In September of 2017, Brigham Young University’s half-century long caffeine prohibition officially ended. Provo can now look to a future devoid of campus police raids busting up underground Sodastream caffeination rings. Ever since moving away from my home state of Utah a decade ago, I have often found myself engaged in discussions with non-LDS folk about the strange things that Mormons do, or don’t do as the case may be. Nine times out of ten the conversation revolves around the ever-controversial topic of our avoidance of coffee, tea, and alcohol.
I can be sly about the fact that I wear sacred undergarments or don’t go shopping on Sunday, but if you work in any kind of office without a cup of coffee or frequent any non-Utah County social scene without a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, you’re going to stick out like a nun in a house of ill repute. A few years back, one of my friends from India looked at me with wide, astonished eyes and declared that he had never in his entire life met any adult that had never once had alcohol.
And, in some respects, that’s kind of what we’re going for. We are to be a “peculiar people”, a people set apart from the habits and vices that plague mankind, an example to the world of a congregation dedicated to keeping the commandments of God, irrespective of the current social pressures or norms. That’s the theory, at least. A theory that falls apart like the walls of Jericho when we confuse being arbitrary for being peculiar. Allow me to explain.
Us Mormons abide by what we call the “Word of Wisdom,” a divine law of health rooted in a revelation to early Church leaders back in the 1830’s. Today we are asked to eat properly and avoid addictive substances including, but not limited to, tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and illegal drugs. Critics of the Word of Wisdom might point out that the modern-day direction seems to cherry pick a bit from the original revelation which asks, for example, that members eat meat sparingly and only in times of winter, cold, or famine. I have yet to meet a Mormon that follows this and I’ve never met a single Mormon leader that cared. There might be some dude out there that does, but I haven’t exactly seen the BYU message boards all abuzz with talk of the return of Ruby River Steakhouse’s much-anticipated “Winter and Famine” promotion.
Even a brief study of the history of the Word of Wisdom reveals that its interpretation, application, enforcement, and adherence have all changed drastically since it was first issued in 1833. With no changes of note in the last century, however, the variability of the Word of Wisdom is something most church members not only don’t think about, but don’t really even consider a possibility. What we’re left with is a commandment in limbo, something that is neither adherent to its scriptural origins nor updated for practical direction in the modern day.
Nothing elucidates this point better than the prevalence and popularity of places like Swig and Sodalicioius. For those not in the know, these establishments thrive in the heart of Utah County and are basically trendy, drive-thru stores that make their mark by selling sodas jazzed up with additional flavoring, thereby proving the Fructosian Law of Stacking by showing that adding liquid sugar to liquid sugar produces a synergistic sugary flavor effect. For those that like their sugar in solid form, they also sell giant cookies. When I explained the existence of these establishments to my Australian atheist friend (or “Australatheist” friend) he gave me that ol’ “please tell me you realize how ridiculous this is” look that atheists are always giving us religious folk. I don’t always agree with the cynicism behind that stare, but sometimes (like this time) I gave my “wadda ya gonna do” smile in return.
One must realize what we look like when we shun coffee and tea like they were liquid Ebola, but have zero compunction about ordering a 64oz Wild Mango Mountain Dew with accompanying face-sized sugar cookie in a drive-thru. The world does not look at us as peculiar; they look at us as arbitrary, and they’d be right…and if you’re Mormon that should worry you.
If I were to take my Aussie friend to Utah, decline a coffee at McDonald’s on the grounds (pun intended) that it is prohibited for divine health reasons, only to then make my way to Sodalicious for my cookie frisbee and cask of raspberry Dr Pepper, how well do you think my testimony about living said divine law of health is going to go down? Not as well as that big pink-frosting sugar cookie, I can promise you that, because those cookies are AMAZING. It should go down poorly. Poorly as those funeral potatoes that gave half my family food poisoning at my wedding reception…or was it my grandpa’s funeral luncheon? Regardless, it should go down very poorly.
I have alluded to this point in prior posts, but at the heart of my beloved Mormon culture is the dangerous tendency to mistake arbitrariness for peculiarity. The former is a powerless shell of the latter. If you had someone obeying D&C 89 verbatim, that person would be peculiar. Ol’ Brother Jeremiah Stewartson over there bottling wine of his own make, washing his body with strong drink, only eating seasonal fruit, and never consuming a beverage on the hot side of 90F. That guy is a conversation starter. You might think he’s a bit screwy, but you can at least respect him, because he’s rooted directly in a set of guidelines he claims as sacrosanct. That’s peculiar and there’s power behind that. To what end, I don’t know, but there’s power there.
That’s not what we have with current Word of Wisdom observance. The vast majority of my fellow Mormons don’t drink iced tea because they obey a commandment that prohibits the consumption of tea because it prohibits the consumption of hot drinks like coffee, but would allow you to drink a hot chocolate spiked with an energy drink *brain explodes*. We’ve been reduced to arguing over whether the Lord’s people should have coffee and rum flavored candies, whether I can put vanilla extract in cookies because of the alcohol, or whether herbal tea is actually tea. It makes absolutely no sense, and not in the kind of way that some commandments are just “not for us to understand”. It doesn’t make sense because it’s an abject arbitrary mess.
