What it means to be Mormon, Part 2
By John D. Turner
4 Oct 2007

It has been said, by no less a personage than Brigham Young that we Mormons are a peculiar people. How true that statement is! As true as it was in Brother Brigham’s time, it seems even more so today.

To be Mormon is to be different. And being different is not necessarily easy. What would you think of someone who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, doesn’t swear, doesn’t watch R rated movies, doesn’t cheat on his or her spouse (or engage in sexual activity out of wedlock), doesn’t wear “immodest” clothing, tithes 10% of their income to their church, and is scrupulously honest in their dealings with their fellow human beings? This, among other things, is expected behavior for members of our faith.

For many, the manner in which faithful Mormons live their lives is reminiscent of the 1950’s. Part of the problem some have with Mitt Romney is his straight-laced “Leave it to Beaver” image. It isn’t what people expect in their neighbors, much less their politicians, and it is hard for many to believe that it is anything but an act.

Do all Mormon’s fit this mold? Of course not! Mormons, as I said before, are still members of the human race. I have heard Mormons swear. I know Mormons who watch R rated movies whenever the mood strikes them (although they are not particularly active members). Many have selectively viewed such, with probably the most widely seen being “The Passion of the Christ”. And, like most denominations, not all Mormons follow every jot and tittle of their religion.

While the issue of proper attire can be challenging for all (finding a “modest” female bathing suit, or prom dress for example), it is becoming even more of a problem among our youth; not so much at church, (although the recurring appearance of flip-flops is causing some controversy) but more so at school and other “public” venues. Kids want to fit in. For many, it’s hard to ignore fashion, and even harder to explain to their friends that they can’t wear a certain item of clothing because it violates a religious modesty code. Their friends don’t feel immodest – everyone’s doing it! To not wear tank tops, extremely short shorts, or show your belly is, well, peculiar.

It has been noted by some wags that among the Republican frontrunners, only the Mormon candidate has had just one wife. While Mormons no longer practice polygamy, and have not done so since 1890, polygamy is usually the number one thing that people respond to when they hear the term “Mormon”. That is what makes the joke funny. It also underscores another peculiarity of Mitt Romney; he has been married to the same woman (not just his “first wife”, but his “only wife”) for the past 39 years. In an era where many Americans, (who of course would never even consider practicing polygamy), couch their current spouse in terms such as “my second wife”, or “my third husband”, the idea that someone could marry (their high school sweetheart no less) and still be happily married to that same person 39 years later seems somewhat quaint. Certainly it’s a bit “peculiar”. McCain has had two. And Rudy is, of course, working on his third.

It isn’t that Mormons never divorce. Some do. In fact, some very good friends of ours recently divorced. Still, it is not as common as it is in the public at large, partly I think because it is considered a last, not a first resort. It is not unusual to find Mormon couples, such as the Romney’s, who have been happily married for decades. This is not to say that Mormons do not encounter trials in a marriage. But when such occur, every effort is made to work through them, particularly when children are involved, rather than throw in the towel and split up. Counseling couples who are having marriage problems is one of the hats the Bishop wears.

What about that abstinence from “coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol” thing. That seems pretty severe and down-right peculiar.

Actually, there is more to it than that. The prescription, known as “The Word of Wisdom”, comes from Section 89 of “The Doctrine and Covenants”, one of the four standard works in our canon of scripture. It is considered to be a basic law of health, and covers more than just the four items mentioned above, although these are the ones people generally associate with Mormons. Some of these (paraphrased) include;

Originally, this section was more on the order of a recommendation. Over the years it has been interpreted and clarified and keeping the Word of Wisdom has become a requirement if one is to be found worthy to enter the Temple.

Can you be a member of the Church and not keep the Word of Wisdom? Yes. There are many who have what are known as “Word of Wisdom problems”. We are talking about addictive substances here. It is not easy for some to break these addictions, once acquired. It is not unusual for converts to have these problems prior to becoming members; since all four are in common usage in our society and other societies around the world. However there is a segment of members, born into the Church, that for one reason or another have them as well.

When I joined the Church (yes, I am a convert), I had to give up two of the four. I never smoked, and I really didn’t like coffee, so those two didn’t even enter into the picture. I did drink lots of iced tea however, and enjoyed a glass of wine from time to time. For me, it was not a difficult thing to give them up. For others it is not so easy. I have had people tell me that although they like my Church, they could never join as they could never give up their coffee. I have always thought that it is a shame to be so attached to a substance, but, each to his or her own. I myself cannot imagine telling the Lord, “Gee Lord, you know, I really do have a testimony that this is the Church you have organized on this world, and I really would like to be a part of it, but, gosh! I just can’t give up my coffee!” Obviously, a person who would make this statement really doesn’t have such a testimony. But for those who do gain that testimony, and really are that attached to their coffee (or tea, or alcohol, or tobacco) it can be quite a conundrum, and quite an obstacle to overcome.

This is not always well understood by others. My mother, who most definitely is not a member of the LDS Church, is forever offering me a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, despite the knowledge that I cannot drink either. Her comment to me is always “well, I don’t understand how your church can consider drinking a cup of coffee a sin!” My response to her is likewise always the same; “Mom, for you its not. Drink all you want! But as for me, I have taken covenants before the Lord not to do so. You may think taking such covenants to be foolish; perhaps so, from your perspective. However, having so covenanted, for me it would be a sin so I choose not to.”

