“And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”
─ Doctrine & Covenants 89:9
My wife Ptarmi comes from a close-knit family, the Stones. Unlike the Kilgores, the Stones family is large in number and deeply religious, with membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) going back several generations. The Stones visit each other often and get together for annual summer reunions.
As a Bright and stout atheist, I am the only non-Mormon in Ptarmi’s immediate family, but I’ve been accepted without bias. In fact, Ptarmi’s mother is German and she held on to her Lutheran affiliation for years before converting to the LDS church, so Ptarmi’s parents and siblings really understand that people believe in different things and that’s okay. I assumed this understanding continues down to the nieces and nephews as well.
Several years ago at a Stones Family Reunion, I was strolling through the woods with my 7 year-old nephew Tanner. Ptarmi had given me an iced coffee drink as a special treat, and I sipped it through a straw as we walked. At one point, Tanner looked up at me and said,
“Uncle Ken, you know our bodies are our temples.”
Between sips, I muttered, “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.”
“Then you know you shouldn’t be drinking coffee.”
Coming suddenly from baby-faced Tanner, the admonishment stunned me for a moment. My head whirled with many ideas for a proper response, and I was surprised that some of them weren’t very nice. Where did such negative reactions come from? He’s just a child, parroting what he’s been taught since birth, right? I’m adult, rational and secure—so why am I feeling defensive?
Perhaps, for an instant, I sympathized with his point of view that coffee might be unhealthy and I felt the need to justify drinking it. Or was I annoyed about being put in a position to defend my beliefs again, like I had to in junior high school? Caught up in analyzing my initial private reaction, I nearly missed the opportunity to expose Tanner to my worldview and hints of broader diversity and self-determination.
“Well, Tanner, just like there are many different kinds of temples in the world, there are different foods and drinks that fit people’s bodies. For me, coffee works just right if I don’t drink too much—or too little—of it.”
Tanner’s view comes from health laws called the Word of Wisdom, given in the LDS Doctrine & Covenants. Among other things, Mormons refrain from “hot drinks”, meaning coffee and tea. But interpretation varies widely, so some LDS members include iced coffee drinks in the prohibition while others don’t, some will eat coffee ice cream while others won’t, and herbal tea is okay for most but few think green tea is.
Like some Jews who assert without any scriptual basis that their dietary laws against pork were meant to prevent trichinosis, many Mormons assume that the proscription against coffee and tea are actually directed at caffeine, although there is no doctrinal support for the assumption. Such attempts to rationalize religious health laws are usually pointless, since scriptural and doctrinal references are silent on the reasons for the laws.
Rather, members and non-members should simply accept the bans as rules of membership for that religion—obeying the rules is one definition of membership. The practical reasons for the bans don’t matter and quibbling about why coffee, or pork, or beef, or some other substance isn’t allowed does little to advance discussion and understanding between religious members and non-members.