Wednesday, June 1, 2011

If They Don't Drink Coffee, How Do They Wake Up?

Mormons don't drink coffee. The reason they don't is something called the "Word of Wisdom," which is the name given to the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants, which also requires some explanation. Doctrine and Covenants is a book of teachings and revelations received and written down by Joseph Smith (with a few notable exceptions at the end that have come from Latter-Day Saint prophets after Joseph Smith and have been added to the collection in subsequent editions). Yes, besides translating ancient scriptures from gold plates buried in the ground near his childhood home, Joseph Smith also wrote brand new scripture from scratch. His teachings and the revelations he received from God are compiled in Doctrine and Covenants and treated as modern scripture by Mormons, who proudly note that God is still speaking to man.

Smith's writings contained in the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants begin by identifying the section as a "word of wisdom," and through popular synecdoche those words have come to mean for Mormons all the teachings about food and drink contained in the section, along with the clarifications on those teachings that subsequent church leaders have given. The prohibitions include alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Actually, the section itself says that "hot drinks" are prohibited, but church leaders after Joseph Smith have made clear that "hot drinks" means coffee and tea. "Hot drinks" doesn't mean soup. (A friend of mine once told me that she met a Mormon who wouldn't touch soup because of the Word of Widsom; I had never, ever heard of such a thing before.) Coffee and tea are prohibited, regardless of the temperature at which a Mormon might wish to drink them. The color in which they come doesn't matter, either - green and white tea are still tea, so they're out. Herbal teas, which don't actually contain tea, are fine.

Coffee is the one that throws most folks for a loop when they hear about the Word of Wisdom for the first time. Inevitably someone will ask why. Mormons will try to come up with pseudo-scientific reasons, but I think the best answer to that question is simply that God (or at least Joseph Smith) said so. Another common question is, "What about decaf?" The answer to that one is, "Avoid even the appearance of evil." Besides, neither Joseph Smith nor the leaders of the church after him have ever officially said, "You can't have caffeine." You probably find this confusing, and so do Mormons. On church-owned properties, such as Brigham Young University or the Missionary Training Center, no caffeinated soft drinks are sold or dispensed. A lot of Mormons take that to mean that caffeine is a no-no. But it ain't necessarily so. You can, for instance, find hot chocolate (which contains some caffeine) on church-owned properties. A lot of Mormons won't drink caffeinated sodas, but plenty will, and there are no privileges of church membership lost by doing so. Indeed, there's a joke that "jack Mormons" (think of the term as the equivalent of secular Jews) and in-the-know non-Mormons love that drives this point home: "What's the difference between members and non-members? The temperature at which they drink their caffeine." Lots of Mormons drink Coke. There's even a rumor out there that the church owns a lot of stock in Coca-Cola. And in the rural valley where I grew up, plenty of Mormons drank Mountain Dew - especially the young men. Mountain Dew was, in a way, a sign of rural Mormon masculinity, much like driving a truck jacked up high over gigantic tires, complete with a gun rack in the back window. In fact, the can of Mountain Dew would finish the look by being placed in the truck's cup holder. In my house we weren't allowed to drink caffeinated sodas. Well, we weren't until I was a teenager, when somehow or another my mother discovered and became addicted to Diet Coke. Then we were allowed. I myself went through a serious Dr. Pepper phase in my teens. And I was still allowed to pass (and, later, bless) the sacrament.

Since Mormons aren't supposed to drink coffee, it can take on the same kind of forbidden coolness that cigarettes or alcohol can for other teenagers. In high school, I belonged to a somewhat rebellious crowd, and we'd signify our cool (if careful) rebellion by casually mentioning to our peers that we drank coffee. A favorite place to go was the Village Inn (or V.I., if we wanted to sound especially cool), a chain of diners down in the city below that were open late. You can hardly imagine the kind of responses that would be elicited by a bit of conversation that sounded like this: "What did I do last night? Oh, some friends and I went out for coffee at the V.I." The listener's eyes would grow wide and breath would be sucked in, and the edginess and cool factor associated with the speaker would rise considerably. Coffee was bad enough to make you cool, but not so bad that you were written off altogether as one who had gone hopelessly astray.

I myself threw out the claim of drinking coffee a good number of times in high school, but the truth is I never really developed a taste for the stuff, and I still don't drink it. My preferred poison back then (and even now) was iced tea. In an area that was at the time probably something like 99% Mormon, I managed to make friends with the one bona fide non-Mormon in my age group (she came out as a lesbian right after high school, so my seeking her out was probably inevitable for a number of reasons). She was of Catholic stock, although her family didn't seem to practice any kind of religion. Why she and her family ended up in Utah, let alone rural Utah, is still a bit of a mystery. But one glorious mystery they did reveal to me was the pleasure of iced tea. This family took a special sinners' delight in providing me my fix each time I went over to their house. Once, when I was grounded, my friend even sneaked a big plastic mug of the forbidden drink to me. I convulsed the whole time I sipped it alone in my room, but my shakes were probably due more to my fear of being caught than any caffeine deprivation I was experiencing.

So, if Mormons don't drink coffee (or tea), how do they wake up in the morning? Why, with family prayer and scripture reading, of course. That's how we did it in my house. We also had herbal tea or Postum. (Now off the market, Postum was a coffee-like instant warm drink make from wheat. It was a hit in my family, and my parents still have a stockpile of it in their basement fruit room.) And on those truly bad mornings, when the eyelids won't open even for scripture reading, there are Mormons who might just start the day with a can of Coke or Mountain Dew. They just hope that the scripture reading doesn't involve section 89 of Doctrine and Covenants – or, if it does, that their caffeinated soda is ice-cold.