Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beer for my Brothers (and Sisters)?

LDS Teachings and the Culture/Doctrine Divide, Part II

In my last post on this topic (see here) I discussed how the line between cultural and doctrinal aspects of the LDS church can often become fuzzy, and such uncertainty may prompt pharisaical behavior. One example used was whether one would violate a commandment by getting a tattoo in light of President Hinckley’s ‘body is a temple’ talk. I personally believe that getting a tattoo would not be breaking a commandment per se; to me the no tattoo rule is simply a cultural position instituted by a wise leader. In fact, in some cultures, tattoos and body piercings are considered not only beautiful, but a sign of devotion to their Creator.

However, as can be expected, many in the Church would be quick to pass judgment on such behavior. As generations pass, they will progressively look at these actions even more negatively because, if for nothing else, they would have been raised to believe that these actions are wrong. This pattern can clearly be seen in the case of caffeinated beverages.

So how does this relate to beer? Well, I submit that this very phenomenon took place with regards to barley-based “mild drinks,” or beer, as outlined in the Word of Wisdom (WoW). In particular, the WoW teaches that “barley,” among other things, should be used “for mild drinks” (D&C 89:17). Mild drinks should be directly contrasted with the prohibited “strong drink” of verse 5, which obviously corresponds to hard liquors as known in 1833.

Beer is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from grains – the most common of which is malted barley, although wheat, corn, and rice are also widely used. Interestingly enough, verse 17 does not limit mild drinks to a barley-based platform, but further counsels that “other grain” should also be used to make these “mild drinks.”

At the time of the revelation, it was certainly understood that beer was not a prohibited substance. In fact, as recently as 1901, Apostles Brigham Young, Jr. and John Henry Smith argued that beer was not prohibited by the WoW. See Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14:3 (1981) pp. 78–88. In fact, while the original Word of Wisdom as a “principle with promise” was given by revelation, there is no evidence that any Church leader has claimed a separate new revelation, or even a spiritual confirmation, of changing the Word of Wisdom from “a principle with promise” to a commandment. Id.

So, when did drinking beer become a violation of a commandment? In order for any doctrine to be officially binding on the church it must be presented by a unanimous First Presidency and sustained by the body of the church. See D&C 26:2; 107:27-31. It does not appear that this happened for beer.

Instead, it wasn’t until 1921, under the auspices of Pres. Heber J. Grant, that the WoW finally became a test of faith (i.e., temple recommend question). If you know your history, this occurred just after the commencement of the Prohibition movement (circa. 1920-1933). Therefore, one might argue that in the LDS culture beer evolved into a prohibited substance as a byproduct a time when all alcohol was prohibited by law, thereby creating a habit of abstaining from beer and not simply "strong drinks" and creating a situation where that habit was taught as wise counsel. It is notable that even at the end of Prohibition the Saints did not agree that alcohol should be banned. In fact, despite the pleadings of Pres. Grant, Utah became the 36th state, and final vote, to repeal prohibition.

The point I want to emphasize is that our great-grandparents knew that beer was not doctrinally prohibited, per se, just as we know today that tattoos are not doctrinally prohibited. Nonetheless, both beer and tattoos have eventually become “discouraged” by priesthood leaders. Such admonitions as we have seen, although not specifically defined in any canonized work, eventually become binding on later generations. Will we teach our children the evils of tattoos and multiple piercings until one day it ends up as a temple recommend question?

As we all know, LDS Church leaders today teach that the consumption of any form of alcohol, including beer, is a manifest violation of the WoW. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Body Is Sacred,” New Era, Nov. 2006, pp. 2–5. As members of the Church, can we accept this as doctrine based on modern revelation which teaches us that “[w]hether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38)? Or do we note an apparent conflict between the permissive language of the WoW (barley for mild drinks is acceptable), and current doctrine and heed subsequent teachings from church leaders stating that: if something a person says contradicts the scriptures, then we may know that it is false. See “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” in Charge to Religious Educators, p. 111; see also “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, Harold B. Lee” at 66. However, the facts/history listed above raises the question: could someone consume beer and then honestly assert in a temple recommend interview that he/she adheres to the WoW?

