Last week, I attended my nephew's baptism. I didn't particularly want to see an eight-year-old initiated into a cult, but it was important to me to be present at landmark events for my sister's family. But the baptism was actually even more uncomfortable for me than I'd predicted.
I spent the night on my sister's couch, and when my nephews woke up on the oldest one's birthday, I could hear them talking in hushed voices outside their bedrooms when they thought none of the adults were awake yet. The birthday boy was excitedly telling his younger brother about what he was looking forward to the most—he theorized about which family members brought which gifts and what kind of frosting he should have his mom put on his cake. He was going to be baptized that day, too, but he didn't mention it at all. He expressed no excitement, apprehension, reverence, or awe concerning the covenant he was about to make with the all-powerful creator of the universe.
This, to me, was a pretty clear indication that he did not understand the importance of the commitment he'd be making. Not through any fault of his own—he's a kid. Kids get excited about all the trappings of birthdays. But that also means kids don't really focus on the weightier matters that don't provide the same gratification.
At the chapel that afternoon, the ward held a joint baptism. There was a girl who'd turned 8 a few days earlier, so the service was combined for the two families. The other initiate was a restive, intractable goofball who struggled to focus on anything other than the large stuffed My Little Pony she carried with her. (I wish I were making this up.) She was traipsing around the relief society room in her baptismal whites with a bright purple stuffed pony tucked under her arm. The pony's mane had glitter in it.
After the invocation and opening hymn, this girl's grandmother got up to give a talk. She requested that both initiates sit front and center because she was about to speak about what baptism means and these two needed to hear it more than the adults. My thought process was that they'd already interviewed with the bishop and they should know what baptism means way before the eleventh hour, but maybe we were humoring the grandmother. But I was about to find out that, regardless of any bishop's interviews, these two kids were almost clueless about their in-progress rite of passage.
The grandmother began by directing a series of blatantly leading questions at her granddaughter and at my nephew—questions they still couldn't answer correctly. She asked her granddaughter why she wanted to be baptized. Clutching her pony and sucking her thumb, the girl replied, "because I want to."
"Is that what Jesus wants you to do so you can live with Heavenly Father forever?" her grandmother clarified. "Isn't that what you want?"
I shit you not, this girl flat-out said, "No, because then I won't be able to live with Sparkles anymore." She was, of course, referring to her stuffed animal. People laughed. They seemed to think it was cute. I was grinding most of my molars down to nubs.
Then the grandmother went on to try to explain more about baptism and what it means. She involved my nephew a few times, asking him questions as well. After an explanation of the age of accountability, she inquired of my nephew why he had to wait until he was eight to be baptized. He precociously replied, "I don't know, but I know you have to be at least eight or older to be baptized." This, of course, was honest and accurate, but demonstrated a complete lack of understanding regarding the underlying theological principles.
A little later in her discussion of baptism, the grandmother decided to quote some scriptures relating to the topic. She cited Revelation 1:5:
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood....
Immediately after the verse ended, the little girl squirming in the speaker's arms blurted, "That's weird." And both her parents shushed her. Nobody cared why the girl thought it was weird. Nobody cared that she wasn't demonstrating any comprehension. Nobody cared that she wasn't behaving with reverence commensurate with the gravity of the eternally binding divine contract she was about to sign. Her childish priorities were a source of amusement and her nonexistent grasp of fundamental doctrine was something she was encouraged to keep to herself. And when it was her turn to enter the baptismal font, the girl would have walked right into the water still clutching her beloved Sparkles if her mother hadn't managed to finally snatch the toy away.
How many more indications that these kids did not properly comprehend what they were doing would have been enough to make their families stop, think, and reconsider whether this was the right time for the ordinance?
Obviously, the fault for this nauseating display of brainwashing does not lie with the kids. My nephew and the girl in his ward couldn't really follow the importance and the scope of what was happening to them. And I'm not convinced that much fault really lies with their parents either. After all, what parents wouldn't baptize their kid at eight if they could? You don't want your child wandering around purportedly knowing the difference between good and evil but not having the protection of the Atonement, would you? And how humiliating would it be to have to tell people that you had intended to have your son baptized, but he clearly had no idea what that meant and you were going to defy the established Mormon Childhood Timeline by postponing the ordinance for a few years? That poor kid would experience a similar social stigma to returning from missionary service without serving the full two years, only this would happen to him a decade early.
The doctrine and the culture of the church combine, then, to coerce parents into coercing their children into signing their lives over to a religion they don't yet understand. High stakes of eternal consequences and a stifling atmosphere pressuring members to conform both mean that it would require an extremely rare level of audacity for a mother and father to avoid subjecting their children to this shameful ritual. It's the beautiful rinse cycle of brainwashing and I got to see the results firsthand. And it was even more unpleasant than I expected.