Con­text: This is a let­ter I wrote to my moth­er and father about my cur­rent approach to the Word of Wis­dom. I recent­ly resigned from the Church, and I have oth­er sib­lings who have left and who I sus­pect will leave, so I want­ed to estab­lish some com­mon ground and explain my cur­rent think­ing as a way to build bridges of under­stand­ing. I’ve added a few head­ers, sim­pli­fied some of the word­ing, changed some for­mat­ting to make it more read­able, and added a few thoughts that weren’t in the orig­i­nal.


Dear Mom and Dad,

First off, I’m excit­ed that you two are about done with your mis­sion. We’re all proud of you and glad you were will­ing and able to give of your­selves and serve oth­ers so dili­gent­ly. I’m con­fi­dent that you have blessed many people’s lives. And maybe most of all, I’m glad that serv­ing has enriched your life and your mar­riage. I am also grate­ful for every­thing I learned, the good I was able to do, and how I grew as a per­son on my mis­sion.

Introduction

I was glad we were able to talk about alco­hol and the Word of Wis­dom some about a month back. Some­times those con­ver­sa­tions are tough to have. For me, it’s hard when I hear that you dis­ap­prove of me, my actions, or my way of think­ing. For you, I know that it’s hard to hear when your chil­dren think or act in ways that run against the grain of your strong­ly held beliefs and you feel may result in your kid’s (or your Grandkid’s) short or long term harm (which is com­plete­ly under­stand­able). In the end, even though they can be hard con­ver­sa­tions to have, I pre­fer to have them because I think talk­ing through and under­stand­ing why a per­son feels and thinks the way they do is the only way for rela­tion­ships to grow. If our rela­tion­ships are to just stag­nate, what good is that for any­one? I think vibrant, grow­ing rela­tion­ships are worth the effort. And, I think it is healthy to view dif­fer­ences as a poten­tial strength to our fam­i­ly, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly a weak­ness.

So, in that spir­it of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and under­stand­ing, I want­ed to advance our dis­cus­sion about alco­hol, tea, and cof­fee a bit. I have observed that dif­fer­ences in ideas about the Word of Wis­dom are often a stick­ing point between active and post-Mor­mon fam­i­ly mem­bers. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there is enough com­mon ground that we should all be able to under­stand and respect one another’s posi­tions.

Your Position

Maybe I’ll start by reit­er­at­ing what I think is your posi­tion (feel free to cor­rect me if I have not ful­ly cap­tured it):

For our day and age, any alco­hol con­sump­tion is unac­cept­able. Out­side of the fact that alco­hol is pro­hib­it­ed by the mod­ern Church, this is based most­ly on a cost/benefit analy­sis where you rec­og­nize no ben­e­fit to alco­hol con­sump­tion and at the same time rec­og­nize all the ills that are facil­i­tat­ed direct­ly or indi­rect­ly by alcohol—primarily impair­ment of deci­sion mak­ing abil­i­ty (e.g., embar­rass­ing oth­ers), dam­age to health (can­cers, etc), facil­i­tat­ing or con­tribut­ing to sub­stance abuse addic­tions, and DUI relat­ed deaths and injuries. You also men­tioned the sto­ry of your father drink­ing and mak­ing promis­es that he didn’t fol­low up on and how painful that was to you. So, inso­far as it con­tributes to bro­ken promis­es, you are also against it.

For the sake of dis­cus­sion, I’m also assum­ing that you dis­ap­prove of peo­ple drink­ing tea or cof­fee. This is based at least part­ly on the fact that these drinks are for­bid­den in the Word of Wis­dom, and also on the idea that these sub­stances may cre­ate a phys­i­cal depen­den­cy in peo­ple and may con­tain oth­er harm­ful sub­stances (e.g., tan­nins).

Again, if I’ve mis­char­ac­ter­ized your thoughts, please feel free to clar­i­fy.

Inso­far as I under­stand this posi­tion. I respect this posi­tion. I also respect the idea that if the church is true, then this is coun­sel from God and hence should be giv­en strong con­sid­er­a­tion.

