A discussion begun over at BCC propelled a train of thought that has been chugging along in my mind for some time. Amri Brown’s cousin, on being called as bishop, decided to give up Diet Coke:
So, why, why is he giving up Diet Coke? He says it is because he never wants it to be a stumbling block to those in his ward. There are members of Church that do believe caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom and he doesn’t want that to get in the way of him being able to act as their bishop. … He says that he feels impressed that he needs to give it up for the sake of others.
The responses to Amri Brown’s questions, as you can imagine, ranged from applause of the cousin’s decision to a middle of the road approach (quietly giving it up, not making an issue of it) to disappointment that he would cater to the most sensitive of ward members to exasperation that it was ever an issue at all.
I suspect that most of us run up against this, and that it’s probably a phenomenon that affects (plagues?) all religious traditions in their need to accommodate shifting spectra of orthodoxy among their constituents. I, personally, have been in many a heated discussion over the appropriateness of white shirts, close grooming, orthodoxy in Word of Wisdom, etc. In almost every case, my interlocutors have conceded that there is nothing cosmically important  about the need to wear white shirts or not to drink caffeine or not to shop on Sunday, but that what is of utmost importance is not to become a “stumblingblock” for another member of the church, so it’s best just to conform, to “take one for the team” in Brown’s words.
This discussion, though benign enough, raises some broader issues about the negotiations of liberal and conservative factions within a given tradition. My intuition  tells me that when traditions are faced with the transition from charismatic to bureaucratic authority, these sorts of standardizations (usually the freezing of formative cultural elements and creation of orthodoxy around those elements) creep in. When they do, I think the field is ripe for the most conservative veins to gain an upper hand, precisely because of the reasoning espoused by the cousin: I want to offend the fewest members of my congregation. I’ve a close jewish friend of the reform tradition who constantly laments the stranglehold that orthodox factions hold over everything from politics to what kind of food one can have at pan-jewish gatherings, precisely because the orthodox position is considered to be a kind of “common ground” where everyone can participate fully: since the reform camp can eat everything that the orthodox do, the orthodox are catered to.
This thinking spills over into politics and probably every other arena of religious life. I’ve heard many statements along the lines of “I’m not sure whether gay marriage is threatening traditional marriage, but I’m going to be “safe” and side with the conservatives,” or “I want my kids to be raised in a safe environment, so I’m going to send them to the American Heritage School in American Fork, where no amount of evil is tolerated.”
But all of these arguments and tendencies neglect to acknowledge, at least in my experience, the fact that not taking a risk is itself a risk, that changing your behavior so as to avoid becoming a stumblingblock might itself constitute a stumblingblock! The desire not to interfere with someone else’s gospel experience thereby constitutes interference. There is no neutral position.
This was driven home to me as I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky on CSPAN, in which the interviewer asked how young people could overcome the feeling that being involved with social issues is risky. To which Chomsky responded with something like, “tell them that not being involved is itself a risk, both from a social and a personal standpoint. Your lack of contribution may well be a contribution to the wrong side. You risk, at the very least, coming to the end of your life and counting it as a waste.”
I believe the ministry of Jesus to have made this point over and over: that many of these behavioral mores (viz., sabbath worship, ritual cleansing, to drink or not to drink caffeine, to wear white shirts, etc.) are in themselves damaging to the quest for salvation. I, for one, am thus inclined not to interfere with someone’s salvation by actively making the point, to my children and associates, that stuff like this is not to be the focus of our religious attention.
 Some argued that wearing a white shirt was symbolic of the temple and purity, and therefore that we should wear white shirts (too bad for you sisters…). They had a hard time when I pushed their symbolism and asked them who, in the live temple sessions, dresses like most of the men on Sunday, in a white shirt and dark suit?
 Read: I’ve never put this to any scientific test, nor read studies dealing with this aspect. Caveat lector.
 I’d love to know where.