In its regular “Getting It Right” column yesterday, the LDS Newsroom generally praised last week’s hour-long NBC Rock Center special on Mormonism, calling it “evenhanded” and “a sincere attempt to know the faith.” But alongside its many points singled out for praise, the Public Affairs Department had two bones of contention.
The first, not surprisingly, was NBC’s unfortunate decision to show temple garments on the air. The second, less obviously, was the program’s apparent claim that the LDS Church prohibits the use of caffeine.
But in the brief time between when the Newsroom column went live last night and this morning, the wording on the statement on caffeine evolved. The initial statement was:
Finally, another small correction: Despite what was reported, the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines, known in our scriptures as “the Word of Wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 89), prohibits alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee. The restriction does not go beyond this.
But this morning the wording was changed to:
Finally, another small correction: Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibits [sic] alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.
You have to wonder what happened to “the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine” and “The restriction does not go beyond” tea and coffee.
Here is an educated guess. Judging from the social media response to the Rock Center program, NBC’s caffeine statement generated some lively pushback from Mormons who, unlike the family profiled in the program, do drink caffeinated soda. So when the Church issued its clarification yesterday, there was a general whoop of caffeinated Bloggernacle joy. For example, @nicknewman801 reported the initial Church statement and rejoiced at “the sound of a million cans of soda opening” behind the Zion Curtain.
Although the clear initial statement that the Church “does not prohibit the use of caffeine” certainly seemed to lend support to the Coke Party, the clarification has qualified that considerably. The second statement is far more measured, sticking directly to the facts: the Word of Wisdom does not mention caffeine at all.
So we are back to the “clear as mud” interpretation, which I frankly prefer anyway. That’s not because I drink caffeine, because I personally don’t. (Anecdotally, I seem to be in the minority on this score, BTW. Most Mormons I know do drink caffeinated soda.)
I’m fine with the ambiguity because I support people having agency to make that decision for themselves. The Word of Wisdom was originally intended not as a litmus test of Mormon orthodoxy or even as a religious commandment (“not by commandment or constraint”) but as a health code that promised to improve people’s well-being should they choose to adhere to it.
For me, that has happened. Giving up caffeine in my 20s forced me to end my regular practice of all-nighters and actually get some sleep. That, in turn, improved my health. I stopped getting the flu several times a year.
But the small question of caffeine isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the larger questions of doctrine vs. policy and the possible impact of the media on LDS Church statements and clarifications. Although the LDS Newsroom offers the disclaimer that its own statements are not definitive (“The information here is reliable and accurate but should not necessarily be viewed as official statements from the Church”), they are the clearest enumerations of policy that Mormons and journalists have to go on these days, and as such they are significant.
In a rare moment of institutional transparency, today I watched an elucidation of church policy literally change before my eyes, in full view of the Mormon people.
That, not caffeine, is the real news story.