I believe in freedom. I believe in truth. I believe in individual empowerment and achievement. I believe in respect for the rights of others to live how they please and believe what they may, so long as their acts and beliefs afford me and others the same courtesy. I used to believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared these values, that the gospel it sends some 60,000 missionaries each year out into the world to teach was compatible with, indeed imbued with, these values. Freedom. Truth. Empowerment. Respect for Conscience. But while it gives lip service to these ideals, in practice the modern church has sacrificed these values on the altar of obedience, conformity, and fear.
That the church demands strict obedience from its members is axiomatic. It is one of those rare assertions on which both members and critics of the church agree. General conference, stake conference, sacrament meeting talks, seminary and Sunday School lessons are replete with calls for increased obedience to the “laws of the gospel” and the “counsel of the prophets.” Gone are the days when the church leaders would teach the saints correct principles and let them govern themselves.
A case in point is the word of wisdom. The text of the revelation found in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants says quite plainly that it was given to the saints as a “principle” and not “by commandment or constraint.” It was the practice of many of the early saints including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor to drink beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks occasionally. Joseph Smith’s family operated a tavern in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith drank wine the night before he was killed. Brigham Young had a still in his house in Utah and accepted wine as tithing for many years. The Salt Lake Temple was equipped with spittoons. While there were always members of the church who chose to totally abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea, it was not a universal expectation for all the saints until well into the twentieth century. In short, for about 100 years, the saints were given a principle and allowed to decide for themselves how that principle was implemented.
By contrast, in the church today the word of wisdom is used as a measuring rod of an individual’s commitment to the church and the prophets. It is no longer simply a principle of health, but rather is an emblem of obedience, a means of measuring the degree of social control the organization has over its members. Individuals are expected not to use their own judgment in determining how to apply the principles of the word of wisdom, but rather are to conform to a universal standard set by the Brethren in Salt Lake City. In teaching the saints about the word of wisdom, excised from the church curricula is any mention that, historically, the word of wisdom was ever applied any differently than it is today. Thus, the word of wisdom serves as one illustration of how the church exalts obedience over freedom, fosters conformity at the expense of individual empowerment, and hides truth in favor of a “faith-promoting” presentation of historical issues.