For those of us who have been imbibing caffeinated beverages (of the cold, carbonated variety) all of our Mormon lives, the church’s caffeine statement comes as no radical surprise. It’s not that I doubt Joanna Brooks’s accounts of childhood Coke avoidance, it’s just that in my neck of Zion, such zealotry has always been a minority position. So far, no big deal. Held up for scrutiny, it’s always been rather obvious to me that the church could take no logical position against this particular alkaloid per se. So, the statement is no Manifesto . . . except that it kind of is.
I bet many of you have heard Mormons talk about the specter of tannic acid as proof for the wisdom of the prohibition against tea. Such a bizarre proof represents a Mormon need to have the Word of Wisdom be a code of health. I know why we do it — the Enlightenment compels us to want religion to make sense and tannic acid renders explicable the otherwise inexplicable avoidance of camelia sinensis, especially given what appear to be its health benefits. You have studies that show that green tea is awesome, I have tannic acid. I win because “acid” sounds awful.
I can think of three models for interpreting the Word of Wisdom:
1. Original literal intent: The 1833 revelation is taken literally. Excessive meat eating is out, as are wine and liquor, while mild barley drinks (beer) are in. “Hot drinks” = well, hot drinks.
2. Personally reinterpreted intent: Seeing the Word of Wisdom as a rather time-specific divine “greeting,” or example of best practice in antebellum healthy living, the believer adapts the principles to 2012, committing to living moderately and wisely. Maybe they drink tea, maybe they don’t, but if they do, it won’t be with too much sugar, because it is sugar (and the sugary food complex) that represent “evils and designs” in the 21st century.
3. Authorised reinterpreted intent: The 1833 text is not taken exactly at face value but is reinterpreted through official, normative channels in the LDS church. Thus, when considering what drinks are not kosher, official guidance from the church is sought, the answer in this case being “tea, coffee, alcohol.”
Only model two sees the Word of Wisdom primarily as a health code and it is the one most out of step with current LDS practice. That is telling. Model three is the official position of the church and while there are certainly health benefits to not smoking, drinking, etc., it is not the primary reason for adherence to the Word of Wisdom. Primarily it is about obedience to a principle that marks Mormons as different.
Now, this is probably an obvious point to many readers but it is interesting that the caffeine statement confirms it. By confirming that carbonated, often highly-sugared, very unhealthy drinks are kosher, the church is confirming that the Word of Wisdom is not really a health code. If it were, we would all be drinking green tea rather than Diet Coke. Once again, the Newsroom shifts the sands.