Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Politics, Pepsi, and Evolution

Last month, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney experienced a painful reminder about the Church's strict policy of Political Neutrality.  In an article titled "LDS officials distance church from Romney," the Deseret Morning News said, "Church members across the country were also reminded Sunday, as is the case in every election year, to vote for candidates that support their views of good government, but that the church itself is neutral in politics" (see third paragraph from the bottom, here).

And speaking of neutrality, it is sometimes claimed that the Church is neutral on evolution (although I dispute that claim on this blog).  But I think we can all agree that the Church tries to be neutral on politics.  The Church's political neutrality helps us see what Church neutrality really looks like.  And I challenge LDS evolutionists to produce a list like this one on political neutrality that says the Church is neutral on evolution.  It can't be done.

Neutral on politics, not neutral on Pepsi

Lets look at neutrality another way.  Let's consider Pepsi Cola.

Reluctantly (but to make a point), I confess that I regularly enjoy Diet Pepsi with my lunch.  I drink Pepsi even though I'm aware that many Church members and leaders frown on the practice.  In other words, I drink Pepsi even though I believe the Church is not neutral on cola drinks.  (A friend has pointed out that this might be my first step on the road to apostasy.  He warns, "I myself started out with a little Coke and eventually became an evolutionist.")

The most authoritative Church statement I've seen against caffeinated cola drinks is found in the "Policies and Programs" section of the June 1972 Ensign (p. 46):

Cola Drinks and the Word of Wisdom. "The Word of Wisdom, section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 89], remains as to terms and specifications as found in that section.  There has been no official interpretation of the Word of Wisdom except that which was given by the Brethren in the very early days of the Church when it was declared that hot drinks meant tea and coffee.

"With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit.  Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided."—Priesthood Bulletin [February 1972]

This same statement is also found in the "Policies and Procedures" section of the May 1972 New Era (p. 50) and has been quoted in other Church literature as well (see, for example, Lesson 38:  Good Health Habits in the current Young Women Manual 3).

On a number of occasions, I've visited the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, where four of my children went to school.  I've also visited the BYU—Idaho and BYU—Hawaii campuses.  To my knowledge there is no caffeine (coffee or caffeinated cola drinks) sold anywhere on any of these BYU campuses.  Now it seems to me that if the Church were neutral on caffeinated soft drinks you could buy one at BYU. And the same is true of vending machines in the Church administration building and in temple cafeterias world wide.  Clearly, when I drink my Diet Pepsi, I am out of sync with my Church.

However, a January 1981 Ensign article titled "Staying Healthy:  Welfare Services Suggests How" (p. 10), which also quotes the Feb. 1972 Priesthood Bulletin article on cola drinks, points out (reassuringly) that "There is no current Church policy that would preclude a bishop issuing a temple recommend to a person who consumes cola beverages."

Whew!  I'm off the hook, sort of.

And so are LDS evolutionists (off the hook, sort of), because neither is there a Church policy against issuing temple recommends to members who believe in evolution.  Am I saying the Church is neutral on evolution? No.  But neither is being an evolutionist like breaking one of the Ten Commandments.  I think being an evolutionist is more like drinking Pepsi.  And I think we creationists and evolutionists should gladly home teach each other, participate together on ward temple trips, and in all other ways enjoy full fellowship with each other as Church members (just like Pepsi drinkers and caffeine purists do).

The larger point is this:  It's one thing to drink Pepsi but it's another thing entirely to argue that the Church is neutral on cola drinks.  The Church is not neutral on cola drinks (just like the Church is not neutral on evolution).

The Church is neutral on politics.


Anonymous J. Stapley said...

There are some interesting ramifications of this position. You state that the Church has a position on Cola beverages after quoting the statement, "With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter." It is not that I disagree, but it show the malleability of language here.

In many ways this would mean that the Church actually had a position on Stem Cell research: that it is ok. Note the similarity to the cola comment in the old position statement:

"While the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have not taken a position at this time on the newly emerging field of stem cell research, it merits cautious scrutiny. The proclaimed potential to provide cures or treatments for many serious diseases needs careful and continuing study by conscientious, qualified investigators. As with any emerging new technology, there are concerns that must be addressed. Scientific and religious viewpoints both demand that strict moral and ethical guidelines be followed."

Also, does the fact that no caffeine is served at BYU and that evolution is taught, researched and published at BYU change anything?

I do tend to agree with your analysis in an historical perspective. I think things change (for example see the new stem cell position).

11/08/2006 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Capt. Obsidian said...

"Now it seems to me that if the Church were neutral on caffeinated soft drinks you could buy one at BYU."

