Monday, November 10, 2014

Why I Follow the Word of Wisdom (and other wacky Mormon stuff)

Frequently asked questions

"Why do you think coffee, tea and alcohol are sinful?" 

I don't. 

I'm pretty sure Jesus drank wine. His critics actually called him "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!" (Matt. 11:18/Luke 7:34). 

As I understand it, going around judging people for what they eat or drink (or smoke) is the sin, not eating or drinking or smoking. 

True, some substances can be addictive, and addictive behavior is harmful. But I don't even consider addiction a sin. It's a misfortune. And condemning someone with an addiction as "sinful" is not likely to help them with their addiction.

"Isn't everything OK in moderation?"

Pretty much, yes. Moderation (or the Catholic cardinal virtue of "temperance") is a good motto to live by.

When I did drink alcohol, I for the most part was a responsible drinker. But on occasion I drank too much and behaved badly. I'm glad that by choosing not to drink, I've decreased the likelihood in my life of behaving badly (though it's still quite possible for me to behave badly stone cold sober!).

Occasionally I dine with a group of friends who drink wine or beer with their meal. And sometimes there is an individual in the group who is a recovering alcoholic, or who, for whatever other reason, is uncomfortable drinking alcohol. I feel good about keeping them company, so they don't have to be the only "weird" one at the table. Though, I don't mind being the only weird one at the table! I don't mind being the perpetual "designated driver." 

I don't see this as making me better than anyone else. It's just my choice. It's how I feel most comfortable living. As long as others are comfortable with the choices they're making and how they're living, that's all that really matters to me.

I like the fact that by choosing not to take certain substances I can bear witness that we each get to choose what kind of life we want to live -- even if our choices make us a little eccentric.

"What about the health benefits from drinking wine?"

As I understand it, there is clinical evidence that drinking red wine (and only red wine!) daily does help reduce unhealthy cholesterol, which reduces the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. But I understand you have to drink a glass of red wine every day in order to get this benefit. And you lose the benefit as soon as you stop drinking every day. When I did drink wine, I never drank it that often. I'd have to become a pretty devoted wine-drinker in order to get this health benefit.

One reason I never drank wine daily is because even drinking just a single glass of wine in the evening would make me feel a bit sluggish the next day. That made me decide to save wine-drinking only for the weekend. I actually found that once I gave up alcohol completely I was sleeping more soundly at night, and I had more energy overall. My doctor told me that even minimal wine-drinking has a negative impact on overall energy levels and on muscle strength, and when he learned that I had given alcohol up completely, he congratulated me on making a wise choice.

I'm very concerned about health. I practice yoga daily. I don't own a car, so I do a lot of walking and biking. I eat a balanced diet with lots of grains, vegetables and fruit, and my cholesterol is extremely low... Actually slightly lower than what is recommended to minimize heart attack risk. So... I'll take my chances without the health benefits of daily red wine drinking.

"I understand avoiding drinking and smoking, but coffee, tea, and pop? What are you allowed to drink? And what about chocolate? That has caffeine in it..."

The Mormon "Word of Wisdom" does not specifically name "caffeine" as a substance to be avoided, but "hot drinks," which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea. So technically, a Mormon can drink all the Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew (or eat all the chocolate) he or she wants, and be considered in compliance with the Word of Wisdom. Only coffee and tea are on the no-no list.

First, a word about caffeine... I used to be a serious caffeine junky. When I started working at the law firm where I currently work, there was always free coffee in the lunch room, and it was the good stuff. Really good coffee. So I got into the habit of drinking sometimes as much as five cups a day! Also, the firm had subsidized pop machines in the lunch room, and you could buy a can of pop for 25¢. So when I got tired of coffee, I'd go for a Dr. Pepper or a Mountain Dew. That was a lot of caffeine. And I found I was actually feeling kinda tired and jittery, and wasn't sleeping well.

At some point, I decided to go off it cold turkey. No more caffeine. I suffered from caffeine deprivation headaches for a few days, but eventually found that once my body had made the adjustment to a caffeine-free diet, my energy levels at work were actually higher. An OJ in the  morning, and cold water the rest of the day (and a good night's sleep the night before) actually made me a much more productive worker than all the caffeine I could drink. I still drink caffeinated soda once in a while (maybe once a month). If I'm on a long road trip and I'm feeling drowsy at the wheel, I won't hesitate to buy a bottle of Mountain Dew at a gas station on the way. But I have no desire to let this become a daily thing again.

