on abortion and homosexual marriage, but has focused far more on the economy and foreign policy. And as savvy PolicyMic pundits have pointed out before me, Romney's theocratic desires are probably less than sincere.
The intersection of politics and religion will never be without problems. The United States has made tremendous problems, as outright bigotry is now taboo. Yet, much of the public still makes judgments based on others' religion, especially when that religion is newer and smaller. (Organizations like Scientology, which blur the lines between religion and cult, complicated things further.) It is sad that the only world religion that considers America holy ground has yet to gain the same degree of acceptance as those focused on the Middle East. Just as Americans learned to divorce Catholic politicians from Catholicism and Catholicism from the actions of the Catholic Church, they need to learn to judge Romney and Santorum alike on their character and policies, not religious affiliations.
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