Thursday, December 4, 2008

Starbuck's v. Coca-Cola

For 19 years of my life, I was a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Even though I no longer go to church or practice the religious doctrine, I continue to live by many of the guiding principles and values I was taught. I retain great respect for Mormons and am very appreciative of my religious upbringing. I won't be discussing my spirituality today; that subject is way too complex, and at this time, still too personal.

But even while I was devoted to the gospel doctrines, I was a little confused about one bit of the Word of Wisdom. Apparently this is a common debate, even amongst Latter-Day Saints, but please don't roll your eyes. I am not trying to Bible-bash or question anybody's faith. My intentions are honest, and I feel that it is a valid question.

The Word of Wisdom is contained in the Doctrine and Covenants scripture, a book regarded by Mormons to be revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith from God. In simple terms, it is a "health code" by which Mormons live, and for the most part consists of recommendations that many medical profesionals would also suggest to promote optimal health (no tobacco, no alcohol, eat meat sparingly, etc.).

There is one verse, D&C 89:9, which says only, "And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly."

In my tenure as a Mormon, we were taught that this statement refers to coffee and tea, and thus were commanded not to drink those beverages. I always assumed the rule was in place because caffiene is an addictive drug. Yet there is no official church doctrine prohibiting consumption of other beverages or foods containing caffiene. I knew Mormon families who forswore caffienated cola. Usually that's what my parents would buy too. It was never a concern for me because I have always hated cola--of any brand--and still do to this day. But you won't go to a Relief Society potluck without plenty of brownies laden with the forbidden drug.

Several years ago, I was attending a business training with my mother and sister. During a break, my mom left the room to buy a Coke. She specifically mentioned her interest in getting a little something to wake her up for the remainder of the meetings. After she left, I calmly asked my sister about it. With genuine interest in the doctrinal basis, I asked why coffee is not allowed by the church, but cola is okay. Without skipping a beat, my sister vehemently blurted her response: "I don't drink Coke!" If it were 1992, I totally would have gone, "Reer!" I've never had the guts to ask anyone about it since then, realizing it is either a sensitive subject, or a lack of understanding of the principle prevents the formation of an intelligent answer to a sincere question (the latter being a probable cause of the former).

Then the other night, my husband and I were gathered with two of my siblings and their spouses (all active members of the church). An appropriate segue in the conversation lead Gary to ask about this particular church directive. As would be expected of a caring, intelligent adult, he was very respectful and showed a genuine interest in learning the truth without criticism.

I was glad that my brother-in-law Randy took some time to provide a thorough explanation (although it did not, in the end, answer the question). He shed some light on the history of the Word of Wisdom that I did not know: this revelation was the result of Joseph Smith's annoyance at the cloud of smoke at their priesthood meetings and his wife's complaints at having to clean their filthy chew off the floor. Here it is according to Brigham Young.

Randy provided more facts on when which prophet said what about the Word of Wisdom, and how today it is generally accepted that coffee and tea are forbidden, while the choice to drink other caffienated beverages is left to the individual. But I gathered from his explanation (and the fact that no one else chimed in with additional information) that they don't really know why it's coffee and tea and not Coke and Pepsi.

There is an unsubstantiated rumor that the reason has to do with the church "owning" Coca-Cola, or investing in large shares of its stock. Of course the Mormons don't own Coke. Although it wouldn't surprise me a bit for such a wise and wealthy organization to invest in this successful company. Of course their portfolio would be diversified enough that such an investment would not warrant distinguishing cola from coffee when their potential for health-impairment is so similar. In fact, if you consider the carbonation and sugar in cola, vs. the beneficial antioxidants in coffee, I'd wager that coffee is the lesser of the "evils."

Please correct me if I'm wrong on this one, but my research concludes that the church has never officially declared that caffiene is the reason coffee and tea are prohibited. If that is true, then the argument about why chocolate and cola are allowable is a moot point. But if caffiene isn't the culprit, then it doesn't make any sense that herbal (caffiene-free) teas are acceptable. For what other reason could coffee and tea be outlawed besides caffiene? The verse specifies "hot drinks," so perhaps we should all be avoiding mulled apple cider and hot cocoa. Caffiene affords the most logical explanation, but that leads us back to the original question: why are cola and chocolate not included in the prohibition? If the answer has to do with the relative amounts of the drug, then we could get into a whole new discussion about serving sizesand frequency. And most Mormons I know wouldn't even consider a taste of coffee or a sip of wine, which would be less harmful than a large Coke any day of the week.

