Wednesday, August 20, 2014

LDS Caffeine Wars

The grandmotherly woman made no attempt to hide the disdain in her voice as she mentioned a recent encounter with her oldest son — a man with his own family — at a local grocery store. "He had a two-liter bottle of Coke (fully caffeinated version implied) in his hand," she complained. "He tried to hide it behind his leg!"

Knowing this man to be a trim fellow, I imagined to myself that his leg provided scant camouflage for the large bottle of dark colored liquid. The woman continued, "When I told him not to bother trying to hide it, he said, 'Well, it's not all for me.' as if that made any difference! He knows better; he was raised differently. But he says that the church says that caffeine is accepted under the Word of Wisdom."

Word of Wisdom Basics
You can skip this section if you're not interested.
The church mentioned is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Church members are often called Mormons, a reference to the Book of Mormon, which accompanies the Bible as one of the religion's sacred texts. The Word of Wisdom refers to a revelation about health practices received by prophet and church founder Joseph Smith in 1833.

The Word of Wisdom offers both positive and negative counsel.
  • Don't use "wine or strong drink" (D&C 89:5), "tobacco" (D&C 89:8), or "hot drinks" (D&C 89:9), which is interpreted by church leaders to mean coffee and tea. Church leaders have subsequently added drug abuse to the list of don'ts.
  • Do use "wholesome herbs" (D&C 89:10-11) and certain grains (D&C 89:14,16-17).
  • Straddling both do and don't categories is the counsel to eat "flesh of beasts and of the fowls of the air ... sparingly," chiefly in times of need (D&C 89:12-13,15). Another revelation, however, pointedly says that anyone that tells people to never eat such flesh "is not ordained of God" (D&C 49:18-19).
Blessings promised to those that follow these principles include greater health, stamina, wisdom, and avoidance of destruction than would otherwise be the case (D&C 89:18-21).

You can skip this section if you're not interested.
For the record, Mormons have had a tortured relationship with the Word of Wisdom from the outset. While the scant 558 words of the revelation are "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints" (D&C 89:3), the revelation was "sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint" (D&C 89:2).

Given that the revelation was an invitation and not a commandment, adherence to its principles were varied. As explained in this Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, "Compliance with [the Word of Wisdom's] teachings was sporadic from the late 1830s until the early years of the twentieth century. The Church encouraged leaders to be an example to the people in abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee; but no binding Church policy was articulated during this time."

Evidence suggests that many early Mormons thought that the approved "mild drinks" made of barley mentioned in D&C 89:17 included beer, which was generally not seen in the same light as wine or alcoholic spirits. In the years following the revelation Joseph Smith is known to have moderately enjoyed beer with some regularity as well as an occasional glass of wine, while generally eschewing harder liquors.

Interpretations of the Word of Wisdom have changed over time, as has official church treatment of the doctrine. The EoM article cited states:
"The prohibition movement, spearheaded by the Protestant Evangelical churches in America, focused on alcohol consumption as a political rather than a moral issue. The movement intensified the Church's interest in the Word of Wisdom. There is evidence that Church Presidents John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant wanted to promote adherence to the Word of Wisdom as a precondition for entering LDS temples or holding office in any Church organization; and indeed, by 1930 abstinence from the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea had become an official requirement for those seeking temple recommends. While abstinence from these substances is now required for temple attendance and for holding priesthood offices or other Church callings, no other ecclesiastical sanctions are imposed on those who do not comply with the Word of Wisdom."
My grandfather's chain smoking habit did not prevent him from being baptized in 1934. Nowadays abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and drug abuse is required prior to baptism, although, church leaders recognize that some new members may struggle with these substances for some time after joining the church. Abstinence must be more stable to receive a temple recommend or to serve in a responsible church position.

While some church leaders have counseled greater attention to the other dietary provisions in the Word of Wisdom, these "aspects of the Word of Wisdom have not received the stress that the abstinence portions have" and "no distinctive dietary practices have emerged that distinguish Mormons from non-Mormons" (EoM).

