The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to make clear that vaping, green tea and fancy coffee drinks are off limits under the religion’s dietary code meant to keep members from consuming unhealthy substances.
Recreational marijuana is also banned, church leaders said, but medical marijuana and opioids are fine when used as prescribed by a doctor. The church had previously said it approved of medical marijuana in certain circumstances, but last year it opposed a medical marijuana bill in Utah that it said went too far.
Still, experts and church members said the clarifications raised as many questions as they answered: Why is iced tea off limits if it’s cold? What’s the church’s stance on coffee-flavored desserts? Are drinks with green-tea extract okay?
To Lauren Lethbridge, editor of Brigham Young University’s student newspaper, the Universe, following the Word of Wisdom is about obedience to the church. She said her friends have been talking about the clarification that green tea violates the rules because several of them drink juices with green-tea extract. Many of them feel fine about the extract, Lethbridge said, but one friend vowed to throw out her drinks immediately.
“I think people are still concerned and a little stressed about ‘Does this qualify?’ or ‘Is this bad?’ ” said Lethbridge, 21. “But I think less people are having it be a major concern for them.”
The Word of Wisdom is a section of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the church’s four volumes of scripture. Mormons believe God revealed in 1833 the foods and substances that are good and bad for people to consume. Liquor, tobacco, tea and coffee were prohibited.
Heber Grant, who was a church president, decided in the 20th century to drill down on the rules and to make adherence a prerequisite for entering a Mormon temple, said Gregory Prince, a historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beer and wine were initially acceptable, while liquor was not. Eventually, Prince said, all alcohol became off limits.
Church members in recent years have debated whether soda, which — like coffee and tea — typically has caffeine, is prohibited. After prominent church member and then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attracted attention in 2012 for drinking Diet Coke on the campaign trail, the church clarified that it has no rule against caffeine itself.
The church tends to issue clarifications when it gets a lot of questions about the same substance or when it realizes members in different locations are not on the same page, Prince said. He said church members also vary in how closely they follow the Word of Wisdom, which he called “a living document.”
Adhering to the dietary rules signals to others that someone is a church member, Prince said. He said the practice is similar to how Jews might keep kosher as a way of demonstrating their faith.
“This is how we self-identify within our tribe,” Prince said. “This is your outward living of your inward religion.”
Contradictions abound between the text of the Word of Wisdom and members’ 21st-century consumption habits, said Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Kalamazoo College. Most families develop their own interpretations of the rules, he said. Some Mormon households might eat coffee-flavored ice cream, for example, while others would not.
Church members believe in continuing revelation, which means that prophets interpret the scriptures for changing times, said Jana Riess, a columnist for Religion News Service and the author of “The Next Mormons.” She said the church is trying to keep up with a changing culture and the availability of new foods and other substances.
“It feels like the church is trying so hard to keep up with some of the newer questions that are being raised about these drinks or about substances … but it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk in terms of clarity,” Riess said.
Riess said there’s also a generational gap: Older Mormons are more likely to be dogmatic about the Word of Wisdom, while young members tend to follow the rules less closely.
In a study Riess conducted and wrote about in March, 40 percent of millennial or Generation X church members said they had consumed caffeinated coffee in the past six months. Thirty-eight percent of members with permission to enter the temples said they had consumed at least one of the forbidden substances.
Despite the continuous debate about interpretation, Riess said the Word of Wisdom is not supposed to be a list of commandments with defined borders. She cited a quote from church founder Joseph Smith that she said was meant to guide members’ dietary choices: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
“People really want to know what the rules are, where the boundaries are, how far is too far,” Riess said. “I feel sorry for the leaders of the church in trying to respond to this because I think that they would much rather have members understand that they have good principles and can govern themselves.”