From my observations, social gatherings in the professional world frequently — usually — consist of “drinks” after work at a local bar or pub. It is interesting to note that the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom prohibits Latter-day Saints from partaking of the precise substances that constitute the focus of such social gatherings in today’s society: alcohol, tobacco, and coffee/tea. In fact, people can often be observed using all three at such occasions and, at least in my observation, these substances themselves seem to be the central attraction of such social gatherings.
The unavoidable implication of the modern interpretation and implementation of the Word of Wisdom (compliance with which is a temple recommend question, no less) is that Latter-day Saints will never be fully part of the “in-crowd” in their workplaces or circle of friends. By not participating in the central aspect of social gatherings — partaking together of these stimulants — even with close friends, Latter-day Saints often remove themselves from the possibility of close relationships with those not of their faith. The Word of Wisdom, more than anything else about Latter-day Saints, forces us to be a “peculiar” people, as we translate what it means for us, or just “strange” or “weird” as those not of our faith often describe what it makes of us. (This is why, I believe, I have periodically seen ex or anti-Mormons criticize the Church by saying that they were fornicating long before they could bring themselves to drink coffee — the criticism seems meant to dismiss the Church as utterly fixated on maintaining appearances but also shows how strongly the restrictions of the Word of Wisdom instill themselves in our identities and daily lives.)
The Word of Wisdom precludes the possibility of close relationships with those not of our faith for at least three reasons:
(1) Those with whom we associate feel judged by our decision not to partake of the central focus of a social gathering – and often they are being judged by the Latter-day Saint in question;
(2) Latter-day Saints are “on-guard” (just a natural reaction) when everyone else is drinking alcohol over cigarettes or cigars and drinking expensive coffees in shops whose very purpose is serving such stimulants;
(3) Not participating in the central activity of a gathering — even if engaging in conversation while others participate in the underlying reason for the gathering — places one in a position of de facto exclusion.
A conscientious Latter-day Saint can overcome the first two difficulties relatively easily but can never fully overcome the third.
For this reason, it seems, the main purpose of the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom must be this effect of social exclusion. BCC’s own J. Stapley assures us that coffee is not bad for you. We have all read reports in the media to the effect that a little wine might be beneficial for the heart. Even the original interpretation of the Word of Wisdom seems to allow drinking beer in moderation (mild barley drinks) and this was common among many Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century. And we all know that not smoking tobacco, even assuming that one could not partake of tobacco in moderation, in no way ensures that one will not die a horrible death of lung or mouth cancer – in fact we all know faithful Latter-day Saints who never once in their lives used tobacco but who nonetheless died of these and other cancers.
It is this uncomfortable effect of de facto social exclusion that causes every Latter-day Saint to scrutinize his or her faith on the issue of the Word of Wisdom to justify adhering to it. D&C 89 is a guide, particularly its opening statement for why the Word of Wisdom is given: “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation”. Another clue is found in the preceding verse: the Word of Wisdom is “given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.”
It was this latter aspect that I once focused on when I was once asked why Mormons don’t drink alcohol when I (apparently noticeably) wasn’t drinking alcohol at a function. I explained that I didn’t know exactly why but that I viewed it as an act of solidarity with the weakest among us –- even if I personally would be able to drink alcohol responsibly or in moderation, we know that others within the Church would not be able to do so and therefore we all, as a group, abstain entirely. The person who asked me seemed surprised with the answer and genuinely satisfied with it –- at least enough not to make fun of me for not drinking on that occasion.
I believe that explanation is true and it certainly is consistent with D&C 89:3, quoted above. But in reflecting on that occasion, I have also come to believe that the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, which has transformed it from advice given “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom” to an absolute commandment for practicing Latter-day Saints, must locate the actual reason for it in D&C 89:4 after all (by virtue of this shift in interpretation/implementation) and, since the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” are not described in more detail so as to identify what they actually are, the actual reason must necessarily remain a mystery.
Understanding that the purpose of the Word of Wisdom is actually a mystery can be liberating in some ways. Instead of looking for a pseudo-scientific justification or explanation for the prohibitions on stimulants that are now primarily emphasized in the Word of Wisdom, we can fall back on our faith in the existence and goodness of God in revealing this to Joseph Smith and then inspiring our twentieth-century leaders to harden it into an absolute commandment in the face of the social exclusion that it costs us. As such, we can appreciate that a life without stimulants actually is good for us in very real physical ways, and we can contemplate why God or the Church would want us to experience the de facto separation from society that is the primary result of the current interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. In any case, as a Latter-day Saint who obeys these prohibitions that are emphasized by the Word of Wisdom, I am compelled to observe that it is, indeed, God’s will –- at least for now and even if I don’t know why.