About two weeks ago, the Church Newsroom said in response to NBC’s “Mormon in America” that the Church does not prohibit the use of caffeine. The Newsroom quickly hedged, but by then bloggers and tweeters were off to the races. “OK, Mormons, drink up,” wrote the Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack; @nicknewman801 celebrated “the sound of a million cans of soda opening”; and cartoonist Pat Bagley, tongue firmly in cheek, compared the announcement to other great moments in Mormon history, like the settlement of Utah and the end of polygamy. Not to be left out, BYU students quickly started a movement calling for caffeinated beverages in campus cafeterias and vending machines.
As I watched the coverage unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder what any non-Mormons listening in must think. Why is a church taking a position on caffeine? Is this seriously a moral issue? And if a church is going to be taking a position on caffeine, why is there so much confusion as to what that position actually is?
So to help any non-Mormons who read this to understand what’s going on, I’ve decided to publish a semi-imaginary conversation with a semi-imaginary friend, who we’ll semi-pretend is a Jewish atheist who keeps semi-kosher and loves arguing theology. For purposes of semi-anonymity, we’ll call him Mordecai.
Mordecai: So, what drinks are actually prohibited by your Word of Wisdom health code?
Me: Alcohol, of course, and coffee, and tea made from actual tea leaves. Herbal and fruit teas are permitted, as are coffee substitutes like postum, so long as they don’t have any actual coffee in them. Decaf is out. I’m sure some Mormons would disagree with me on some of this, but from every official guidance I’ve seen, this is an accurate statement of the Church’s rules.
Mordecai: We’ll get to the disagreements in a minute. But first, why coffee and tea?
Alan: The revelation on which the rule is based counsels against “hot drinks,” and Church leaders have interpreted that to mean a prohibition on coffee and tea.
Mordecai: So it’s about temperature. Is hot chocolate permitted? How about iced tea and iced coffee?
Alan: Hot chocolate is permitted. Iced tea and iced coffee aren’t.
Mordecai: So it’s not about temperature. Is it about steeping plants in water? No–you said herbal and fruit teas were okay. What else do coffee and tea have in common if not caffeine?
Alan: I have no idea. And for that reason, among others, I personally avoid caffeine. But the rule is what’s official and binding, not my theory. Attempts to give reasons for the rule are unavoidably speculative, and in any case they’re less important than the rule itself. A friend of mine wrote a great article on this, by the way.
Mordecai: So the disagreement comes from people coming up with reasons for an unexplained rule, then expecting everyone else to live according to their invented reasons.
Alan: Exactly. There’s an element of a “hedge about the law” as well–people want to make sure they’re not breaking the rules, so they set up secondary rules to keep themselves away from the edge of the primary ones. As time goes on, they forget their secondary rules are secondary, and it makes them uncomfortable to see people breaking them.
Mordecai: But why do you need a hedge about the law? That’s a Jewish idea. You’re Christians. You believe Jesus died for your sins. Why do you need a law at all, to say nothing of a hedge?
Alan: Here things get more complicated. There are few more hotly debated issues in all of Christianity than the relationship between living a moral life and being saved, and there are few issues on which Mormons take more flak for supposedly being outside the Christian mainstream.
The standard criticism runs something like this: Christianity is about orthodoxy, about believing the right things. If you have faith in Jesus, he will save you. Mormonism is about orthopraxy, about doing the right things. According to this line of criticism, Mormons believe they save themselves through good works, and therefore they aren’t Christian.
Mordecai: That fits what you just said about the rule being more important than the reasons for the rule. Why do I get the feeling you’re going to say it’s not that simple?
Alan: Because I never think anything’s simple. And because this really isn’t. I think neither of the traditional categories of orthodoxy and orthopraxy really capture what Mormons believe leads to salvation. We’re focused neither on believing the right things nor on doing the right things but on faith in the sense of faithfulness, of fidelity–on making the right covenants and staying true to them. I tried to coin a Greek term for it once, but “orthodiathecy” just sounds lame.
Mormons believe that through the very first covenant they make, at baptism, God accepts them into his covenant people and forgives their sins as an unearned act of grace. But both to make that covenant and to remain faithful to it, a mixture of physical acts and inward intentions is required. It’s a lot like faithfulness in a marriage–which should not be surprising, given the how often the Bible describes the relationship between God and his people as a marriage. To be faithful in marriage, one must of course abstain from adultery, but being truly faithful to the marriage covenant requires much more. Just how much more is never really clear. There are rules you have to follow for fidelity’s sake, but fidelity can’t be reduced to rules.
Mordecai: What does caffeine have to do with any of this? And why doesn’t the Church make it clear whether drinking caffeine breaks a rule you have to follow to be faithful?
Alan: I think it has. You don’t have to give up caffeine to be baptized or to make the covenants involved in our temple ceremonies. You do have to give up coffee and tea, at least as a general rule. But remember that fidelity isn’t just about following rules. Mormons are supposed to keep the Word of Wisdom not just to show that they’re willing to follow God’s rules, but to take care of their body and avoid addictions so that they can be more useful to God. I’m sure there are many members who can use caffeine safely, without putting either of these goals in jeopardy. I’m sure there are others who become addicted to caffeine or use it to sustain unhealthy sleep schedules–and that some of these are at a place in their life where they can’t avoid that, and drinking caffeine is the least of the evils they have to choose among. It’s not my job to judge.
Mordecai: So do you think some Mormons want the Church to just come out and say “caffeine is okay” so that they don’t have to feel conflicted over whether their own use of caffeine violates their covenants?
Alan: To be fair, some of them probably just want their judgmental in-laws to leave them alone. But yes, I think there’s an ever-present temptation to reduce fidelity to rules because, in a sense, rules are easy. They may sometimes be hard to follow, but they’re easy to measure yourself by. It’s easier to say, “I’ve never cheated and I’ve always gotten her nice birthday presents,” than to ask yourself whether your wife is really as important to you as you promised she’d be. And this is neither a small nor a new problem. It was Jesus’ chief condemnation of the Pharisees:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
Life would be simpler if it were all laid out for us, but often, wrestling with ourselves over whether we’re really committed to give God everything is more important than the actual decisions that cause our soul-searching. Sometimes the fuzziness of our rules isn’t a sign of sloppy rule-making. As one Mormon bishop said in the context of tithing, often it’s kind of the point.