By Benjamin Knoll and Jana Riess
In The Book of Mormon Broadway musical, a memorable sequence depicts a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” where the young and innocent Elder Price experiences a nightmare full of evil: Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler… and dancing cups of coffee.
While of course satirical, this sequence conveys something about how Mormonism is perceived in contemporary American culture. Mormons are known for many things, including strong families, high levels of religious commitment, a near-global missionary effort, and their belief in the Book of Mormon as an additional book of scripture. They are also known, though, for their sober and clean lifestyles. A practice known by Mormons as “The Word of Wisdom” instructs faithful Mormons to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Indeed, during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign it was revealed that the vice of choice for Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate and prominent Mormon, is chocolate milk.
But how faithfully do contemporary Mormons follow the Word of Wisdom? Are popular perceptions of Mormons as teetotaling shunners of Starbucks accurate? The 2016 Next Mormons Survey asked more than 1,100 U.S. Mormons if they had consumed a number of specific substances prohibited by the Word of Wisdom sometime in the past six months. In a recent article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, John Ferguson, along with help from Jana Riess and me, break down the numbers on Mormon observance of the Word of Wisdom.
Only 45% of U.S. Mormons said that they faithfully had abstained from everything forbidden by the Word of Wisdom: these had not consumed tea, alcohol, coffee, tobacco, marijuana, or other illegal substances in the last six months. This increases to only 53% among those who say they attend church on a weekly basis and 61% of those who describe themselves as “very active.”
At first pass, it looks like only about half of U.S. Mormons are “squeaky clean” adherents of one of the most visible characteristics of their religion.
Further analysis of the survey results revealed a number of other interesting findings:
- The most commonly consumed substances prohibited by the Word of Wisdom are coffee (35%), tea (25%), and alcohol (25%). This decreases to 28%, 25%, and 18%, respectively, among those who report that they attend church at least once a week. Even among active, faithful Mormons, roughly one in four say they’ve had coffee, tea, or alcohol sometime in the last six months.
- About one in five active temple recommend holders report consuming coffee and tea (18% for each) in the last six months, with 11% saying that they’ve consumed alcohol. This is especially noteworthy because Mormons are required to report to an ecclesiastical leader that (among other things) they are faithful keepers of the Word of Wisdom in order to qualify for a temple recommend and participate in LDS temple rituals. It is a strong in-group signal to other Mormons that they are members in good standing.
- While levels of church attendance and activity are the strongest predictors of Word of Wisdom observance, Mormons who are better educated and who live in Utah are more likely to be faithful observers than those with lower levels of education or who live outside of Utah.
- Mormons who consume legal substances that are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom (coffee, alcohol, tea) are not, in general, also more likely to consume illegal substances that are also prohibited (i.e. marijuana, psychedelics, heroin, cocaine, etc.) This should bring some comfort to Mormons who worry that consumption of coffee, tea, or alcohol will serve as “gateway drugs” to crack and heroin among their Mormon friends and family who choose not to faithfully adhere to the Word of Wisdom.
- Among those in our survey who identified as “former Mormons,” 76% reported drinking coffee, 40% reported drinking tea, and and 62% reported drinking alcohol sometime in the last six months. These are rates comparable to those of the wider American population.
Despite Elder Price’s torment by dancing lattes in his Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, then, it seems that coffee consumption is not universally shunned in American Mormonism. Moreover, there is a wide variety of practices, opinions, and beliefs when it comes to Mormon observance of the Word of Wisdom, even among active, faithful members.
Our survey also found that Mormons are not monolithic in how central they see Word of Wisdom observance to Mormon identity. Only 34% of U.S. Mormons, for instance, insist that abstaining from coffee and tea are “essential” to being a good Mormon. In contrast, 57% say that abstaining from alcohol is essential. It seems that while many Mormons might shrug their shoulders at a member of their congregation indulging in an occasional cappuccino, a weekend margarita would be met with much stronger disapproval.
Age matters here. There is a strong generational gap in perceptions of the Word of Wisdom and Mormon identity. Only 31% and 46% of Millennials say that abstention from coffee/tea or alcohol is essential to being a good Mormon, compared to 52% and 76% of Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation.
Time will tell what might happen to prevailing interpretations of the Word of Wisdom and its significance to Mormon identity as Millennials begin to occupy significant positions of power and influence in Mormon decision-making circles at local, regional, and global levels. It is possible that they will “settle down” into more orthodox interpretations of the Word of Wisdom as they grow older, but considering that GenXers (ages 37 to 51 at the time of the survey) had similarly high rates of noncompliance with coffee in particular, it may be naive to expect that Millennials will change significantly as they age.
Full results of the Next Mormons Survey’s findings on Word of Wisdom adherence among contemporary Mormons can be found in the Spring 2018 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.