Common Ground

Out­side of that, I also believe that all of us (fam­i­ly mem­bers in the Church and out of the Church) share a com­mon core of belief on these mat­ters. I think we believe the fol­low­ing with sim­i­lar, if not iden­ti­cal, con­vic­tion:

  1. Our agency is pre­cious, hence it is wise to avoid becom­ing addict­ed to any sub­stance. A state of addic­tion is self-defeat­ing and, in pro­por­tion to the lev­el of addic­tion, leads to mis­ery and loss of agency.
  2. Giv­en that we live in our bod­ies and we desire that they serve us well we ought to treat our bod­ies with great care and respect. Our bod­ies are not mere objects to be used sole­ly for our own plea­sure but vehi­cles for our soul/consciousness to expe­ri­ence life and to help and bless oth­ers.
  3. One death by DUI is too many. Peo­ple should nev­er dri­ve (or oper­ate heavy machin­ery) under the influ­ence of alco­hol.
  4. One addic­tion (or death due to addic­tion) is one too many.
  5. Chil­dren and young adults should wait at least until the legal drink­ing age until con­sum­ing alco­hol.
  6. Unless there is a rea­son that jus­ti­fies it, peo­ple should keep their promis­es. Unless there is some good rea­son for it, peo­ple should not do things that would embar­rass them or any­one else.
  7. Enjoy­ing the good things of the earth is healthy and part of liv­ing a ful­fill­ing life.

The phi­los­o­phy behind the last point is also cap­tured in D&C 59:18–20:

…all things which come of the earth, in the sea­son there­of, are made for the ben­e­fit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to glad­den the heart; Yea, for food… for taste and for smell, to strength­en the body and to enliv­en the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath giv­en all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judg­ment, not to excess, nei­ther by extor­tion.

In my mind, I see that we share an enor­mous amount of com­mon ground with one anoth­er, and I think that com­mon ground extends gen­er­al­ly to most peo­ple inside and out­side of the Church (how much this extends to peo­ple out­side of the Church is maybe a dis­cus­sion for anoth­er day).

Health Consequences

One point where we prob­a­bly do not see eye-to-eye yet is on the health con­se­quences of alco­hol, tea, and cof­fee. The Church typ­i­cal­ly focus­es on all the neg­a­tive aspects of tea, cof­fee, and alco­hol. After my faith tran­si­tion I decid­ed that I should research the health effects (since I knew next to noth­ing about all of these). I was strong­ly biased against all of them. But, after spend­ing many hours research­ing the health effects of these sub­stances, I came to the real­iza­tion that I was mis­in­formed and my fear of them was large­ly unfound­ed.

I encour­age you to spend some time becom­ing acquaint­ed with the sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus on the health effects of these drinks. Below I’ve made links that will pull up the lat­est review arti­cles with each of these in the title and “health” in any oth­er field. That way you can read the sci­ence (or at least the abstracts—that’s what I do for the arti­cles behind a pay­wall) for your­self.

Below are some basic sum­maries of what you will find above, from the gen­er­al media:

I used to think that the ben­e­fits of alco­hol, tea, and cof­fee con­sump­tion were just pushed (and inflat­ed) by peo­ple who want­ed to jus­ti­fy a habit. How­ev­er, cer­tain aspects of the sci­ence is fair­ly well estab­lished at this point (i.e., the over­all health effects). These sub­stances are like­ly some­what good for you (par­tic­u­lar­ly in mod­er­a­tion), but at worst prob­a­bly just neu­tral for health. How­ev­er, viewed in com­par­i­son to soft drinks (or high sug­ar snacks), they are con­sid­er­ably more healthy. I believe that vir­tu­al­ly every med­ical doc­tor who has tak­en the time to famil­iar­ize them­selves with the data would agree with me.

Of course, I’m aware that some of the health ben­e­fits (and few­er unde­sir­able side-effects) may be derived by con­sum­ing oth­er sub­stances (e.g., grape juice), but that does not negate the pos­i­tive effects of tea, cof­fee, and alco­hol con­sump­tion (espe­cial­ly when com­pared with high-sug­ar bev­er­ages, which is what many Lat­ter-day Saints reg­u­lar­ly con­sume as an alter­na­tive to tea, cof­fee, and alco­hol).