In sum, I am not going to change my “no alcohol” policy any time soon (and I hope readers won’t use this as fodder for rationalization). Clearly, the LDS are better off for not consuming alcohol as can be proven by several scientific measures and just plain common sense. I’d be interested in reader’s comments on this topic (e.g. beer, or the broader topic of cultural expectations vs. commandments). Another interesting occurrence that happens as a result of these doctrinal evolutions is that it creates situations where we could possibly judge someone for doing something that is not necessarily contrary to commandments (i.e. pharisee-behavior). Do we run this risk when we give a member or new convert a hard time when we see them struggle with something like drinking beer?

End Note: I'd like to thank Jeremy for his considerable contributions and editing of this post.


HeidiAnn said...

I drink "Roastaroma" herbal tea by Celestial Seasonings (actually it's more of a coffee substitute). Anyway, the first ingredient is roasted barley. Maybe that's more along the lines of a 'mild drink' than beer.

FelixAndAva said...

Beer is just as addictive as any other alcoholic beverage, as I have witnessed in people I've known, and causes just as much needless suffering as any other alcoholic beverage. Alcohol is alcohol, in whatever beverage.

To me, "mild drink" means "does not contain alcohol".

Nate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FelixAndAva said...

I'll stick with the interpretation given by inspired Church leaders, thanks. Playing "well, what about this?" too often at least looks like trying to rationalize away the commandment.

Even if I weren't LDS, I'd have a very negative opinion of alcoholic beverages anyway, having witnessed too much harm done by alcohol in my family. Frankly, there is no benefit to alcohol that cannot be obtained in non-addictive ways, and the grain, fruit, etc., that is deliberately spoiled to make alcoholic beverages could be put to much better use feeding the hungry, rather than being used to poison one's body and brain.

Nate said...

HeidiAnn and Felix:

Everything I've read about the time surrounding the WoW (i.e. 1830's) indicates that beer containing 1-5% alcohol were considered mild. Common publications and medical journals of the time defined "strong drinks" pretty clearly as meaning what we would consider hard liquor. And wine was always treated differently (just like in the Wow).

I do agree that the spirit of the law is to avoid anything addictive. And when it comes down to it, one could not reasonably argue that drinking 20 beers is different than drinking a couple "strong" drinks.

Nate said...

---sorry about the deleted comment...that was responded to. I was going to pull the meat part because I didn't want to go off topic. But since there was a response, I re-posted it.

Nate said...

FelixAndAva: I agree. And as I said, I will not be changing my no-alcohol policy anytime soon.

The point I am making though, is that there seems to be a non-commandment commandment here (even if it is one we should follow).

One of the main reasons I wrote this post is because I witnessed a failed missionary experience where it seemed like the investigator was turned off after constantly beat up about WoW issues (even more so than he was asked about how he was coming on developing a testimony).

That is the danger I see in an evolving commandment...and I think there are more than this one (I just picked on beer because it would cause a better discussion). Are we properly emphasizing them?

I see the rationalization danger. However, playing the "well, what about this game" in this circumstance may be helpful.

For example, would you reflexively look down on an elder who had one beer a year? Would you think him unworthy to give a blessing? Before I looked into this topic I would have...but what if he's right? That would mean I am improperly being judgmental, which is probably more dangerous than that elder's beer.

Michael said...

Good post. As with many issues in the Church (blacks and the Priesthood, "hunting lust", meat, beer, tattoos, piercings, R-rated movies, iced tea, etc.) we have taken cultural issues and turned them into theological injunctions. When will we ever learn to separate the true Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ from our mountain west cultural hang-ups?

The Saints have always had a hard time with diversity but as we grow around the world, we need to be very careful not to export these insecurities to other areas where the cultural traditions are different. We must concentrate our efforts on building faith and testimonies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and Our Saviour.

Nate said...

No love from Jeremy or Hans? What do you think I apostate?

To all: What role is common consent supposed to play? It is clear that our leaders teach us wise principles, but are they also meaning to lay down hard/fast rules?

And, what do you all think of my multi-generational commandment evolution theory?

Evgenii said...

Nate, I think your post converges with my last post on the last point you make. When can we rely on what GA's say when sometimes they appear to be wrong? Is it a cultural issue? I am planning a post on BRM's comments after the priesthood revelation on this topic and I don't want to threadjack your post.

Scott Gordon said...

Well I don't know about Y'all, but I'm going to go belly up to the bar down at the old water'n hole now.

Nate, you made my day!

Scott Gordon said...

Oh, I forgot...Cheers!!

Scott Gordon said...

Shame on you HeidiAnn. I'm pretty sure the WoW is farily explicit about tea, "Roastaroma" or not!