We don’t talk much about Brigham Young University (BYU), and when we do, we’re not normally very happy with the institution. The administrators of BYU recently made a proclamation that really drives home exactly how out-of-touch Mormon leaders are with the next generation–and how desperate they are to win that generation back. Yes, everyone, they’re finally allowing students on campus to purchase and then consume caffeinated beverages from their cafeterias and vending machines.
A Product of Its Time.
And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies. And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill. And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly. . . Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
–Doctrine and Covenants, Section 89 7-13, written by Joseph Smith in 1833
(and boy howdy does it show)
BYU’s administrators released a tweet on Friday that consisted simply of a can of Coca-Cola soda, the words “It’s happening,” and a link to their campus dining information page. At that link we find a FAQ regarding BYU’s previous policy regarding caffeinated soda and information about the change in that policy.
And what a change! They’ve decided to allow students attending BYU to purchase caffeinated Coca-Cola drinks from their dining system and vending machines.
See, BYU is the flagship higher-education institution of the Mormon Church. And caffeinated sodas used to be totally forbidden by that group’s leadership, which considered such drinks to be sinful. Their original founder, the legit straight-up shameless conjob Joseph Smith, said that his new cult’s adherents could not consume “hot drinks, tobacco, or too much meat.” But since nothing Joseph Smith
blathered wrote was actually inspired by any omniscient beings, the reasoning behind this command wasn’t particularly clear. Indeed, it’s hard for me to read the exact command, presented above in all its pompous and tryhard glory, and come away thinking that there’s anything supernatural about Mormonism.
Almost immediately after that commandment was made, Mormon leaders decided that what their god had actually meant was that they shouldn’t drink tea and coffee because the real problem with those drinks wasn’t their temperature as such but rather the caffeine they contained.
The funny thing is that I can kinda see that logic, since tobacco is a stimulant and a lot of folks thought at the time that meat was one as well, for good or ill. It seems natural to think that the command as written meant that Mormons shouldn’t eat or drink overly stimulating things. The Book of Mormon was very much a product of its time with respect to what its very human author believed about human health. In the 19th century, a lot of people had a lot of weird ideas like that about what humans should eat for optimal health and well-being. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that some of them thought hot foods were too stimulating, since many people in Joseph Smith’s time thought that spicy foods were as well.
Stimulation was considered bad because it inflamed the passions–which might lead a vulnerable person to sinful activities like unapproved sex, masturbation, gambling, idleness, and criminal acts. So foods were assigned relative moral values, with high-morality foods encouraging what were thought to be Christian virtues of asceticism, self-denial, calmness, low sex drive, and patience, while low-morality foods could potentially lead Christians into lives of depravity, crime, and debauchery. (If you’ve heard of John Harvey Kellogg and his infamous Battle Creek Sanitarium, he worked along very similar lines.) High-morality foods were stuff like homemade whole-grain bread, unsweetened wheat and corn flakes, and various vegetable dishes, while low-morality foods included red meat, sugar, spices of any sort, rich or luxurious foods, caffeinated drinks, and alcohol.
Yeah, the first half of the 1800s was a really weird time for a lot of reasons. And it’s very clear that Joseph Smith bought into a lot of the puritanical ideas about food that were floating around back then–just as the Bible’s original authors very clearly bought into a lot of the ideas floating around in their own era.
As time went on, a lot of Mormon leaders and followers alike figured that since caffeination was the issue with hot drinks, then obviously caffeinated cold drinks (like Coke and Pepsi) were also off the menu, while non-caffeinated hot beverages like Bovril and Ovaltine were considered perfectly okay.
But that extension was itself confusing. If Mormons had an issue with coffee and tea because they were hot, then it made no sense to allow Mormons to drink other types of hot liquids and yet ban very cold liquids because they were caffeinated. Joseph Smith had simply written a very confusing list. So Mormons evolved a very complicated response to that supposedly-divine plan. Some local-area leaders allowed caffeinated soda, while others didn’t. Hilarity ensued when young Mormons got married and (as one couple at this forum discussion’s link did) found out that one partner had been taught that such soda was fine, while the other had been taught that it was forbidden. Other, more intellectual Mormons tried to follow what they viewed as the spirit of the command rather than the strict letter of it. And some Mormons went off into the weeds by thinking that the problem wasn’t even caffeine itself at all as a stimulant, but rather the chemical’s addictive properties, as “Sugarbay” reasons on that forum link.
So for about sixty years, Mormons struggled with exactly what
Joseph Smith their god had meant by this command about hot drinks. BYU signed a contract with the Coca-Cola company to sell its drinks on campus,1 but only offered non-caffeinated versions of those drinks. (Yes, there exists caffeine-free Coke.) Clearly Mormon leaders didn’t worry much about maintaining internal consistency.
A Predictable Response.
