In a recent article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, John Ferguson, Jana Riess, and I share results from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey regarding observance of the Word of Wisdom among self-identified American Mormons. We find that there is a high degree of variation in Word of Wisdom compliance. Less than half (45%) of American Mormons, for example, said that they had fully abstained from tea, alcohol, coffee, tobacco, marijuana, or other illegal substances in the last six months. While we might be tempted to assume that this represents mostly inactive Mormons, we found that full compliance increases to only 53% of American Mormons who say they attend church weekly. In other words, even among active, church-going Mormons, only about half say that they are “squeaky clean” Word of Wisdom observers. (More highlights from the article are available here and the full article is available for purchase from Dialogue for $1.99 here).

Perhaps most surprising (to some) were rates of Word of Wisdom violation even among those who report they have a current temple recommend. Among this group, a full 18% said they have had coffee in the last six months, another 18% said they have had tea, and 11% said they have consumed alcohol. One in ten say they’ve consumed tobacco and one in twenty say they’ve had marijuana.

This is surprising, of course, because temple recommend holders are required to report that they are in compliance with the Word of Wisdom in order to qualify for their recommends.

Some possible explanations for this apparent contradiction include:

First, perhaps many of these individuals desire a temple recommend for social or family reasons. After all, who wants to miss a family wedding or be known as a second class citizen in a strong Mormon community because they don’t have a current recommend? They may strategically make the choise to use “carefully worded denials” when asked about their Word of Wisdom observance in the temple recommend interview process.

Second, it is possible that many of these individuals are honestly answering this question in the affirmative, but are interpreting the Word of Wisdom differently than the official orthodox interpretation allows for. Perhaps they are interpreting the Word of Wisdom in such a way, for example, as to focus on moderation and addiction rather than a check-list of do’s and don’t. This would be possible because interviewers are specifically instructed in Handbook 1 that they “should not add any requirements to those that are outlined in the temple recommend book,” usually leaving interviewees to interpret the meaning of the questions for themselves.

Another explanation might also be that some interviewees may simply be unaware of the prevailing orthodox interpretation of the Word of Wisdom and so simply answer “yes” out of ignorance. This is of course possible, but I tend to think unlikely for most people in this category given how salient the Word of Wisdom is to Mormon cultural identity and how frequently it is hammered home in missionary discussions, youth lessons, etc.

Using the Next Mormons Survey, we can take a closer look at these temple recommend-holding Mormons who report consuming the three most commonly consumed Word of Wisdom substances in the last six months: coffee, tea, and alcohol:

  Coffee Non-herbal tea Alcohol
Convert 34.7% 25% 24.4%
Born in the Church 11.9% 15.6% 5.5%
Millennial 27.4% 25% 15.8%
GenX 20.6% 17.5% 12.9%
Baby Boomer/Silent 4.9% 11.1% 2.7%
Male 26.4% 23.6% 15.2%
Female 11.9% 13.9% 7.4%
White 17.1% 18.6% 10.3%
Nonwhite 31.5% 15.6% 17.1%
Income < 50K 15.9% 20.9% 11.6%
Income 50K-100K 21.3% 18.5% 10.3%
College degree 18.2% 13.3% 10.8%
Less than college degree 17.7% 21% 11.2%
Lives in Utah 4.5% 9.4% 1%
Does not live in Utah 26.9% 23.7% 17.1%
Democrat and leaner 40.6% 33.8% 25.7%
Independent 12.3% 18.5% 4.3%
Republican and leaner 10.8% 12.4% 6.2%
LDS Church should “preserve traditional teachings” 14.2% 14.0% 8.1%
LDS Church should “adjust beliefs in light of modern circumstances” 32% 37.2% 21.6%

 

This table is showing us the percentage of current temple recommend holders in each of the row categories who say that they’ve had either coffee, non-herbal tea, or alcohol, respectively.

Some general trends are evident: Mormon temple recommend holders who are younger, converts, men, non-white, and those who are politically and theologically liberal are generally more likely to report consuming coffee, alcohol, or non-herbal tea than those who are older, born in the church, women, white, and politically/theologically conservative, respectively.

It is also interesting to note that recommend holders most likely to drink coffee are converts, Democrats, and racial/ethnic minorities. Those most likely to drink alcohol are converts and political/theological liberals. Also, notably, alcohol consumption among Utah recommend holders is nearly non-existent– it is almost exclusively among non-Utah Mormons that we find alcohol consumption among recommend holders.

Recall that our three hypotheses from before about the prevalence of Word of Wisdom violations among current temple recommend holders include: 1) “carefully worded denials” in the interview process, 2) more open interpretations of the Word of Wisdom among many recommend holders, or 3) ignorance of the Word of Wisdom requirements.

Does the information above help us critically evaluate the likelihood of any of these competing hypotheses? What are other possible explanations? Also, what are the implications for contemporary Mormon religious practice/belief if somewhere between 10%-20% of temple recommend holders do not comply with prevailing interpretations of one of Mormonism’s most salient cultural markers? What else can we learn from this information?

Discuss.

 

 

Benjamin Knoll is a political science professor at a liberal arts college in central Kentucky who finds meaningful religious and spiritual expression in a variety of traditions, practices, and contexts. He's a married father of three girls.

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