Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced Thursday that caffeinated soda will be available for sale on campus, an announcement that raised eyebrows both inside and outside the church. Many Mormons are rejoicing, and many other people might be wondering whether this is a big deal.
The short answer is: It’s complicated.
Back when there were no caffeinated sodas on campus, the university claimed it was because there was no demand. Today — all of five years after that announcement — the university indicates it is merely responding to students’ requests. It’s only the market, BYU would like us to believe. Nothing to see here.
But this appeal to the irresistible forces of supply and demand both conceals and illuminates a larger story about the ways in which minority groups — perhaps especially religious minority groups — grapple with America’s ever more powerful consumer culture.
Regardless of who we may have voted for or where we stand on single-payer health care, we all obediently listen to Taylor Swift, we all dutifully nod our heads when the fashion industry tells us men should wear slim-fit clothing, and now, thanks to BYU, we all do our patriotic economic duty and drink Coke.
Perhaps some us will see the decision as a blow against excessive scrupulosity, the sort of ethical and moral demands religious traditions make that are often labeled puritanical. BYU has come under fire for this sort of thing recently, when the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the school had been investigating victims of sexual assault for possible violations of the school’s stringent honor code, a policy that drove many victims to avoid reporting their assaults. A righteous media firestorm erupted, and BYU appropriately reversed the policy.
However, the school’s honor code — which, for instance, bans drinking alcohol, gambling, tight clothing and being in the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex — has continued to receive criticism. For many students, a run to a 7-Eleven just off the BYU campus for a Coke or a Dr Pepper was a way to assert moral independence without incurring the academic and social penalties that a violation of the honor code would generate, because it was not a violation.
There is a great deal of confusion as to whether Mormons are expected to avoid caffeine because it is not mentioned in the church’s dietary code, the Word of Wisdom, which prohibits tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea. In 2012 the church officially announced that there is no prohibition on caffeinated soda. But over the past century, some church leaders advised against soda, seemingly on the theory that if no coffee is good, no caffeinated soda must be better. Such an idea may well be why BYU resisted the lure of the market for so long.
But we might also ask why it was BYU avoided selling the stuff in the first place. Mormons often describe the Word of Wisdom as a health code — but the revelation on which Joseph Smith based it also warns that it was given in “consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men.” It then directs the Mormons not to buy alcohol from non-Mormon vintners and brewers. For nearly a century after Smith had the revelation put onto paper, it was generally treated as sound advice but not a formal commandment.
In the early 20th century, church leaders made the Word of Wisdom mandatory for full participation in the church, a move that came soon after the church abandoned polygamy. Historians have often viewed the church’s increasingly strict enforcement of its dietary laws as a means by which Mormons set themselves apart from the American society they were increasingly immersed within. In this way, the Word of Wisdom is comparable to Jewish kosher laws. Avoidance of shellfish or coffee are what one scholar has termed “boundary maintenance” rather than inherently good in and of themselves.
Whether one celebrates or laments BYU’s choice to sell caffeinated beverages, then, might come down to whether one views the lowering of those boundaries as a good thing or not. The escalation of moral expectation that left rape victims afraid to come forward was driven by a destructive scrupulosity that wrecked students’ lives. But it is not as though anybody agrees that indeed, selling more sugary soda is a good thing of itself.
Mormons’ avoidance of caffeine is among a number of quirks that paints an image of them as irredeemably square, out of step, plastic and tone deaf, the sort of media coverage Mitt Romney was often subjected to. But of course, it was that same earnest personality that led Romney to become the first major Republican to condemn presidential candidate Donald Trump as an immoral phony.
BYU’s choice to sell caffeinated soda, then, may well be driven by our market-orientated society, and we might celebrate it as a victory for individual choice and personal expression. But BYU’s long resistance to doing so should inspire us to think hard about whether the values of the market are all as equally worthwhile.
Matthew Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University, and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” (Random House: 2012).