Gary, by this same logic one could claim that since evolution classes are taught at BYU, the church must be in favor of evolution.

As far as the church's position on evolution, I know you have seen the letter from Pres. McKay to Dr. Stokes that says "On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position." Pres. McKay gave Dr. Stokes specific permission to publish this quote. We've already discussed the letter and agreed to disagree about its ultimate importance, so I'm not going to rehash the arguments. Sufficeth to say that one can find quotes and statements from apostles on both sides of the issue.

11/09/2006 01:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Gary said...


It seems to me, the actions and teachings of the apostles and prophets overcome the malleability of language—as in, "The leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs" (Priesthood Bulletin, Feb. 1972).  Some Church leaders seem to think the logic for avoiding cola drinks should be obvious.

Here's an example:  "Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom.... There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation.... arsenic, for instance—certainly bad, but not habit-forming!" (Boyd K. Packer, "The Word of Wisdom:  The Principle and the Promises," Ensign, May 1996, p. 17—April 1996 General Conference.)

Here's another:  Once when President Joseph Fielding Smith was asked about cola drinks not being specifically mentioned, he reputedly answered:  "It doesn't say anything about gasoline either—drink all you want."

I'd be interested to see an example of cola drinks being advocated by a Church leader in General Conference.  Has that ever happened?  Ditto evolution.


I like President Packer's response to the letter from McKay to Stokes:  "Do not anchor your position on this major issue to that one sentence!  It is in conflict with the two official declarations [1909 and 1925], each signed by all members of the First Presidency." (Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, to Learn with Joy,Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1990, p. 23; or on-line PDF here, p. 13.)

J. and Capt.,

In answer to your questions about teaching evolution at BYU, I've prepared a short essay on that subject (click here).

11/09/2006 04:59:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...


Building on your comparision here, another similarity is that in both cases a person can support core principles without necessarily agreeing with particular practice. Cola drinks are not explicitly proscribed by the Word of Wisdom, nor has the Church mandated abstinence. Rather they have advised against it, in accordance with the principles behind the Word of Wisdom.

I am of the opinion that a person can drink cola drinks and still be in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the Word of Wisdom--it really depends on the individual situation. In my case, I love Dr. Pepper and I don't particularly notice any effects on me. Nevertheless, I only drink it on occasions when we eat out to ensure that I don't inadvertantly develop a habit.

Similarly, one can maintain belief in core principles of the Gospel while accepting evidence for evolution.

As for the Church's position on both issues, I suspect that among Church leaders (past and current) there would be a variety of opinions as to what degree the positions are rooted in fundamental truth versus practical prudence. Some may view cola drinks as fundamentally bad, others as something to be approached with wisdom and caution. Similarly, clearly some view evolution as fundamentally false, but others may see it as an issue that, while containing many truths, can easily lead to problems.

11/09/2006 07:59:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

BTW, I have previously written on some other aspects of teaching evolution at BYU here.

11/09/2006 08:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post and felt it was very well written.

I also wanted to let you know I bought 2 copies of your concordance and was disappointed that it was the pre-78 scriptures. You should do an update.

11/09/2006 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...

Jared*, You make a good point and it wouldn't surprise me (or disillusion me) to find out that some individual Church leaders would privately agree with you about evolution "containing many truths."  On the other hand, that wouldn't change (in my view) the Church's current official position as stated in the formal 1909 First Presidency statement on "The Origin of Man."

And thanks for the link to your 2005 article about teaching evolution at BYU.  I think it is enlightening.  Am I reading the Oaks to Hinckley comment correctly?  Did he say that "as a personal point of view" he felt sympathy for the thousands of our faith who feel threatened by evolution being taught at BYU?  Hmmm, interesting.

Anonymous, The truth is, I myself seldom use the concordance anymore.  Computerized scriptures available from multiple sources have made the whole concept somewhat obsolete (in my view).  Anyway, thanks for your kind and generous comment.

11/09/2006 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...

[Note: The following comment was originally posted by Herodotus 11/09/2006 06:28:24 AM.  This is an edited version of the original comment.]

-------------------- quote --------------------
I read the "Teaching Evolution at BYU" post.  I am totally underwhelmed.

Look, Joseph F. Smith published some very unequivocal statements about [other things that] have all been completely repudiated.  If we start building our lives around every early Mormon statement we can string together, we'll find we're standing on a pretty flimsy foundation.
------------------ end quote ------------------

Dear Herodotus, please carefully consider my comment policies before adding comments to this post.  Specifically, please avoid looking for flaws in the Church or its leaders and try to speak of principles rather than personalities.