Addiction and Dependency

It is cer­tain­ly true that con­sum­ing too much alco­hol reg­u­lar­ly can lead to addic­tion and reg­u­lar­ly con­sum­ing too much caf­feine can lead to a mild phys­i­cal depen­den­cy. Inter­est­ing­ly, I’ve recent­ly learned that there is a dif­fer­ence between an “addic­tion”, as it is for­mal­ly defined by psy­chol­o­gists, and a phys­i­cal depen­den­cy. While alco­hol can be addic­tive, caf­feine is not: “Caf­feine addic­tion, or a patho­log­i­cal and com­pul­sive form of use, has not been doc­u­ment­ed in humans” source. Hence, while caf­feine depen­den­cies may be incon­ve­nient and unde­sir­able (and should be avoid­ed), they are not dan­ger­ous in the same way that an alco­hol addic­tion may be—alcohol addiction/dependency is a seri­ous issue.

The Church has set­tled upon an approach of com­plete­ly avoid­ing these sub­stances as a way to deal with these risks. Such an approach has some clear advan­tages. For instance, those in reli­gions that pro­hib­it alco­hol have much low­er rates of alco­hol depen­dence than the gen­er­al pub­lic. But cre­at­ing a taboo against alco­hol can also gen­er­ate high­er lev­els of guilt/shame, and high­er guilt/shame is inverse­ly asso­ci­at­ed with addic­tion recov­ery rates. In addi­tion, peo­ple with high­ly com­pul­sive or anx­ious per­son­al­i­ties may just end up mere­ly choos­ing a dif­fer­ent addic­tion or pre­oc­cu­pa­tion (e.g., eat­ing, a hyper­sex­u­al dis­or­der, or a reli­gious addic­tion) with­out ever deal­ing with the root mental/emotional caus­es behind their behav­ior.

The alter­na­tive mod­el for deal­ing with addic­tion risks is mod­er­a­tion, edu­ca­tion, aware­ness, and open­ness. In this mod­el, fam­i­ly mem­bers are taught the risks, mod­er­a­tion is encour­age, and fam­i­ly mem­bers are open about their use (i.e., there is no taboo). Prob­lems may be dealt with by work­ing towards mod­er­a­tion rather than alco­hol absti­nence. This kind of approach can­not guar­an­tee a fam­i­ly mem­ber will nev­er become addict­ed at some point, but it does fos­ter an envi­ron­ment where addic­tion is not like­ly to occur because it removes pri­ma­ry dri­vers of addic­tion (taboo and secre­cy) and if it does occur it is like­ly to be dealt with before the behav­ior has spi­raled out of con­trol. As an exam­ple, Euro­peans drink more alco­hol than Amer­i­cans, and alco­hol use is inte­gral to their cul­ture (e.g., teenagers can legal­ly drink at home at the age of 16), but Euro­peans engage in binge drink­ing far less fre­quent­ly than Amer­i­cans (the world’s lead­ers in binge drink­ing) (source). Sim­i­lar­ly, nations that have decrim­i­nal­ized drug use gen­er­al­ly report low­er drug use (source).

I see mer­its to both approach­es, and I am fine to use aspects of both approach­es (for instance, I expect and demand alco­hol absti­nence of chil­dren in my care, and I strong­ly advo­cate the absti­nence approach with high­ly addic­tive sub­stances like hero­in or meth). The Church also uses both approach­es to deal with var­i­ous issues. An absti­nence only approach may work great when it works, but when it fails the results may be cat­a­stroph­ic. A moderation/openness approach may have a high­er rate of fail­ure (i.e., some­one becomes addict­ed to some lev­el), but fail­ures may be less cat­a­stroph­ic. Both approach­es have sig­nif­i­cant mer­it.