We can have a 400 lbs dude on Xanax pull up to the temple with a box of Krispy Kremes on the back of his Rascal brand scooter and he’s somehow living the Lord’s Divine Law of Health, but a marathon runner who likes his latte and regulates anxiety with a glass of wine in the evening is barred from the House of the Lord. I just don’t see the Almighty sitting up there telling Mr. 400lbs “Ah yes, well played.” We shouldn’t excuse ourselves from confronting these inconsistencies just because we think ourselves peculiar. That moral license needs to be revoked.
Let me pause here, because I can already see the straw man being raised in my image. “So you’re saying that people who are overweight and on medication shouldn’t be temple worthy? Is THAT what you’re saying?!” That is not what I am saying. I’m merely pointing out that I find it odd that one of the strict standards we use to determine a person’s religious devotion is a divine law of health that doesn’t really seem to challenge its adherents to live all that healthily, or at least turns a blind eye to obvious unhealthy practices while stringently punishing others that are relatively benign. LDS.org states “When people purposefully take anything harmful into their bodies, they are not living in harmony with the Word of Wisdom”, but from what I recall I’ve never seen a paper shredder next to the drive-thru exit at any of the Utah County McDonald’s with the sign “Insert Recommends Here”. If it ain’t enforced, then to quote the estimable Captain Barbosa “it’s more what you call a guideline than actual rules.”
Another rebuttal already reaches my ears: “It doesn’t need to make sense. The Lord just wants to see if we’ll be obedient.” Then have us adhere to D&C 89 as written and see if we’ll be as devout as ol’ Brother Jeremiah Stewartson. Or maybe let’s slap on D&C 139 to talk about why we can ignore half the stuff in D&C 89 and clarify the other half we have to obey. “But we don’t need to be commanded in all things, Mike!” I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Commenter. How about we talk about that coffee and tea again?
Look, there was obviously some effort made to update the original revelation to what we have now. This is not one of those immutable declarations from on high with no precedent of change. This commandment has evolved drastically since its inception. I merely think we’re due for the next stage in that evolution. The world has changed a tad in the last hundred years. There are energy drinks and Snapple and pharmaceuticals that range from Oxycontin to something for restless leg syndrome. Updated and relevant revelation should be our hallmark. Roll the sucker back to the spirit of the law. Eat healthy and in moderation, avoid illegal and addictive substances, exercise. “But those things are already part of the Word of Wisdom!” No. They’re not. Not like you think they are, at least (see Captain Barbosa above).
“Oh, so what are you saying, that we shouldn’t even drink soda?! You’re one of THOSE Mormons!” Look, I am wearing a Dr. Pepper t-shirt as I am writing this article, no joke. I have a custom built “soda flavor station” in my basement. I wish many years of profitable business for the drink and cookie slinging businesses of Utah County (again, have you TRIED those cookies?!). I am not one of THOSE Mormons and I am not proposing some boycott on sugar or serving wine in sacrament meeting (you know how many church shirts that would ruin?!). What I am saying is that Utah/Mormon culture is a strange and incestuous thing. Our moral and social mores are outgrowths from spiritual laws, hedges to those spiritual laws, and loop holes in those hedges and spiritual laws. Many of them are well-intentioned but are born in an echo chamber that shrouds the Wasatch Front. After years and years of proliferation they end up being…well, kind of ridiculous.
We think that the world doesn’t understand us because we are “set apart” and “peculiar”, when in reality the raised eyebrows come from our philosophical inconsistencies and arbitrary application of principles. Going back to the spirit of the law nips a lot of this in the bud. You drink two Big Gulps of Diet Coke a day? Yeeeaaahhh, you might wanna get some help with that. You have an occasional glass of wine? Right this way, brother. “It doesn’t have to make sense, Mike.” Yeah, I know, but it can, and it should, and there’s nothing stopping it, and it’d be nice if it did.
I’m proud to be peculiar. I love the Gospel dearly. I’m proud to pay tithing, live the Law of Chastity, wear temple garments, and feign a smile when you tell me your twins’ name are Tronxston and Traeleigh. These might be strange things, but they are not arbitrary things (all but that latter). In it’s current form, I’m not sure I can say the same for the Word of Wisdom. I ain’t gonna die in a ditch over this. My intent isn’t to march on the Conference Center with a Starbucks flag cape and a wine decanter megaphone. If nothing ever changes, I’ll continue to keep my basement soda fridge fully stocked and scofflaw my seasonal meat consumption. I’m just tired of justifying my Dr. Pepper intake and thought a silly blog post might get the ball rolling in the right direction. It certainly helped with my distaste for Instagram fashionistas.
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Please find below The Word of Wisdom Spectrum. I’ve always felt like you could tell a lot about a particular Mormon by the choices he/she makes when it comes to the Word of the Wisdom. Consult the spectrum below and take the poll to let the world know what kind of Mormon you are!