Do we as Latter-day Saints think we are “better” than everyone else because we follow the Word of Wisdom? Do we look down our nose at those who smoke, or drink coffee, tea or alcohol? Certainly many of us believe that we are healthier. And people being people, I am certain that as individuals, there are members who do think that way. There are people who are not members of the Church, who don’t smoke or drink alcohol, and feel superior to those who do. But is this a policy of the Church? No.

And while we are on the topic, let me mention one more thing concerning the Word of Wisdom, something that is not entirely well understood by the membership either. Specifically, Section 89 verse 9 states:

And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly. Doctrine & Covenants 89:9
The prohibition in the scripture specifically is against “hot drinks” which the Church, as a body, has accepted to mean tea and coffee. Since tea and coffee both have high levels of caffeine, most people outside the Church (and many within) have taken the scripture to mean that Mormons cannot consume caffeine. This is false. While we have been counseled to abstain from or at least cut back on our use of caffeinated products (it is an addictive substance after all), we are not prohibited from consuming it. Thus, it is OK for Mormons to drink cola drinks, hot chocolate (despite the fact that it is a “hot drink”) or other substances containing caffeine. It is left up to the individual as an individual choice.

By the way, it is also OK to drink herbal “teas”, hot or cold. It is never ok to drink Coffee or Tea, even if it is iced. Don’t ask me, I don’t make the rule’s, I just try my best to live by them. Why can’t Jews or Muslims eat pork, even if it is refrigerated? Why are Baptists not supposed to dance? Why do Catholics eat fish on Friday? When it comes to religious issues, there are many things people do that seem silly, outlandish, or contradictory to outsiders.

Prohibitions are binding against all members of the Church. Counsel is up to the individual. Many Mormons believe that the caffeine is the issue with the “hot drinks” and will not use caffeinated products. That is fine; it’s their choice. I have had a Bishop who stated that if it were up to him, abstinence from caffeine would be recognized as a prohibition, vice counsel, in the Word of Wisdom and therefore a requirement to get a Temple Recommend (necessary to enter the Temple). That’s fine. However, it isn’t up to him. Some day perhaps it will become a prohibition, but for now it is not. A more in-depth treatment of this issue can be found here.

I have stated that forswearing coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco were not difficult for me, and that is true. It was not difficult for my wife either. If she ever has to give up chocolate though, now that will be a challenge! I am sure however that she would rise to that challenge. Her testimony is strong, and I doubt that she will allow even such an enticing thing as chocolate to come between her and the Lord.

So the next time you see a Mormon drinking a Coke or Dr. Pepper, they are not being hypocrites; it’s OK for them to do that! But don’t be surprised if you also see another Mormon chiding him or her for doing so.

Why do we keep the Word of Wisdom (or at least try to do so)? Because we believe that the Lord has commanded us to. It is part of our canon of scripture, after all. Do we believe that doing so will get us to heaven? Not specifically in and of itself. However we do believe that keeping the commandments will be of benefit in that regard. At the least it will help keep us healthy and in tune with the Spirit. And that is a very important thing in and of itself.

R-rated movies; what’s wrong with them? I mean, if you are over 17, it’s cool, right? Well, in our church, not really. While R-rated movies are not prohibited, and are not on the list of questions asked at temple recommend interviews, we have been strongly counseled not to watch them by the prophet of our Church. As I mentioned above, some still do. Some watch them selectively. It is counsel. That means “a good idea”, not a “requirement”. Still, the Mormon niche market is not one where Hollywood would expect to make a killing with the latest R-rated slash and hack thriller.

Why the counsel? Sex. Violence. Language. Not that these can’t be found in PG and PG-13 movies as well, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. Right now it is with R-rated movies. If Hollywood keeps on devolving as it has, that line may slip to PG-13 in the future. (My opinion. Obviously, as I am not the prophet, I do not speak for the entire church.)

By the way, if anyone is interested to see for themselves what Mormons believe on various topics, there is a good opportunity coming up. Twice each year, on the first weekend in October and April, our church has what we call General Conference. This is a time when we sustain our leadership, old General Authorities are released and new ones called, and information of interest to the Church as a whole is given to the membership. In many respects, Conference is very much like a ward meeting, except that sacrament is not passed. And instead of local ward members giving talks, various General Authorities of our church are called to give talks on various topics for the benefit of the entire membership. (We call them talks. You would probably recognize them as “sermons”, although the tone may be different than what you are used to.)

Conference is presided over by the prophet of the Church (who typically also speaks), and conducted by his counselors. Since one of his counselors recently died, it is expected that a new one will be called during this conference. Since the prophet’s counselors are called from the quorum of the twelve Apostles, this also means that a new Apostle will most likely be called as well to take the place of the one who will be called as a counselor.

What’s nice is that conference is televised and available in most markets on cable and/or satellite dish. You don’t have to go to a Mormon church to watch, you can do so discretely from the comfort of your own home.

The next General Conference will be held on 6-7 October. The four general sessions will be broadcast locally in San Antonio on Time Warner Cable Channel 50 at 1100-1300 (session 1) and 1500-1700 (session 2) Saturday, 6 October, and 1100-1300 (session 3) and 1500-1700 (session 4) Sunday, 7 October. It can also be seen by those with satellite TV on the BYU channel, or on-line at www.lds.org. Past conference talks are also available in multiple languages on line at http://www.lds.org/conference/languages/0,6353,310-1,00.html. They are available in video archive as well. If, for example, you wanted to see the last conference, held in April 2007 (177th Annual General Conference), it is available at http://www.lds.org/conference/sessions/display/0,5239,49-1-690,00.html (all four general sessions, plus the Saturday night Priesthood session, and the General Young Women Meeting). It is available in multiple formats, and can be downloaded or streamed.