My Position

Once they famil­iar­ize them­selves with the data, most of your fam­i­ly who has left (or may leave) will like­ly adopt some­thing sim­liar to this pol­i­cy regard­ing alco­hol, tea, and cof­fee:

There is no prob­lem drink­ing alco­hol, tea, or cof­fee in mod­er­a­tion. It is much bet­ter for a per­son than drinking/eating high-sug­ar snacks.

Of course, dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly mem­bers will vary in how much they inte­grate these into their lives (if at all), but on prin­ci­ple, I don’t think any of them will reject them out­right. Respon­si­bly drink­ing an occa­sion­al glass of alco­hol, tea, or cof­fee eas­i­ly fits with­in the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples I’ve out­lined above and is con­so­nant with liv­ing a healthy, pro­duc­tive, respon­si­ble, and hap­py life.

I am ask­ing that you respect me and all of your fam­i­ly mem­bers who hold this posi­tion (or who may hold this posi­tion in the future). And I am ask­ing that you respect this posi­tion. I believe that you should respect us as much as you respect any of our sib­lings who choose to abstain in some or all of these drinks for reli­gious or health rea­sons. I am ask­ing you to respect us as much as we respect you in your choice of abstain­ing.

Reflections

I also want to offer up some data and thoughts for reflec­tion. I’m fol­low­ing each of these data points with some thought ques­tions. I hope you don’t find them too annoy­ing. Some of them are lead­ing ques­tions (sor­ry). I obvi­ous­ly have thoughts about these things, and they have shaped my ques­tions. I’m just hop­ing that in think­ing about some of these ques­tions you can gain some addi­tion­al insight into why/how I think the way I do about this top­ic.

Okay, here goes:

  1. At a wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion, Joseph Smith taught that drink­ing wine on such occa­sions was an “insti­tu­tion of heav­en” and a “pat­tern set us by the Sav­iour him­self.”

    We then took some refresh­ment and our hearts were made glad with the fruit of the vine. This is accord­ing to the pat­tern set us by the our Sav­iour him self when he graced the mar­riage in Cana of Gallilee and turned the water into wine that they might make them­selves joy­ful, and we feel dis­posed to patron­ize all the insti­tu­tions of heav­en. joseph­smith­pa­pers

    Was Joseph Smith wrong when he talked about the pro­pri­ety of drink­ing wine on such occas­sions? If the amount con­sumed and the atti­tude of con­sump­tion are the same, is it any less after the pat­tern the Sav­ior set if non-mem­bers drink at such spe­cial occas­sions? Were those drink­ing alco­hol at this wed­ding cel­e­bra­tion licen­tious? Were they weak of char­ac­ter?

  2. Joseph Smith record­ed that he “drank a glass of beer” at a bar two weeks before his mar­tyr­dom (see The Mil­len­ni­al Star [3rd para­graph from the bot­tom of the page on the right col­umn]). Was Joseph Smith weak in char­ac­ter for doing this? Was he being irre­spon­si­ble?

  3. We also have record of Joseph Smith drink­ing wine in every­day life when offered it. For exam­ple:

    Called at the office and drank a glass of wine with Sis­ter Jenet­ta Richards, made by her moth­er in Eng­land, and reviewed a por­tion of the con­fer­ence min­utes. (His­to­ry of the Church)

    Should he have declined drink­ing wine with this woman? Did drink­ing togeth­er enhance or dimin­ish from the expe­ri­ence? Was he able to ade­quate­ly per­form his spir­i­tu­al duties fol­low­ing his drink? Did this action mean Joseph was weak in char­ac­ter?

  4. The Word of Wis­dom explic­it­ly pre­scribes drink­ing beer (read D&C 89:17 very care­ful­ly). This is con­firmed from the behav­ior of the ear­ly Saints (I’ve read through all the ear­ly doc­u­ments on this). Brigham Young said this about beer in 1875:

    [beer] is a mild drink, and is very pleas­ant and agree­able to a great many … (source)

    Can the drink­ing of beer be viewed as keep­ing the orig­i­nal intent of the Word of Wis­dom?