Given the wild inconsistency in opinions regarding the command, Mormons pretty much did the same thing that any other Christians do when presented with nonsensical rules: they figured out ways to ignore it and work around it.
That’s why Mitt Romney was photographed drinking caffeinated soda and eating coffee-flavored ice cream, and why some Mormons do the exact same thing–even while serving in the mission field.
In 2012, Mormon leaders decided that caffeinated soda was okay for all Mormons, but as with their relaxation of rules regarding whether or not their women could wear pants, many Mormons still hewed to the original, more stringent policies–and required everyone under their control to do the same.
BYU, being as it is the bastion of All That Is Mormon, held back as well–until Friday, that is. They’d decided in the mid-1950s not to serve caffeinated soda, and that policy remained in place for 60 years. They’re phrasing the change in policy as being a response to customer demand–meaning that students were asking for caffeinated soda (but dangit, they ain’t offering them newfangled energy drinks with extra loads of caffeine, so nobody better ask!).
And an Even More Predictable Secondary Problem.
Mormon leaders appear to be stuck in the antebellum South in their hearts. When Christians pine for the good ole days, the picture they draw in their minds often looks a lot like idealized Mormon culture: a strict hierarchy, rigid gender roles, an emphasis on family life, and regressive views on sex and sexual identity, all of it forming a Potemkin village hiding the churning, roiling dysfunction and injustice that goes on behind the scenes–as indeed we find in any other religious group that attempts to recreate that kind of culture with the those kinds of rules.
It seems almost comical to people outside Mormon culture to hear that Mormon women organized an annual Wear Pants to Church Day to demonstrate that they are totally gonna wear those pants. It’s as if they need to make a holiday out of it to ensure that women feel safe enough to do that. In the same way, it’s almost hilarious to think of students being allowed to purchase certain kinds of soda as some kind of big huge stride forward for their culture.
Then again, this is a religious group that is still struggling with even acknowledging its legacy of racism, much less making serious moves to change it, and is still largely ignoring its endemic issues with sexism and bigotry against LGBTQ people. And more progressive folks aren’t letting them forget their big role in temporarily repealing equal marriage in California, a role that is explored at length in a 2010 documentary.
Who’d’a thunk that if you populate a broken system’s leadership with almost nothing but racist, bigoted old white dudes, you’d get an organization that is hugely regressive in every single way and standing on the wrong side of history on every one of its platforms?
I strongly suspect that just as evangelicals bucked the trends toward secularization until the last couple of years, Mormons may find their regressive stances coming home to roost soon. Their 2016 annual report revealed that the year before, their growth was the slowest it’s been since 1937: a 1.7% annual increase.
A Mormon guy who runs a blog about Mormon growth sees this slowdown as a great thing because it reflects more careful decisions about where to spend resources and manpower, but when I read that interview (in that Religion News Service link just above) all I could hear was the similar false show of optimism and cheer that fundagelicals put up when they were in the same boat ten years ago. He talks up growth in developing nations and in places like Kenya and Hong Kong–just like fundagelicals do when they can’t accept that their product is simply no longer appealing to people in more-developed areas and in countries that value and promote diversity and human rights. And he points to increased missionary activity and an increase in the number of churches themselves as a sign that his religion is perfectly healthy–just like fundagelicals have been doing for the last five years.
But the facts are accumulating.
Recently Mormon leaders lowered the age requirement for their young people–both men and women–to be missionaries (even allowing the women serving in mosquito-plagued areas to wear slacks, which–for the non-Americans–are professional-looking pants), and that did give the group a temporary surge in both missionary work and conversions, but that surge is hell and gone now. Moreover, the missionaries who are actually doing the work of recruitment are finding that their sales marks are growing more and more difficult to persuade, especially in well-off countries like Korea that simply don’t have worldviews that lend themselves to pie-in-the-sky promises or supernatural threats of posthumous torture.
It Ain’t Just a River in Egypt.
Last time we met up, we were talking about Mormons and how they’re following the general trends in Christianity concerning declines in numbers and clout. Lambchop kindly put up some fascinating sources that confirm what I’m seeing: Mormons are definitely in a slump, one they’ve kept secret very well but which is starting to peek through their obfuscation attempt.
Dr. Ryan Cragun wrote a book a few years ago about Mormon demographics. In that book, he discovered that not only were Mormon increases largely PR efforts rather than reality, but that Mormons themselves were fibbing about their real situation. (He also appears to have written a lot of interesting books about zealotry and secular activism, and some interesting papers about what fundagelicals accomplish by displaying “conditional acceptance” of marginalized people. We’re coming back to him, and soon.)
