“Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea because caffeine is a mind-altering substance, right? That’s what I was told.”
I was sitting with a group of students waiting for class to begin; we were talking about our different obsessions. I brought up my coffee obsession – I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about brewing methods and roast qualities. This discussion then segued into the Mormon taboo against coffee and tea.
My classmate’s statement was entirely right – at least, correct according to the interpretation I grew up with.
“I grew up thinking that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that you needed to avoid – we were also told to avoid caffeinated sodas,” I said. “But now caffeinated soda is OK.”
The proscription against coffee and tea owes to the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes against the consumption of hot drinks. I said as much to my classmates.
“So no hot chocolate?” said another classmate.
“We-e-ell…no, hot chocolate is OK.”
Mormonism is confusing, even to people who grew up in it. The reason that Mormonism is so confusing is because it changes all the time and once it changes, there is a collective denial that the policies were ever any different. A more serious example would be the priesthood ban on blacks; until 1978 black men were banned from holding the priesthood, a policy that effectively barred them from the majority of church life. Church officials have never offered an apology or explanation for the ban. Nor have they refuted the words of earlier leaders, who taught some truly reprehensible teachings on race in the name of God. There is just a collective denial.
While conducting research for this post, I came across a commentary in the Deseret News about the caffeinated sodacontroversy. The author began by saying that everyone knows what the stance is on Coca-Cola, that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specifically mention Coca-Cola. She then tells an anecdote from her childhood where her mother poured caffeine-free Coca-Cola down the drain, to “avoid the appearance of evil.” The author’s conclusion was that she would still avoid Coca-Cola. Reading this article brought back memories of a youth camp counselor who told our group of girls that she would not marry a man who had touched a cup of coffee. All of this must seem very silly to outsiders but following the Word of Wisdom – whatever the current interpretation may be – is a serious issue within Mormon circles.
I grew up thinking that caffeinated soda was bad, a teaching that was echoed by the members around me. In her memoir “Book of Mormon Girl,” author Joanna Brooks writes that she felt like a “root beer among colas.” Brooks was raised to avoid caffeinated sodas; she writes about being a child at non-Mormon birthday parties, worrying about finding the root beer among cola drinks.
Then, somewhere along the way, caffeinated sodas became acceptable. Perhaps it was the Monson effect - the current church president drinks a lot of Pepsi. Perhaps people became used to the idea of caffeinated sodas. But all of this was unofficial. Then, last summer, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement saying the Word of Wisdom only applied to coffee and tea, creating a huge controversy within Mormon circles.
As a Mormon, I was a pretty anxious personality. Now, based on the fact that I can’t even explain the rationale behind a policy that is so integral to Mormonism, I am beginning to understand why I was so anxious. We were raised to take this all very seriously. We were promised that Mormon doctrine was infinite and unchanging. But whatever it was that we were supposed to do and why, we really didn’t know. Or rather, we did know, at least until someone came along and told us we were wrong.
We just knew we had to follow no matter what.