  5. Drink­ing wine for “sacra­ments” (D&C 89:5) was clear­ly inter­pret­ed by Joseph Smith to mean drink­ing wine was fine for spe­cial occa­sions. Can drink­ing wine on spe­cial occa­sions be con­sid­ered keep­ing the orig­i­nal intent of the Word of Wis­dom?

  6. In the ear­ly church, drink­ing alco­hol because a per­son was feel­ing down was con­sid­ered com­plete­ly with­in the bounds of the Word of Wis­dom. For instance, John Tay­lor said this about his expe­ri­ence in Carthage Jail:

    Some­time after din­ner we sent for some wine. It has been report­ed by some that this was tak­en as a sacra­ment. It was no such thing; our spir­its were gen­er­al­ly dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Cap­tain Jones who went after it, but they would not suf­fer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. (His­to­ry of the Church)

    Were Willard Richards, Hyrum Smith, John Tay­lor and Joseph Smith weak in char­ac­ter because they drank alco­hol when their “spir­its were gen­er­al­ly dull and heavy”? Did they lose the spir­it as a result of this action?

  7. The First Pres­i­den­cy and Quo­rum of the Twelve drank wine every week at their Tem­ple sacra­ment meet­ing until 1906.

    On 5 July 1906, the First Pres­i­den­cy and Coun­cil of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacra­ment meet­ings. Fair­Mor­mon

    Did a glass of wine each week inhib­it their spir­i­tu­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty over the course of the +50 years while this was being prac­tised? Did this action make them of weak char­ac­ter? Did any of them become addict­ed?

  8. Mus­lims for­bid eat­ing pork and Hin­dus do not kill cows, both for reli­gious rea­sons.
    How­ev­er, most Lat­ter-day Saints feel that eat­ing beef and pork in mod­er­a­tion is just fine (for instance, all Church owned restau­rants of which I am aware serve meat as the main course at almost every meal). How would you feel if a Mus­lim or Hin­du friend looked down on you because you eat meat spar­ing­ly? Would they be jus­ti­fied in look­ing down on you? Are you weak of char­ac­ter because you eat meat spar­ing­ly? Are the brethren weak of char­ac­ter because they eat meat spar­ing­ly?

  9. In 2004 and 2005 Utah led the nation in pre­scrip­tion drug abuse. In 2002, it was found that anti-depres­sants are pre­scribed in Utah more than any oth­er state, and at twice the nation­al aver­age.
    Utahns rely on mind-alter­ing sub­stances with high fre­quen­cy (both legit­i­mate­ly and ille­git­i­mate­ly). Which are more like­ly to be addic­tive: pre­scrip­tion drugs or alco­hol? What is the dif­fer­ence between a per­son who “self-med­icates” by drink­ing a glass or two of alco­hol when their spir­it is “dull and heavy” and the brethren in Carthage doing it? Which is a bet­ter soci­ety, where peo­ple take pre­scrip­tion med­ica­tions to help deal with depres­sion, or where they drink alco­hol (in mod­er­a­tion) to help deal with depres­sion? Is their any real dif­fer­ence between the two?

  10. It has been shown that both mod­er­ate and heavy drinkers of alco­hol live longer than those who do not drink alco­hol (even after con­trol­ling for all oth­er pos­si­ble vari­ables) (source).
    If a per­son drinks alco­hol because they want to low­er their risk of heart dis­ease, is that irre­spon­si­ble? Does that mean they are weak of char­ac­ter?

  11. You talked about not want­i­ng to hear about if I ever drank alco­hol. How am I sup­posed to feel about myself if I choose to respon­si­bly drink alco­hol when you treat it like this (i.e., shun­ning it)? Does this behav­ior need to be shunned? What good does this kind of shun­ning accom­plish? What do you gain emo­tion­al­ly by set­ting up the sit­u­a­tion in this man­ner (i.e., enact­ing a wall of silence, sep­a­ra­tion, and shame)? Does it help you? Does it help me? Does such a wall of silence help to con­tribute to addic­tive behav­ior in gen­er­al (i.e., could it con­tribute to peo­ple keep­ing prob­lems hid­den)?