Adherence to the abstinence provisions mentioned above has succeeded in "setting the Latter-day Saints apart as a people" but has not led to "sanctifying the daily consumption of food by providing divine directions to guide practice" as is the case with Jewish tradition (Getting Into the Meat of the Word of Wisdom by Dr. A. Jane Birch). More on this in a bit.

Caffeine Conundrum
The EoM article about the Word of Wisdom states:
"With the appearance of cola drinks in the early 1900s, the Church was confronted with cold beverages containing caffeine, a harmful substance believed to make coffee and tea unacceptable. While no official Church position has been stated, leaders have counseled members to avoid caffeine and other addictive chemicals."
It easy to see how the connection from coffee and tea to caffeinated soft drinks was made:
  1. Coffee and tea have a lot of caffeine.
  2. Therefore, the reason the Word of Wisdom prohibits coffee and tea is because they contain caffeine.
  3. Therefore, soft drinks that contain caffeine are also prohibited by the Word of Wisdom.
The problem here is that assumption #2 may be faulty. Caffeine content may not have anything to do with the prohibition on coffee and tea. We don't really know for sure without more revelation on the subject.

Even prophets are entitled to their own opinions and they may voice those opinions without invoking prophesy (see Jeff Lindsay's erudite essay). Thus, when Gordon B. Hinckley during his tenure as president of the church said that Mormons should avoid caffeine and that he thought that no one needed to consume caffeinated soft drinks, he stopped well short of saying that this was official church doctrine.

The fact is that throughout my life some church leaders and members have insisted that consumption of caffeinated soft drinks violates the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom, while others (including men sustained as prophets) have felt otherwise.

Church Statement on Caffeine
On August 29, 2012 (some 4½ years after the passing of Pres. Hinckley), the LDS Church's official newsroom blog published a post that said, "the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine" and that the reference to "hot drinks" "does not go beyond [tea and coffee]" (see LDS Living article).

The following day the post was updated to read that "the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee."

Neither of these statements can be interpreted as an endorsement of caffeinated soft drinks. Rather, they seem to clarify that no one is presently authorized to suggest that consumption of such soft drinks is prohibited by church doctrine. This means that how a church member regards the consumption of such drinks is largely a matter of personal interpretation.

What Should Church Members Do About Caffeine Use?
Some will note that church leaders have advised against the use of addictive substances. They will rationalize that since caffeine has known addictive properties (even if these properties are generally mild), it should be strictly avoided. (See Dec 2008 Ensign article for example.) This is a valid rational response. Where it crosses the line is where someone decides that since they have decided to avoid caffeine, those that fail to do likewise are entangled in sin.

(Church leaders may, however, determine that a member's caffeine abuse is problematic. Consider this Dec 2008 New Era article. Any addiction has negative spiritual consequences.)

As with other doctrinally unspecified matters that might have something to do with one's relationship to God and fellow humans, church members should employ sound judgment and personal spiritual guidance to determine their own policy on caffeinated soft drinks. And they should generally butt out of other people's decisions on the matter.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul's many writings regarding dietary matters. Consider his discussions in Romans 14:2-3, 13, 15 and in 1 Corinthians 8. In essence he says:
  • Those that think their diet follows a higher spiritual law are weaker in the Spirit.
  • Neither those eating a stricter diet nor those eating a more liberal diet should despise or judge the other.
  • If you know that your diet causes another spiritual challenges, charity demands that you make adjustments.
These principles can easily be applied to caffeinated soft drinks. Or refined grains. Or sugar. Or salt. Or fat. Or five vegetables a day. Or meat. Or desserts. Or whatever.
  • Eat and drink what you honestly feel to be right for you within actual church doctrinal specifications and according the best human knowledge.
  • If you think your diet adheres to a higher spiritual law than others that are also following the statement in the previous bullet point, you are likely spiritually weak. Start doing more of those things that bolster spiritual strength.
  • Don't judge another to be inferior due to his/her dietary decisions.
  • Make adjustments if you know your diet is causing spiritual problems in the lives of others.
Dietary Sanctification
This section makes a related point. Skip it if you're not interested.
As mentioned in the history/analysis section, Dr. A. Jane Birch suggests that general neglect of the Word of Wisdom's non-mandatory dietary guidelines means that the LDS Church's health code "presently [does] not work to sanctify the daily food consumption for most Latter-day Saints" (Mormon Interpreter article).

