While visiting a small Franciscan college last week, I toured a nearby historic chapel with the college priest, who learned that I was headed to a family funeral. While knowing I wasn't a Catholic, he offered to say a prayer for the rest of my relative's soul.
I appreciated his gesture and took comfort. I also figured, what the heck, it couldn't hurt. But not everybody feels warm and fuzzy about receiving a proffered benefit of another's religious belief, especially when you're not asked first.
Take the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice of posthumous baptism, where LDS believers represent deceased non-Mormons in a symbolic baptism (hence it's also called vicarious or proxy baptism).
Baptism is required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but under LDS doctrine, the deceased have free agency, the power to accept or reject the proxy baptism. From that perspective, posthumous baptism "couldn't hurt." Current LDS Church members can grant their ancestors and relatives entrance to heaven. Yet each person, even after death, may accept or reject the proxy baptism, so the ceremony isn't binding in any way.
But not everybody feels "it couldn't hurt," and controversy erupted in the 1990s with the discovery that LDS proxy baptisms included many Jewish victims of the Holocaust, with some 380,000 Jews killed by the Nazis appearing in LDS genealogical records. In 1995, the LDS Church agreed to stop the practice for Holocaust victims where descendants did not consent.
Jewish groups strongly objected, partly from the sad Jewish historical experience with forced conversions, and partly from the special regard that Jews have for Holocaust victims and survivors. If the victims were killed solely for their religion, a posthumous conversion - even one grounded in doctrinal free agency, to be accepted or rejected voluntarily - could appear to rewrite the historical record.
Jewish groups aren't alone in qualms about posthumous baptism. Armenian Christian and Russian Orthodox leaders denounced the practice, and earlier this year, the Vatican Congregation for Clergy directed Catholic dioceses not to allow the LDS International Genealogical Index to microfilm and digitize information in parish registers. The Vatican wants to stop posthumous baptism of Catholics, which spokesmen called "detrimental" and "unacceptable."
So sometimes when you think it couldn't hurt, it actually does. I had some readers who believe differently than I do offer to pray for me because of last week's column. One guy even seemed pretty sincere. But it points out one pretty big difference between religion and politics, and a problem for those who want more religion in politics: The whole point of politics in a democracy is to argue about what's best, but with religion, you just can't do that.
We can argue about whether the problem with health care is caused because people aren't faced with the economic consequences of their choices, or if health care isn't like other consumer goods because people don't respond that way to their own health and their physicians. We can argue about whether we should bail out AIG and not Lehman Brothers. But it's hard to argue in any productive way about whether my view of the non-divinity of Jesus is better than yours. After all, listing certain dead people on a secret baptismal list makes some who believe differently absolutely furious.
Religion is all about fundamental belief - and even bringing it up in any discussion is an invitation for everybody to take offense. One man's pithy comment another man finds politically, and religiously, incorrect. And why would we want more of that in politics?
So maybe the separation of church and state makes sense after all. Those who took such umbrage at religious discussion, stated more in terms of my beliefs than theirs, or of the precise religious content of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, should think long and hard about my overall argument against putting more religion into politics.
And thanks to Prof. Mark Kleiman at UCLA, I now have a non-religious way to make the same initial point: Martin Luther King was a community organizer. George Wallace was a governor. Now pick your side of that argument.
Sam Coppersmith, Democratic party activist and former member of the U.S. House, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.