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Mormons and Caffeine

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.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: do mormons drink soda, flunking sainthood, jana riess, lds newsroom blog, lds public affairs department, mormons and caffeine, nbc rock center mormon in america, word of wisdom and caffeine

Comments

  1. It is fascinating.  Do you think the WoW could ever revert to it’s original framing of, “Hey, this is a really good idea, try it,” instead of a temple/activity baring commandment?  I’m not sure I see it happening, but I wonder if the LDS church is going to move away from their mid-century monolithic structure just as quickly as it moved into it.  It’s be very interesting to watch how the church continues to handle this increased scrutiny on some of its more culturally based dogma.

  2. Nice commentary, Jana. I agree that the press release must have been the subject of some intense back and forth. The “forths” got the first word, and the “backs” got the final word (I think—it might change again).

    Like most LDS, I’ve often wondered about the ambiguity of the WoW. I usually avoid caffeine, not because I thought it violates the WoW, but because I don’t like its effects. For several years, I bought a large fountain Diet Coke daily, except Sundays. Every Sunday afternoon, I would get a bad headache. I finally realized that I was getting caffeine withdrawal headaches, so I largely quit drinking caffeinated drinks. They don’t keep me awake anyway, they just keep me standing in front of a urinal.

    Unlike many of my LDS friends, I completely eschew Mountain Dew, on the premise that soda should not look the same coming out as it did going in.

  3. Yorugs—
    I know many former Mormons who used to get headaches every Sunday afternoon. When they stopped going to church, their headaches went away.

  4. I wonder where the initial belief that caffeine was against the Word of Wisdom came from.  I’ve never seen anything written by a general authority that says so, but I know many members of the church who would swear that it is the rule.

  5. Someone needs to make sure BYU gets this memo so they can stop prohibiting the sale of Coke and Pepsi on campus (at least that was the case back in my day - has that changed?). Or maybe BYU should ban all soft drinks, which are not at all good for us, and allow tea and coffee, which have been shown to have many health benefits.

  6. Brandon, General Authorities have made their stance on this issue:
    President Hinckley in an interview on 60 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLFDP_MeYhg

    ” . . [T]HE PARTAKING OF COLA DRINKS . . . is in VIOLATION of the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. HARMFUL DRUGS OF ANY SORT are in a like category.”
    —Apostle Bruce R. McConkie (emphasis added)

    “‘Speaking of those who rationalize THE CHURCH’S STAND ON COLA DRINKS, Bishop Featherstone said, “We can find loopholes in a lot of things if we want to bend THE RULES OF THE CHURCH.’”
    —Bishop Vaughn J. Featherstone (emphasis added)

    Here are some more: http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/health/cola.htm

  7. One interesting thing I’ve never seen address from the WofW, is the mention of mild drinks made with barley:
    “17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.”

    It seems that during the time when the WofW was released, there were barley drinks, but they were beers—- “beer” and “small beer.” Beer had 5% alcohol and small beer 1% alcohol.

  8. It’s clear the word of wisdom is simply a rewrite of the temperance movement of the 1800s, most never paid much attention to it in the early days of the church. Joseph drank wine moments before his death, Brigham owned whiskey distilleries in Utah, all of this is well documented. It wasn’t until the early 1900s there was major emphasis on the doctrine. As noted above it should be returned to what it originally was, more of a suggestion and less of a commandment.

  9. My faithful, daughter-of-pioneers Mormon grandmother Dora Dorius Carlston penned the following:

    I do not drink, I do not swear,
    For cigarettes I do not care,
    I do not gamble, I’m too tight,
    A loss would mean a sleepless night,

    I am no bridge or mah-jong fan,
    I would not vamp a married man.
    But, with these virtues I’m no saint,
    For on my life there stands one taint,
          My COFFEE in the morning.

    It takes two cups and sometimes three
    To pep me up to such degree,
    That I may hobnob through the day
    With all the folks that come my way.

    To keep my disposition fair,
    To deal with in-laws on the square,
    There are some things I can forgo
    And settle down in poor man’s row.

    Can watch my neighbors rise and fall,
    And yet no evil thoughts recall.
    But, still my life holds one dark stain,
    For I must have through shine or rain—
          My COFFEE in the morning.

  10. Nate- David O McKay drank Coke.  It’s important to separate the personal decisions from the inspired words. On the other hand- during our lifetime the church has been very clear and consistant about the “no alcohol” policy.  Doesn’t matter what percent.  The purpose of the WoW is to help us avoid addiction to any substance and eat a generally healthy diet.  So if you can’t get going each day without your caffeine, it may be something you should choose to forego.  But the church has made it clear that the addictive substances we should definitely avoid are coffee, tea (which yes, have health benefits, but also health detriments), tabacco, alcohol and drugs.  Really, it’s not that hard.

  11. Another important point not to miss is the insertion of the word “revelation” in the second statement. Apparently, the editor wanted to punctuate the revelatory rather than mere guideline status of the Church’s health practices outlined in Doctrine and Covenants 89.

  12. I am 66 and grew up with the understanding that the word of wisdom said no “hot drinks”, which meant coffee or tea.  All my life I have known people who have added to the word of wisdom and said caffeine was part of the word of wisdom.  I never could find where it was written in the D&C. There was no revelation in scripture or over the pulpit saying cafeine is against the word of wisdom..  I never heard in General Conference any speaker telling the Saints not to drink cafeine.                      There must be books written by some “weird LDS people” who have written their views of no cafeine.  I just don’t remember reading any.  I say this because growing up I read many different books written by “good LDS people” that had crazy ideas that weren’t true.  Many different LDS books contradicted each other (These books didn’t have the stamp of approval by the LDS Church)...                                                My mother taught me cafeine was against the word of wisdom, but the Church never taught me no cafeine. In the D&C I was told we shouldn’t be commanded in all things and we are to make wise decisions.  So in “over zealous LDS” people’s view point this means “No cafeine”.  For a long time I decided no cafeine.  I felt better than I do now.  I now drink cafeine.  Maybe the cafeine has nothing to do with how I feel. Maybe all that is wrong is I am just kind of old and slowing down.                                      Over the years I have found when a General Authority says something in General Conference suddenly some of the members of the church hear different than what the General Authory actually said.  It is so silly to watch people wanting to put more burdens on themselves in the name of a “commandment”, they thought they heard. Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden light..