Using quotes from LDS historian Paul Peterson, Birch seems to long for an LDS approach to daily dietary habits along the lines of the approach taken by traditionally orthodox Jews. While the benefits listed sound wonderful, Birch quietly elides any mention of the darker side of the type of dietary strictness she promotes.

The first four gospels in the New Testament are chock full of episodes where the Savior shreds Pharisaical approaches to religious life. Nor are the various apostles in the New Testament shy about slamming such approaches. While Birch imagines a pure and holy approach to diet, human nature dictates that many would fall into the same traps as those criticized by New Testament writers.

There is no shortage of church members today that would love for church leaders to spell out specifically sanctioned behaviors in countless areas of life, including diet. Appropriate use of guard rails is necessary, but too many guard rails overly limit choice. Such an agency limiting system would further the cause that the adversary championed in the pre-earth life.

Perhaps the reason that church leaders have been careful to leave many facets of the Word of Wisdom up to personal judgment is that they don't want to limit agency. Maybe they are prudently avoiding the tumult of words and strife that would ensue in the face of such firm declarations. If you don't think this would happen, perhaps you should simply survey the state of debate among church members on the point of caffeinated soft drinks and multiply that dispute by many thousands.

In reality, whether to drink caffeinated soda pop is a rather minor matter that is far from the scale of things that are eternally important, such as love of God and love of our fellow beings. Yet we bicker about our strong opinions on the matter while eating at church functions desserts laden with substances that some scientists say are much more addictive than caffeine. Who do you think is behind that kind of contention? (See 3 Nephi 11:29 for an answer.)

The gospel does not demand that we avoid caffeinated soft drinks. Your reason and even the Spirit may tell you to abstain from such drinks. But that doesn't give you the right to demand that others likewise constrain themselves. Nor does it give you the right to suggest that someone is sinful when they choose to drink Pepsi or Dr. Pepper. It doesn't even give you the right to feel a little bit superior to them.

The mom that was upset with her adult son for drinking Coke was likely mostly feeling that he was betraying the teachings she had given him during his childhood. She felt hurt that he was going against the family culture as she understood it. From his point of view, he likely felt that he was being shamed like a little child for making an informed decision about something of no significant spiritual consequence.

This leads my thinking back to the Apostle Paul's main point with respect to diet: Charity, which "is the pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:45-48). Application of charity may not be easy for people on either side of the caffeine debate. But it is infinitely more important than whether one drinks caffeinated soft drinks or not.

When it comes to choosing contention about caffeine (or any other matter) or choosing charity, you will never go wrong by choosing charity.


Jane Birch said...

Great article, Scott! I enjoyed your analysis. Whether or not there is “no shortage of church members today that would love for church leaders to spell out specifically sanctioned behaviors in countless areas of life, including diet,” I’m not one of them. As you correctly stated, I do believe we would reap many more blessings by more fully embracing the counsel in D&C 89. However, I do not believe it is necessary (or even helpful) for the Church to require this.

D&C 89 contains lots of wise counsel from a loving Savior that all of us are free to prayerfully read and follow. I’ve been collecting stories of Latter-day Saints who are doing just that and posting them at the Discovering the Word of Wisdom website:

Blessings! Jane

Scott Hinrichs said...

For those that are interested, I did not intend this post as an exercise in caffeine apologetics. I personally avoid caffeine and generally eschew soft drinks. I merely wanted to post my observations and thinking with respect to caffeine and church doctrine.

CheesyPotatoes said...

I thought you hit the nail on the head. I once heard the additional rules imposed by people such as the Pharisees put in place compared to a hedge/fence around the law. A way to make it easier to keep the law. The problem lies in becoming fixated so much on the hedge/fence that we forget the purpose of it in the first place. We are expected to follow the commandments. Everything else is precaution.
Also, something else to think about. The WoW was treated as council, as opposed to commandment, in the church for a very long time. It wasn't until much later that it became part of the temple recommend interview.