Caffeine and the Hedge around the Law

For the record, I think that BYU’s decision to resume selling caffeinated beverages after a 70 year ban is a horrible thing that will not be good for the Church. As many have noted, this will go a long way towards normalizing those same beverages in the Mormon rank and file. People will start drinking Coke and Pepsi willy nilly without even a nagging hint of guilt. It will be absolutely normal. And this is why I mourn.

Don’t get me wrong. I like caffeinated drinks. I drink far too many of them for my health. Diet Dr. Pepper is my favorite. I have had the caffeine-free version, but it just isn’t the same. Oh, all of the same flavors are there, but the guilt is missing. I like my beverage choices tinged with sin and regret. They just taste better that way.

This works with books too. One of the first acknowledged classics that I ever read and enjoyed was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It was good in and of itself. But it was even better because, for some reason, it was controversial in my high school and we weren’t supposed to read it. The knowledge that I was sinning added a certain amount of glee to my normal reading process.

Really, I’m not a rulebreaker. I am downright obedient to most authority centers in my life. I drive the speed limit, calculate my taxes honestly, tell the truth most of the time. It’s just how I’m wired. Big Disobedience doesn’t tempt me much; I’m just not the type.

So, if I am going to be a sinner (and who doesn’t want to sin sometimes, just on principle) it is going to have to be with the little things–the gray areas that are just barely above or below the bar: really thoughtful R-Rated movies, paying tithing on the net instead of the gross, saying “damn” and “hell,” but only for a good reason–and, of course, drinking Diet Dr. Pepper.

I have long thought that Mormons approach to rules is a lot like that of Rabbinic Jews who have historically argued that ordinary spirituality should “build a hedge around the law” to make sure that you never get too close to breaking an actual commandment. It’s a sensible precaution: make sure that you spend most of your time trying to be super-obedient, and, even if you fail obeying at the A+ level, you will at least never have to worry about getting a D- and flunking the class.

Latter-day Saints have a lot of hedges, most of which occupy a semi-official place between culture and doctrine. For the most part, these are don’ts: don’t date until you are 16, don’t be alone with somebody of the opposite sex who is not your spouse, don’t go to the store on Sunday, don’t wonder whether or not leaders are inspired–that sort of thing. As long as we hold firm to these sort-of-rules, we will make sure never to bump up against one of the big ones.

It’s annoying at times. All of these cultural mini-prohibitions can create an almost insufferable sense of self-righteousness, which is bad, and they can cause good people to feel an inordinate and spiritually destructive amount of guilt, which is much, much worse.

But there is a huge upside for those of us who want to be sinners on principle but don’t want to have to work very hard to do it: all of these little rules give us all kinds of things that we can break without much trouble, and their semi-sinfulness makes them much more enjoyable without the deleterious personal and spiritual results that usually accompany big-time transgression. They let us have our Coke and drink it too.

Which is why I remain fundamentally opposed to BYU’s shortsighted decision to normalize a formerly ambiguously prohibited substance. Now that caffeinated beverages are totally OK, I am going to either have to start being more obedient than I want to be or find some other basically consequence-free rule to break.  

And dammit, I just don’t have time for that.


  1. This is one hell of an opinion.

  2. “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.” —
    attributed to Martin Luther in a 1530 letter to Jerome Weller,

  3. David Tedder says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Your thoughts resonated with me. We’ve come a long way from complaining about Neil Diamond playing on campus because his hair was too long. But I have to say, I was thrilled to find a diet Coke in the temple cafeteria after doing a veil worker shift.

  4. Yep, BYU just cut a big hole in the hedge. I guess I’ll just have to revel in the fact that I still can’t find kombucha on campus.

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    You sound like Nate Oman defending the BYU dress code.

    Aaron B

  6. First we pity, then endure. Then embrace.

  7. Martin James says:

    I suggest candy cigarettes.

  8. Was it the dress code, Aaron? I was literally just now Googling around, through the Times and Seasons website and elsewhere, because I feel certain I’ve heard Nate make this exact argument before regarding Coke. But I guess maybe it was the dress code. I’m going to have to go to the source to be certain.

  9. I read Slaughter House Five for the same reason. I figured if was good enough to burn in Footloose I should check it out, and it was great book.

  10. I hated all the Vonnegut I ever read. IT deserved to be burned because it sucked, not because it was offensive! Thankfully, I forgot all of it except for the aftertaste.

    As for the OP, Austin, what do I expect from someone who loves Job? I appreciated the last sentence though.

  11. I agree about Vonnegut. If you wanted to read something slightly verboten, you’d have a lot more fun with “Catch-22.”

  12. I have to drop my all time favorite post on Mormons and caffeine here — which also uses the phrase hedge about the law.

  13. Miss Quoted says:

    Coca Cola. A gateway drink. Hedges grow best in water.

  14. Maybe coffee ice cream will fill the role that caffeinated sodas once did.

  15. Owen Witesman says:

    You could always take up eating gentile cheeses:

    (Barely Buzzed is fantastic.)

  16. Just find new ways to sin. Drink tea.

  17. Sharman H Wilson says:

    I never went through the Coke-avoiding thing because I grew up in Connecticut in the 50’s and 60’s, and I never heard one word about it. My Dad was addicted to the stuff. When I went off to BYU in 1971, I thought it was weird and annoying that they didn’t sell it. After being there a while, I did cut back on it, but I had no qualms about using it as a cure for headaches, stomachaches, and for staying awake when I needed to.That’s been my attitude ever since, except I haven’t drunk as much soda as I used to because of the sugar. I DETEST diet drinks of any kind, so they don’t help on that score. I wonder if the cola hedge only existed in the Mormon belt, and when it became an expectation. Does anyone know? Maybe I was just born in the right place at the right time. Ha, ha!

