A couple of days ago a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune claimed “Cola drinks are OK for Mormons.”
Cola drinks, you ask? Yes, for some reason many Mormons (not all) believe that their Word of Wisdom, which prohibits alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee, also pertains to sodas that contain caffeine. (That includes Mountain Dew, y’all.) But, we all know that many things contain caffeine, including hot chocolate, which is a local Mormon favorite. The Tribune article by Peggy Fletcher Stack says, “On Wednesday, the LDS Church posted a statement on its website saying that ‘the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine’ and that the faith’s health-code references to ‘hot drinks’ ‘does not go beyond [tea and coffee].’”
I first came up against the no-Cokes belief in the mid-‘70s when I heard some Mormon coworkers arguing about it. One guy was angry because the recently installed pop machine in the building had Coca-Cola. He proclaimed loudly that Coke was “against the Word of Wisdom.” An active LDS coworker told him there was nothing in the Word of Wisdom about Coca-Cola and the two of them had a heated exchange. “Extraordinary,” I thought.
In 2008 word that Mitt Romney liked Diet Coke sent shock waves through the local community. Cartoonist Pat Bagley published a drawing in his book, Fist Bump Heard ‘Round the World, the 2008 Election in Cartoons.
This recent clarification was made by the church because of erroneous information on the recent NBC Rock Center program about the LDS Church, that the church prohibits caffeine. One of the Mormon wives interviewed on the program said she’d never had alcohol, coffee or tea, but she “had a Coke once.” The church leadership decided it was time to make it clear what is and isn’t allowed.
I don’t know where the belief about cola drinks came from. Someone interpreted something someone once said and it got around. The Mormons have a terrific grapevine, but sometimes what comes through that grapevine isn’t true, even if widely accepted by the faithful. (It didn’t help that LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley told CBS News in the ‘90s that church members avoided caffeine. That remark, factual or not, came right from the mouth of the prophet, which gave it the official stamp of doctrine.)
But with this new “revelation” from Temple Square, to those faithful I say to ye, next time you pass a red pop machine with the logo “Coca-Cola” emblazoned upon it, do not turn your head and shudder with religious fervor, but pull out a dollar bill and have a Coke without guilt.
In my personal, non-LDS opinion, I’ve never understood the Mormon ban on coffee or tea unless it was for caffeine. Why else ban them? For those of us who have had the Starbucks staggers, overdosing on too big a jolt of caffeine, we know the dangers. But besides that, coffee, as has been reported within the past year or so, has a lot of health benefits. People who drink coffee are less likely to have diabetes, for one. You can read about coffee as a health food here. I wonder, since the Word of Wisdom was written a long time ago, like 170 years, maybe the ban had more to do with how those hot beverages were prepared in those days, than the actual drinks themselves.
As far as Coca-Cola is concerned, it wasn't even in existence in the 1830s when the Word of Wisdom was written. And, oh yeah, no big surprise: soft drinks can contribute to obesity.
I think the church would advise its members to go easy on soft drinks with sugar. Use moderation. Some church members can do that, some can't. Maybe the only reason some Mormons weren’t lying in alleys belching, with empty cans of Coke littering the ground around them is because their belief was once that they could not be a Latter-day Saint and have all of those benefits of devotion if they drank cola drinks. But now that their belief has been shattered who knows to what depths they might sink? “Honey, I’m headin’ to the 7-Eleven to pick up another case!” (Not of beer, but of Coke!*)
By making a pronouncement that they’re not against caffeine, but coffee and tea, they want to help change a perception that the Latter-day Saints Church has peculiar beliefs. But it works against the church. By calling it to the attention of the world it makes them look even more peculiar. They probably would have been better off just leaving the subject alone. So some members believe a false doctrine? Unlike some religious cranks who believe it’s all right for old men to have harems of underage “wives,” the no-cola belief is relatively harmless and might actually be healthier to believe than not.
*I’m sure it extends to other cola labels, also, like Pepsi, Royal Crown, etc.