I understand that church leaders advise against substances and even activities (gambling) that have addictive qualities. But I don't understand how cola or chocolate are less addictive than the "hot drinks" from which I was always instructed to abstain. Case in point. I personally witnessed a woman struggle through a very difficult time "quitting" her Diet Pepsi addiction. She was miserable, and difficult to be around. That isn't an unusual situation. On the other hand, I know plenty of people (gasp! I am one of them!) who enjoy an occasional Starbuck's Cinnamon Dolce Latte (etc.) and aren't in danger of becoming slave to the drug.

There is a difference between having a glass of wine during a special dinner and being an alcoholic. There is a difference between an infrequent coffee date with a friend and requiring 3 cups o' joe in the morning to reach basic functioning capacity. There is a difference between getting a Coke with your Big Mac on occassion and driving around with a 42-oz. Big Gulp every single day of work to remain alert. And yeah, I guess that means there is also a difference between passing a joint among friends in college one night and getting high so often that it impedes your ability to live a normal life.

Perhaps all these musings answer the question. I finally discovered this official statement made in 1972: “With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.” (Priesthood Bulletin, Feb. 1972, p. 4.)

Okay. So that makes sense. Admonition against using drinks containing habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. The trouble is, individual predispositions toward addiction vary. So I suppose to be safe one can just rely on the last part of the message, and avoid all ingredients deemed "harmful." But it stands to reason that if a person enjoys an occasional mocha, or even goes wine tasting with friends once in a while, they shouldn't necessarily be ostracized.

The modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom generally promotes a healthy lifestyle. Once again, I understand the physical benefits of avoiding unhealthy substances, or at least exercising some degree of moderation. But I am still curious about why coffee and tea were specifically chosen as the special "hot drinks." And my research into the Word of Wisdom (conducted solely on LDS-sanctioned and neutral sites, no anti-Mormon propaganda) unearthed several other jewels, which I won't get into now except to say it's interesting how much interpretation and time can alter words. I'm not trying to convince anyone to start drinking coffee or wine. People who are curious about Mormons often ask me questions like the one I posed here. If nothing else, perhaps by sharing my investigation, I have offered some substantive information with which to build a comprehensible response to such a question. But there is always the angry, self-righteous way too.


Bridget said...

Interesting post. I think you asked all the best questions. Personally, I have chalked up the "hot drinks=coffee and tea" phrase to a cultural quirk, a product of its time. There are other things in the church like that. Things that are the way they are not because they are divinely mandated that way, but because at the time the principle (or whatever) was put in place, cultural norms dictated it so.

Personally, I was raised caffeine-less, but only loosely. I think my dad drank Dr. Pepper sometimes (does that have caffeine?) and it was never pointed out to be especially doctrinal. My mom never drank pop anyway.

Now, I am not against Coke, etc. Especially since in just about any other country you go to, you're offered coffee, tea, and Coke, in that order. You can only offend people's cultural sensibilities so many times...

There's tons more to say but I'm going to go take a nap.

Bridget said...

One more thing - by cultural quirk, I don't mean that the Word of Wisdom has no doctrinal significance whatsoever. I believe it is a revelation received by a prophet. I just mean that man has interpreted that particular phrase to mean coffee and tea, and not hot chocolate.

Kristen said...

I understand what you mean as it relates to the context of the original revelation. After all, cola wasn't even introduced until the 1880's. But if modern-day prophets still communicate with the Divine, why haven't they inquired about a culturally appropriate "update" so-to-speak?

Thank you for answering thoughtfully and not taking offense to the topic.

Bridget said...

"But if modern-day prophets still communicate with the Divine, why haven't they inquired about a culturally appropriate "update" so-to-speak?"

Maybe they have, and the answer was, "Meh. Just leave it at coffee and tea."

Or maybe it's so we Mormons just have one more belief that is basically indefensible to a non-believer (see also: the church's stance on Prop 8).

Kristen said...

Perhaps you are right. And if you are, then your second assessment also stands true. Excellent use of the word meh, by the way.


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