  13. The prohibition against caffeinated drinks is an extrapolation from an extrapolation of the Word of Wisdom. The latter extrapolation is that the “hot drinks” are coffee and tea. The former extrapolation rises from a 20th century effort to define the ingredient in coffee and tea that makes them “not for the body or belly.” I’m not usually one to read literally into the scriptures, but from a historical perspective it could be argued that the high temperature was the reason hot drinks were not to be consumed. As Lester E. Bush points out in his essay “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective,” the text of the Word of Wisdom is a good summary of the medical consensus on health in Joseph Smith’s day.

  14. The most hilarious thing about all of this is that the church purports to take NBC to task for failing to get it right, and it turns out the church can’t even get it right the first time around!

    If the church’s own PR department can’t sort through the muddled doctrine, where do they get off suggesting that journalists are somehow at fault for failing to report it correctly?

  15. The Word of Wisdom is kind of like the Constitution to me.  It is impossible to delineate everything that we can or can’t do or make laws for the future, so both are vague in parts to allow for growth and interpretation and modern developments.  I personally do not drink caffeine including energy drinks because they simply are not good for your body.  You don’t need a Mormon or a prophet to tell you this.  Anybody who knows anything about nutrition knows that sugar, fake sugars, carbonation and caffeine are not good for our bodies.  We are not commanded in all things for a reason- God wants to know who has some common sense.

  16. I think the reason for the switcheroo has a lot to do with the fact that many people—both Mormons and non-Mormons—have a hard time understanding the difference between what is prohibited by the WOW, i.e., what would make one unworthy to go to the temple, and what is advised by the WOW, i.e., the general health guidelines. When one is interviewed to determine their worthiness to enter the temple they are asked if the obey the WOW. This question is not asking if they follow every guideline; it’s only asking if they abstain from what is prohibited: alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, coffee, and tea. That is it. The WOW, however, contains many other guidelines, e.g., we should eat meat sparingly. I am advised not to eat meat except times of winter, cold, and famine. The fact that I eat sausage and/or bacon every morning for breakfast, a double cheeseburger every day for lunch, and a huge steak every night for dinner, certainly runs afoul of the WOW’s guidance but it will not prevent me from attending the temple or holding any calling in the church—it is not prohibited by the WOW. We are also advised to avoid anything that is harmful or habit forming. That is why I think they modified the original. If the WOW didn’t “go beyond” what is prohibited, then the whole advisory portion would done away with. Though, that doesn’t explain why they removed “the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine” from the statement.

  17. Nicely done, Jana.

  18. I agree with @Bumpjon that the big prohibited items are what can make us exclude ourselves from full fellowship, not the guidelines (meat, grains, etc). 

    I think it is also interesting to note that the preamble of D&C 89 also includes the explanation “showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days — Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.”  This is the order and will of God for our temporal salvation.  How we treat our bodies is as important as the cultivation of our spiritual obedience, and we can receive significant physical blessings by practicing temporal care. 

    Also, that this is a principle.  A principle is a foundation piece for what behaviors we should engage in.  The principle is to take care of our bodies and to avoid addictions (because they sap our personal will to make healthy choices and offend the Spirit of God). 

    And, most strikingly, the Word of Wisdom was literally designed to be very bottom margin for temporal salvation.  You can barely pass the class, so to speak, and be temple worthy by avoiding the big prohibited items.  And then you can raise the bar for yourself by really stepping things up by using “revelation and ... wisdom.”  Since we don’t live the Law of Moses with it’s extremely spelled out requirements and are expected to live at a higher plane, it makes sense that we wouldn’t have caffeine spelled out to us (never mind that the word caffeine didn’t exist in 1833).  If it’s habit-forming for you, then consider the implications.  If chocolate is addicting or sugar or Mentos or Cap’n Crunch, then explore what the bigger issue is when something has control over your brain chemistry.

    You can also hear the note of concern in the Lord’s voice:  “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation.”  The Lord cares about us.  And there are some conspiring people who don’t, but only seek to make a profit, so they will put in addictive ingredients, knowingly, wanting to get us hooked.  Why is Coke fully named Coca-Cola, after all? 

    At the end of the day, I think we need to just weigh it all out and decide for ourselves how we will apply this principle in our lives, while also averting eyes of judgment and self-righteousness (or defiance).

  19. The Word of Wisdom is a revelation certainly. It is not a commandment. It is not even possible to “obey” the Word of Wisdom. God Himself makes this clear in His introduction:

    1 A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—

    2 To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—

    God left no room for interpretation or spin or misunderstanding. Inasmuch as this is LDS canon, from the mouth of God and recorded directly by Joseph Smith, there is no provision for embellishing or modifying it even if it makes good social and physical sense. It is a word of wisdom. Not a commandment. It is expressly pointed out by God that it was not and thus remains not a commandment. Barring a contravening revelation and the adoption of same into canon, the social norms of Utah and its historically closed body of Saints do not amount to a reversal of God’s will in the matter.

  20. Whatever.  God wants us at some point to govern ourselves.  I think we as a church have much bigger issues to consider and that doesn’t include if people are drinking caffeine or not.

  21. The position of the church has NOT changed, points of doctrine have just been clarified.

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