  12. If respon­si­ble drink­ing becomes an enrich­ing part of my life (like it was for Joseph Smith), why would you not want to share in that joy and jour­ney? The ear­ly brethren felt like it was impor­tant enough to note on many occas­sions. Should they have kept their enjoy­ment of alco­hol hid­den? Does the fam­i­ly share pic­tures with you when they go out shoot­ing? At this time I don’t choose to own a gun or to shoot guns as a hob­by. Should I try to shame or shun those who shoot guns? Should I assume they ful­ly under­stand the risks, or should I wor­ry about them and their gun habit? Is shoot­ing guns togeth­er real­ly more pro­duc­tive than drink­ing alco­hol (respon­si­bly) togeth­er?

  13. Per­haps the most press­ing health cri­sis in the U.S. is direct­ly relat­ed to exces­sive con­sump­tion of refined sug­ar. Sug­ar is addic­tive, may dam­age rela­tion­ships (e.g., dimin­ish­es sex dri­ve), and is respon­si­ble for a num­ber of health prob­lems:

    Why is it that one-third of adults [world­wide] have high blood pres­sure, when in 1900 only 5 per­cent had high blood pres­sure?” he asked. “Why did 153 mil­lion peo­ple have dia­betes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 mil­lion? Why are more and more Amer­i­cans obese? Sug­ar, we believe, is one of the cul­prits, if not the major cul­prit.” source

    It can eas­i­ly be argued that sug­ar dwarfs alco­hol use in terms of total dam­ages, loss of life, and impact on qual­i­ty of life. Yet the Church offers high-sug­ar treats at vir­tu­al­ly every func­tion (e.g., ice-cream sand­wich­es, cook­ies, etc.). As a fam­i­ly, many of our fond­est tra­di­tions and gath­er­ings revolve around con­sum­ing treats high in sug­ar.
    Tea, cof­fee, and alco­hol all have been shown to con­tribute to longer life-spans and gen­er­al­ly to greater health while exces­sive sug­ar con­sump­tion is linked to short­er life-spans and gen­er­al­ly poor­er health.
    Why is it okay to look with favor upon those who embrace sug­ar as a sub­stance inte­gral to cel­e­bra­tions and family/social gath­er­ings but then to shun those who see tea, cof­fee, and alco­hol as sub­stances inte­gral to cel­e­bra­tions and social­i­ty?

  14. I rarely if ever con­sume a nor­mal soft drink (and if I do I usu­al­ly only drink about half of one) because I am aware of the harm­ful effects of fruc­tose on metab­o­lism and health. If I were to drink a glass of beer, tea, or cof­fee on occa­sion, I think that may be more healthy than many of my LDS col­leagues who reg­u­lar­ly drink sev­er­al soft drinks every day (some fair­ly caf­feinat­ed). If I am exer­cis­ing sim­i­lar care and mod­er­a­tion in my con­sump­tion choic­es, and my choic­es are like­ly to be as healthy for me as are their choic­es, why would you respect my choic­es less than theirs?

Conclusion

On a final note, Elder Ren­lund recent­ly said this:

We may on occa­sion find our­selves in uncom­fort­able sit­u­a­tions where we dif­fer in doc­trine with … fam­i­ly mem­bers. But the doc­trine can nev­er be used to jus­ti­fy treat­ing oth­ers with any­thing less than respect and dig­ni­ty.

I hope that I have not offend­ed you in talk­ing open­ly and freely on this top­ic. If I have, please feel free to explain how and why and I will try to under­stand. Also, if you feel like you have new or dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion to add to the dis­cus­sion, I wel­come it. I also want to make clear that in relay­ing these thoughts and ideas I am not try­ing to con­vince you that you should change your opin­ion on how you choose to live or what you con­sume. Like I said, I have deep respect for the Word of Wis­dom and gen­er­al­ly think it is a sound code to live by. I am mere­ly ask­ing that you respect your chil­dren who choose to fol­low a slight­ly dif­fer­ent health code—especially since that code is gen­er­al­ly con­so­nant with the same fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples that we all believe.

Love,

<bwv549>

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