Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mormons and Jews

A Public Religion Institute Poll released last Friday indicated that less than half of registered voters could identify Mitt Romney’s religion correctly. The number of Americans overall who could say that Romney is a Mormon was even lower. (The numbers were 49% and 42%, respectively.) That would seem to suggest that, should he get the nod, the governor’s religion will not be a major factor in the race. Nonetheless, I do not believe that will be the case.

That, of course, isn’t to say that most of us won’t wish it to be so. My sense is that an overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans would easily support the notion that a candidate’s personal religious beliefs should be as irrelevant as skin color or ethnic origin when it comes to deciding which candidate is the most worthy. That, however, is clearly not the view of a significant portion of non-Jewish Americans. A Gallup poll from a few weeks ago came up with the result that a full 20% of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon candidate no matter how otherwise qualified he or she might be. The Reverend Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor who leads a gigantic mega-church in Dallas, made a huge stir last month when he declared that in his opinion Mormonism was not even a real religion, just some sort of cult, and that its members were kidding themselves if they thought of themselves as Christians. Rick Perry, Romney’s chief contender and the candidate the reverend is backing, politely distanced himself from that statement. But there’s no question that lots of evangelicals agree with the pastor. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church body in the United States and the second-largest Christian organization in the United States (only the Catholic Church is bigger), has officially labeled Mormonism a cult as well. And the reverend was probably quite right when he responded to his critics, and they were legion, by referencing the Southern Baptists’ stand and adding that, in his opinion, “there are a lot of people who will not publicly say that's an issue because they don't want to appear to be bigoted, but for a lot of evangelical Christians this is a huge issue, even if it's unspoken.” For better or worse, I think he’s probably got that exactly right. (If you’re not sure how far some anti-Mormons are prepared to take this, take a look at and you’ll see what I mean.)

If we exclude information gleaned from watching The Book of Mormon or Angels in America on Broadway, most Jewish Americans know almost nothing about Mormonism. And most Jewish Americans don’t live anywhere near Broadway anyway! What many of us have heard about, and find beyond perverse, is the Mormons’ creepy custom of posthumously baptizing Shoah victims, thus making them—in their own minds only, of course—into ex-post-facto members of the Mormon faith. Correctly called “vicarious baptism” or “proxy baptism,” the practice—condemned by every other major Christian denomination, including the Catholic Church—involves baptizing a living person on behalf of a deceased individual and the Mormons have been doing just that since 1840. The practice, however, is not limited to the martyrs of the Holocaust. Other prominent Jews—including Maimonides, Irving Berlin, and Albert Einstein—have apparently also been baptized posthumously. Nor is the practice limited to Jews: just last year it was revealed that, of all people, President Obama’s late mother was posthumously baptized by Mormons acting wholly on their own. She thus joins Heinrich Himmler, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus in club of unwitting and unwilling after-the-fact Mormons. The whole thing is so patently ridiculous that it is hard to know whether the more rational response should be anger or incredulity. To their credit (and in response in no small part to the Jewish community’s outrage), the Mormons claim to have stopped the practice in 1995. And just last September they agreed to remove the names of all previously posthumously baptized Jewish Shoah survivors from their rolls.

The opinion Jewish Americans have of Mitt Romney should, of course, be a function of his record in the world of business and as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. I wish today, however, not specifically to write about Mitt Romney at all, but about another Mormon, one who seems to have been long forgotten by everybody but who showed uncommon insight and bravery in standing up for Jewish interests when the rest of the world noted the devastation wrought by the Nazis on the Jews of Germany on Kristallnacht, which occurred seventy-three years ago next Wednesday, and then quickly looked away. The man’s name was William Henry King, and he represented Utah in the United States Senate from 1917 to 1941. He was also president pro tempore of the Senate in 1939-1941, which put him third in line to succeed to the presidency should the president have become incapacitated. (Amazingly enough, he was not the only William King ever to serve as president pro tempore. William R. King, our country’s shortest serving Vice President, was president pro tempore of the Senate from 1836 to 1841 and then again from 1850 to 1852.)

