Conjuring Conflict: Reportage on Mormon Posthumous Baptism of Jews

by Benjamin Gottlieb

The shamefully shallow coverage of posthumous baptisms that were performed last week on the parents of the late Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal exemplified the mainstream news media's propensity to goose conflict and ignore the kind of contextualization that might complicate a black-and-white narrative.

Last Tuesday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles decried the actions of several Mormon churches that performed baptisms via proxy for Wiesenthal's parents, who were killed during the Holocaust. After the Church of Latter Day Saints issued an official apology, many journalists wasted no time in cranking out stories that revealed little understanding of the practice, its consequences or its history.
 
Posthumous baptisms are nothing new – Jewish and Mormon leaders have negotiated for decades over how to deal with these postmortem baptisms, an essential fact that was absent in much of the coverage of the Wiesenthal episode. Moreover, news organizations such as Reuters failed to inform readers about the origins of the practice and whether it was conducted just on Holocaust victims — an invitation, apparently, to consider religious practice generally, and Mormon practice in particular, as inherently bizarre. 

The New Testament scripture on which the practice is based comes from 1 Corinthians 15:29, which reads: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” And posthumous baptisms, performed via proxy, are not reserved just for Holocaust victims. If day-of coverage of the Mormon Church's official apology could be forgiven the lack of these important bits of context, much of the follow-up coverage, which seemed equally oblivious, was unforgivable.

To insinuate – as did the Los Angeles Times and NPR – that the candidacy of GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney could “conceivably” be jeopardized by the actions of others inside his faith is completely unreasonable. It would be one thing if those responsible for “baptizing” Wiesenthal's parents were regular guests at Romney's dinner table. But that is simply not the case. In fact, many news outlets did not even mention the names of the people who performed the baptisms, choosing instead to portray the LDS Church as wholly responsible.

Also completely ignored in last week's coverage was the fact that these baptisms do not carry any weight in Judaism. A baptism, posthumous or not, could never be considered more than a nice gesture at best. The irony is that both Jews and Mormons have been singled out, at various times, for their “unusual” religious practices. Reporters might pause to consider the biases that have historically shaped their coverage of these religious “others.”

Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured in a variety of news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, CNN International, CNN's “Business 360” blog, NBC Los Angeles, KCET.com and the Santa Barbara Independent, among others. He is currently a graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, pursuing an M.A. in Online Journalism, and serves as the Executive Editor of NeonTommy.com — a 24/7 online-only news publication. He is also the art director of InTheFray.org, an online magazine that explores global issues with personal perspectives and critical analysis. An avid backpacker and self-proclaimed troubadour, Benjamin is constantly exploring new ways to tell stories.
 

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