  18. Aussie Mormon says:

    I know over here members were drinking coke, pepsi, dr pepper etc for as long as I can remember.

  19. On a serious note, I don’t think this is really about hedges but rather it’s really about legal ways to get a caffeine+sugar fix.

    More light heartedly, from way out on the fringes this whole discussion is a humorous anecdote about a fondly weird culture. If you really want to play with hedges, consider the world of teas. The fully oxidized Western black tea might be a step too far on the dark side. But how about cold green tea. You get to debate caffeine content, health effects (especially if you play with sweeteners or none), literalness of “hot”, multiple interpretations and ambiguity. Or Yerba mate. Or qishr. Or coffee tea (which is neither by typical WoW standards). Any of those should supply the frisson that you seek?

  20. All soda is bad and wicked and unhealthy and fattening. You wanna hit/to stay awake? A litre of Coke or a double espresso? It’s not rocket science.

  21. There’s a problem with building a hedge around the law–the implicit assumption that we can improve on the commandments of God.

    The commandments of men are taught as the commandments of God, and, if someone is sent by God who keeps the commandments of God but not the commandments of men, he will be called a sinner.

    We cannot improve on God’s commands.

  22. So at first he calls it a sin. Then he calls it a semi sin. Thing is it’s not a sin at all. Never was. Just a cultural thing added on.

  23. RJH – Green tea. That fits Michael’s needs perfectly:

    Black tea…a step too far. Herbal tea…too safe to get the high. Unambiguously good for your health and the WoW is a health law. I hear it has long been tacitly allowed in *some* asian countries.

    Go to Michael!

  24. Fortunately, we have more hedges than a garden maze; you’ll be all right.

    For me, the cognitive dissonance exhibited exhibited by the more, um, thamnophobic (?) members of my LDS family and friends makes this decision a net win. Granted, the dissonance only lasted a few minutes (if-BYU-is-doing-it -it-must-be-fine)… but the looks of consternation in those intervening minutes were priceless: “How could they -do- that? It just seems so -arbitrary-?”

    Welcome to my ecumenical world, Baby.

  25. I vote for Japanese green tea. it has about one tenth of the caffeine as coke and actually is against the Word of Wisdom. And there is always that ol’ Southern favorite, ice tea which is classified as a hot drink for purposes of the temple recommend question on the subject. (Except my bishop doesn’t count it as forbidden since he drinks it).

    We Mormons make it easy to feel guilty. You don’t even have to trot out the dangerous stuff like cocaine, heroin or fentanyl.

    Next will be holding hands with your neighbor’s wife….. Maybe not.

  26. Don’t worry, BYU-I can still fuel the pseudo-rebellion with actions so innocuous as wearing shorts.

  27. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Every time I eat produce that is out of season, I feel the full weight of guilt for my transgression. But I delight in my sinfulness. Sometimes I’ll bring a fruit salad to Ward functions in February, just to entice my fellow members to sin. It’s glorious.

  28. Curtis Carmack says:

    Ah, but that fruit is in season somewhere in the world.

  29. Steve Robinson at BYU used to joke that “times of cold” in section 89 means the age of refrigeration.

  30. From the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Caffeine – by far the most popular stimulant – has been linked to a number of harmful health effects in children, including effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems. Energy drinks are never appropriate for children or adolescents, said Dr. Schneider and Dr. Benjamin. In general, caffeine-containing beverages, including soda, should be avoided.” But, by all means, Mormon youth, have a Coke and a smile!

    For a long time, the belief that the Word of Wisdom should be understood to include all caffeinated beverages (not just tea and coffee)–a belief, I’d add, that was more than casually encouraged in Church publications, from the pulpit, and most publicly in Hinckley’s appearance on Larry King Live–comported with what we now know about the (at least moderately) deleterious health effects of caffeine. BYU is caving on this under pressure from students, after the Church caved on it in 2012. The Church–through the chickensh!t mechanism of its PR arm (“Thus saith the Flack!”)–caved on it in 2012 in order to try to make Mormons, and particularly Mitt Romney, seem a little less square. (How’d that work out?)

    So, now, what are we left with? We went from a Word of Wisdom that was prescient–one might say *prophetic*–to one that is willfully disconnected from science. Now it’s just a quirky affectation, a test of faith, or a divine game of “Mother (in Heaven) may I?” Members are left in even greater darkness, as the great dietary revelation is further shrouded in layers of bureaucratic, never-quite-official lore. “Hot drinks” include iced tea! Marijuana is against the Word of Wisdom, even though it isn’t mentioned in it–even if it’s *legal* to consume! You’re a gospel hobbyist at best–and apostate at worst–if you take the injunction against meat-eating seriously!

  31. One might think BYU is the bastion of moral practicum for the world to see. That would be provincial thinking. Does anyone pay attention to the University of Tehran? Rick Steves said the UofT makes BYU look like Berkeley. But no one really is looking. There is a self-satisfied distorted view particularly of BYU students and alumni that BYU is the standard in all ways to the world, in academics, sports and behavior. That is cute!

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