By all accounts, Kristallnacht was the end of the beginning of the Shoah, the event that, at least in retrospect, serves as the watershed moment after which nothing was ever again the same for the Jews of Germany. In the course of one evening of terror, over 1600 synagogues were ransacked. Hundreds more were burnt to the ground. Countless Jewish businesses and shops were destroyed. Ninety-one people were murdered in the course of one single evening and over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and carted off to concentration camps. (Of them, more than two thousand died as a result of the brutal treatment to which they were subjected and the rest were forced as a condition of their release to agree to leave Germany.) For those of us looking back on the horror after all these years, it seems impossible to imagine the world not finally awakening to the demonism that had seized Germany and responding dramatically and forcefully.

Mostly, the world yawned. No economic sanctions were put into place against Nazi Germany. America recalled its ambassador to Germany briefly as a kind of formal protest against the ferocity of the pogrom, but diplomatic relations were not severed. Nor were immigration quotas in the free world relaxed to permit the Jews of Germany to escape to freedom. Even something as innocuous and deeply humanitarian as the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to come to the United States outside the quota system, was opposed by FDR and eventually died in committee. As chronicled just this week by Rafael Medoff in an op-ed piece published on the website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Christian America was equally unmoved. (You can find Medoff’s very interesting essay here.) And then there was William H. King. Arguably the most powerful Mormon in the United States at the time, King chastised FDR for recalling our ambassador “for consultations,” correctly understanding that the Germans would understand the move as little more than a slap on the wrist. And then, when President Roosevelt—as unmoved by the events of Kristallnacht as he was apparently uninterested in risking his own political capital by moving aggressively even to rescue children from the Nazis—coldly noted in public that a revision of American’s immigration quota system was “not in contemplation,” King responded by suggesting that Alaska be opened up entirely as a haven for Jewish refugees.

Why don’t I know about that? I read Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a few years ago and liked it less than I had hoped I was going to, yet I somehow missed the fact that it was rooted in history rather than solely in the author’s imagination. It turns out that there was indeed such a proposal. Called the Slattery Report, it was named for Undersecretary of the Interior Harry A. Slattery but produced at the behest of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. And it specifically proposed that Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, then the extent of the Reich, be permitted to settle in four specific locations in Alaska. (The concept was that the quota program could be legally sidestepped in this specific way because Alaska was a territory of the United States, not a state.) In retrospect, it seems like a zany sort of response to Kristallnacht, but perhaps that is only how it seems this long after the fact. At the time, it had the support of an interesting range of religious organizations, including the Labor Zionists of America, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Federal Council of Churches. It could surely have made a difference in the fate of countless European Jews. And it was none other than William King who introduced the bill into the Senate. (Representative Frank Havenner, a Democrat from California, introduced the bill into the House of Representatives.) But without Roosevelt’s support, this bill too was buried in committee and never again saw the light of day.

Still, as people line up to decide whether or not Mitt Romney’s religion should impact on voters’ decision whether or not to support his bid for the presidency, it might be worth considering that when the Jewish people was facing the darkest of hours in its history, a concrete, dramatic, and eminently doable plan to save countless European Jews was introduced into the Senate by a Mormon. When America’s leaders could not bring themselves to act decisively even to save children, King took the Slattery Report and put his considerable authority behind it, proposing it be enacted into law. It came to nothing at all. Obviously, it hardly make sense to support or not to support Mitt Romney because of something William King did more than seventy years ago. But when I think of Mormonism in general—and I haven’t seen the musical, although Joan and Max, my oldest, did—I find myself able to look past the nuttiness of posthumously baptizing Anne Frank—a practice I believe even the Mormons themselves must now regret—and remember instead the fine and noble example set for us all by William Henry King, a brave man for whom the notion that it was “not in contemplation” to act decisively to save the Jews of Europe was reason enough to act outside the boundaries of political loyalty and to go up against his president to do the right thing.

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