One constructive step the Church could take to retain members and possibly lessen the perception of Mormons as odd, would be to return to the original intent of D&C 89, the Word of Wisdom given as a principle with promise—“not by commandment or constraint.” According to Mormon historian, Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young took a firmer stance against hot drinks, interpreting them as tea and coffee, for economic reasons—to keep money from flowing out of state to purchase items not locally produced. Tobacco use was probably relegated to sin status for the same reason. Alcohol, of course, could be produced locally and a wine mission of Swiss converts was sent to St. George to grow grapes and produce a beverage which was not restricted to Gentiles.
The later Mormon view of tobacco and alcohol, even coffee and tea use, not just as a health issue but as sin, makes it difficult for those who indulge in their use to participate in Church activity—and too often causes family friction as well.
Most Americans are aware of health reasons for caring about what we consume. Plenty of medical evidence exists for abstaining from tobacco. Even moderate social drinking has negative health implications for some people. Green tea has healthful benefits, but caffeine raises blood pressure levels.
People who eat and drink things that negatively impact their health generally feel guilt from themselves, their doctors, friends, and the media without adding Church condemnation to the mix. Besides, the Word of Wisdom is selectively applied. Animal flesh, according to the D&C, is to be eaten sparingly—and only in winter—but I haven’t heard of any 300 pound members with arteries clogged from bacon grease and Big Macs being denied admittance to temples. And the heavy use of caffeinated beverages by members makes Mormon disapproval of coffee and tea appear hypocritical to non-Mo associates.
Raising kids to believe violating the Word of Wisdom is a sin creates two problems—intolerance by those who follow that teaching, and resentment from those who don’t.
Since our immediate family includes both drinkers and teetotalers, I feel a sensible rule is that we don’t have alcohol served in our home at gatherings with children. I would not object to those who enjoy a glass of wine with a meal partaking. The problem I have is that drinking more than that often relaxes language and behavior into modes inappropriate around children.
Because we raised our children with the drinking-is-breaking-a-commandment mindset, our Mormon daughter does not want wine served in her children’s presence. Some of our non-Mo kids see the rule against alcohol as a belated attempt at parental control. Both groups negotiate for us to take their side—an unfortunate situation that could have been avoided by sticking with the original meaning of D&C 89:2.