Among other things, Dr. Cragun found that while Mormons do have a numerical majority in their main state of Utah, they’re quite scattered otherwise. They’ve been 1.4% of American adults since 1990. But it gets worse. There are now more women in the religion than men, meaning that it’s a lot harder for women to find husbands. Remember that marriage and childrearing are two of the main parts of Mormon culture–in a large sense, the most important parts of all for most rank-and-file Mormons, and the parts that Mormons have tried to make the hallmarks of their culture. That makes Mormon parents’ pickiness about who their daughters marry seem even more hilarious than it already was, because if the situation is even half as bad for Mormons as it is for fundagelicals, they’re all but shooting themselves in the foot with simple demographics.
Once Mormon women manage to bag themselves a future husband, barely half of them actually get married in their official temple in Utah. Once one ventures away from that hub of Mormonism, of course, the percentage drops precipitously–while the number of interfaith marriages between Mormons and non-Mormons rise just as precipitously (and such marriages are way more likely to be Mormon women married to non-Mormon men than vice-versa).
One might also add to this demographic problem that only 20-50% of the folks on the membership rolls are actually active in the church–most having withdrawn from the religion. So all of those Mormon missionaries you see are aware that they literally need to offer in-home “lessons” to hundreds of people to get one person as far as conversion. (Never mind how many hundreds if not thousands of people they must approach to get one person willing to let them into their house to give them one of these “lessons.”) But of the people who get baptized, most will fall away. One guy estimated that some 30,000 lessons result in about 100 active members.
A Bone Thrown to Postpone a Dethroning.
Slowly but with determination, rank-and-file Mormons themselves are agitating for changes in their culture. Because they totally lack power in this broken system of theirs, they aren’t making a whole lot of headway, but people trapped in systems like these either eventually break and fall into line, or they just withdraw and disengage. There’s very little else rank-and-file members can actually do. And in Mormonism, such members have even less power than in standard-issue fundagelical churches. As this article from Slate.com tells us, “there’s no clear mechanism by which [Mormon] members can ask leaders to change policies.” No matter how unpopular, inconsistent, or nonsensical the policy is, and let me make clear that there are even more of those sorts of policies in Mormonism than we find even in most wackadoodle evangelical group, Mormon leaders have constructed and maintained a system that completely keeps laypeople away from any power whatsoever.
It takes imagination and a real knack for overreach to come up with something this insulated and lopsided.
It also takes the power to coerce one’s chosen victims into compliance.
That power may be running out for the Mormon Powers That Be. I’m seeing a lot of news stories and blog posts lately about how Millennials, in particular, are turning their backs on Mormonism. Their retention rates, while still pretty good, have been slipping over the last decade, dropping from some 90% in the 1970s-1980s to 64% in 2015 according to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey (discussed in more detail in the full PDF available on this page, with the most up-to-date figures on page 39 of the main report). In this respect, Mormons are doing a bit worse than evangelical Protestants are doing. And we know how bad evangelicals’ problem with retention is.
Further, the reasons that Mormons give for leaving look like the standard-issue ones that evangelicals give: they’re upset about the Mormon Church’s historical problems with misogyny and anti-LGBTQ bigotry. They’re also upset with the group’s false historical claims, but I suspect the only reason that isn’t an issue elsewhere in Christianity is simply the comparative youth of Mormonism as a Christian flavor.
Mormon leaders would be idiots not to have noticed 35% of their people drifting away, especially after having such astronomically high retention rates decades ago. That said, they still can’t admit why it’s happening. Indeed, one Mormon leader insists that people leave because they get “offended” by something someone says to them at church (sound familiar?). They’re still at that stage where they’re demonizing and vilifying those who leave, probably because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to honestly assess the damage they’ve caused and fix it–and desperately flinging their followers a few sparse bones in hopes that that quiets ’em down for a bit.
But it won’t.
In this desperation, I see them standing where evangelical leaders stood just a few years ago–hoping that a nice new worship band or a new youth-ministry program will convince people to stay, ignoring what people really want, and insulting those who don’t stay despite those meager bones thrown to them. That stuff didn’t work for evangelical leaders a few years ago, and it sure isn’t working for Mormon leaders now.
So thanks to Mormon leaders, Mormonism isn’t making much sense anymore for Mormons. The NYT quotes one woman, Joanna Brooks, as saying this about women, but really it could be about anybody dealing with the sheer crazy-making nonsense that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:
An increasing number of young Mormon women are growing up in a world where they not only can work, but have to work, and they are operating 12 hours a day in contexts where gender is irrelevant, but in a church structure where all financial and theological decisions are made by men. This will just stop making sense.
When it really sinks in with Mormons as a whole about just how little sense it makes, it’ll take a lot more than caffeinated Coke to hold back the tidal wave that’ll result.
1 It’s a notion that seems only slightly less wonky than imagining Gandhi hiring Hell’s Angels for his close protection needs.
BONUS VIDEO OF BOTHER WATCHING BIRD VIDEOS:
I swear I don’t sound like a 12-year-old in real life. I hope. God, I hope.