I love chocolate. Chocoholism runs in the family. My dad's a chocoholic. My mom used to have her own private stash of Fazer chocolates that she had to keep hidden so we kids wouldn't dig into it. My sister's a chocoholic. And so am I. I have found two negative effects from eating too much chocolate. First, a nice piece of dark chocolate in the evening can keep me up till 2 a.m. Also, all chocolate (light or dark) is loaded with calories. When I eat too much chocolate every day, I start putting on more pounds than I'd like. It doesn't matter how healthy the rest of my diet is or how much exercise I get, eating a bag of Cadbury mini eggs every day will do that. Once I actually looked at the caloric content of chocolate and compared it to other foods, I decided that I could still eat chocolate every day, but only in small quantity. As a little treat! Not as a main course! And never near bed time. That keeps me a happy camper.

I should make it clear that my decisions about caffeinated soda and chocolate reflect a desire to be healthy, which follows the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Since the letter of the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit caffeinated soda or chocolate, my decisions about that stuff would have to reflect my own decisions.

"Then  why won't you drink coffee or tea?"

Because the Word of Wisdom (as currently interpreted by Church leaders) prohibits coffee and tea. This brings us back to the meaning of the Word of Wisdom for me.

Even if there were no caffeine in coffee or tea, and even if there were no known negative effects on health caused by drinking it, I would still not drink it so long as it were prohibited.

For me, there is a symbolic value of following the Word of Wisdom that transcends any possible health benefits. By following the Word of Wisdom, I in essence say that I'm willing to make this small sacrifice (it is, after all, a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things) as a sign of my love for God.

"Can't you have even just one teeny weeny little glass of wine to celebrate some special occasion?"


For the reason I've just given... Because my obedience to the Word of Wisdom has symbolic significance, even drinking an infinitesimally small amount of alcohol (a "symbolic amount"!) on purpose would be breaking it.

I love celebrating special occasions, but please don't feel insulted if I do so with a nice, tasty, non-alcoholic "sparkling" beverage, instead of with wine or champagne. This is important to me.

"But you're excommunicated, so you're not technically bound by Church rules."

That's right. This is my choice. It's one of the ways I can demonstrate my loyalty to God and to the principles of the Church, even if I am excommunicated.


I suspect that the Word of Wisdom as currently practiced in the Church is something for this time and place, and not an eternal requirement. Jesus did, after all, say he would "[drink of the fruit of the vine] with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). I look forward to that very special feast.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

By Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage, Is the U.S. "Choosing Iniquity"?

My scripture study today was Mosiah 29 (in the Book of Mormon).I can't resist commenting on verse 27 of this chapter, because of the frequency with which it is quoted (in conservative Mormon circles) against the legalization of same-sex marriage.

First of all, I believe this verse is true, and the entire chapter, actually, is a very interesting (and in some ways challenging and surprising) piece of political philosophy. (Political theology?) One of the most interesting concepts in this chapter, IMHO, is the idea that democracy encourages each individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions in a way that other forms of government can't.

The history of Nazi Germany is one demonstration of the "great destruction" wrought when "the voice of the people doth choose iniquity." (Though of course, Hitler came to power in a parliamentary system with only 33% of the vote.) It's also a classic demonstration of the notion in verse 21 that "ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood." There are plenty of other examples, but that one springs readily to mind.

If verse 27 is true, and if majority support for legal same-sex marriage constitutes "the voice of the people [choosing] iniquity" we should see "great destruction" falling on Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France, the Low Countries, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and of course the states in the U.S. and Mexico where it has been legalized. These are all democratic nations where same-sex marriage has been legally recognized through democratic and constitutional means.

Is it possible that the legalization of same-sex marriage in these democratic nations is a demonstration of the truth of Mosiah 29:26, that "it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right"?

You could argue that same-sex marriage has not been legal long enough to bring these countries under the judgments of God... But we can already see the fruit of legal same-sex marriage in the lives of gay couples, their families, their neighborhoods and communities, and it is good. We're seeing more stability, more commitment, more security both for adults and children. We are able to work at our jobs and receive the same benefits and protections for our families as other (heterosexual) workers. We're seeing the social safety net helping to protect many vulnerable who previously were not protected. We're seeing individuals who were once pariahs and outcasts integrated into their families and communities. These all seem like blessings of God being poured out in consequence of righteous choices rather than "great destruction" being visited in consequence of iniquity.

Let's also acknowledge that the predicted "destruction" of the family simply isn't happening. Gay individuals and gay families are being protected under the law -- not at the expense of but alongside heterosexual individuals and families. Heterosexuals are still getting married and having kids, as they have from time immemorial and as they will continue to do. Gay people will continue to be born into many of these families. But gay couples will now be able to get married, strengthen and support one another, support their parents, and adopt and care for kids whose heterosexual parents are not able to do so -- strengthening the social safety net for everybody.

And we will all be blessed, unless we -- like the voters of the Weimar Republic in the 1930s -- choose some genuine form of iniquity (like genocidal hatred of Jews) and bring destruction on ourselves.