11/09/2006 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is my belief the Church has such a definitive "neutral" position on politics is likely because of the Church's tax status. From what I understand, the Church walks a very fine line with remaining tax exempt (the government would like nothing more than to take the Church out of exempt status). The Church needs to make an absolute clear a neutral position in political stature. I personally believe the Church has done a great job in doing so. This is why, from the pulpit the First Presidency regularly instructs the congregation, through local leaders, to regularly announce to vote -- but the Church remains "neutral". Perhaps I am incorrect.

With cola drinks, if the Church made such a statement, there is too many grey area's to deal with and may have to back out on certain positions (which would be bad). Is it caffeine? Caffeine is in many things (chocolate, head-ache medicine, etc, etc). Every time a new soda drink or medication becomes available, there would have to be an official amendment. This list to do's and do not's would soon become very large and unmanageable. Advising members to follow the "spirit" of the law is plenty sufficient. I think the same is true for evolution. Most people don't understand what "organic evolution" is or macro/micro evolution, etc. I have listened to many Church leaders talk about Evolution, and it reinforces the fact. Making definitive remarks in this area would also be splitting hairs. Keeping the doctrine pure would be impossible. The Church statements about the origin of man, however, are very clear and concise -- they need to be. Think about it. When Joseph Smith saw God the Father and the Son, was it just by pure naturalistic coincidence he was in their *exact* image?

2/16/2007 12:34:00 AM  
Anonymous solistics said...

From your page on BYU and evolution:

There is no BYU History Packet, no BYU Math Packet, and no BYU English Packet setting forth the position of the Church on these subjects. I believe that is because the Church is truely neutral on history, math, and English. But there is a BYU Evolution Packet. I believe that is because the Church is not neutral on evolution.

I fully disagree. There's no packet because those topics aren't controversial. If some aspect of math were highly controversial, there very well may be a packet on the subject, and if that subject stated, "On the subject of mathematics the Church has officially taken no position," and all aspects of math were taught, I would say the Church is neutral on mathematics.

4/14/2007 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

solistics, your comment would have more credibility if the BYU Evolution Packet said, "On the subject of the origin of man by evolution the Church has officially taken no position."  But that isn't what it says.  So let's look deeper.

The BYU Evolution Packet was approved by the BYU Board of Trustees in 1992.  It doesn't say who was on the Board in 1992, but the 1997 Board included the First Presidency, five members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and three other General Officers of the Church and the 2002 Board was similar.

In its Packet cover letter, the 1992 BYU Board of Trustees clearly state that the Packet contains all known statements issued by the First Presidency on science, evolution, and the origin of man.  The Board then names them.  There are three:

1. "The Origin of Man" was issued in November 1909.  At 2,700 words, this is the predominant item in the Packet.

2. "Words in Season" is a small 99 word excerpt from a First Presidency Christmas Message printed in the Deseret Evening News. It says the Church is not hostile to "real science."  Sometimes overlooked is the fact that it also says we do not accept "human theory and mere speculations of men."

3. "Mormon View of Evolution" was issued in September 1925.  This is a 560 word condensed version of the 1909 "Origin of Man" statement.  In 1909, the First Presidency spoke to the Church membership.  In 1925, the First Presidency spoke to the national media.  It is inappropriate, therefore, to read hidden doctrinal meaning into the editing that was done by the 1925 First Presidency.

The Packet cover letter also emphasizes that "formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions."  The three statements listed above outline the position of the Church on "science,... evolution, and the origin of man" and not one of them says:  "On the subject of the origin of man by evolution the Church has officially taken no position."

Neither does the fact that all aspects of evolution are taught at BYU establish the position of the Church on evolution.

The Church's position on evolution was announced in the November 1909 Improvement Era. It is included in the 1992 BYU Evolution Packet and has been reprinted by the Church twice in recent years.  The Church's 2000-2001 and 2002 reprints of the 1909 statement update its relevance and give it focus directly to the 21st century.

This formal 1909 statement contains the Church's current and official doctrinal position on evolution. [1]  And because this statement is easily and usually interpreted as anti-evolutionary (or, as Duane Jeffery himself has called it, "anti-science" [2]  and "quite anti-evolutionary" [3] ), I say the Church is not neutral on evolution.


[1]  "In the early 1900s, questions concerning the Creation of the earth and the theories of evolution became the subject of much public discussion. In the midst of these controversies, the First Presidency issued the following in 1909, which expresses the Church’s doctrinal position on these matters." Ensign, Feb. 2002, p. 26; italics added.

[2]  As quoted in William E.  Evenson and Duane E.  Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), p. 30.

[3]  As quoted in Deseret Morning News, March 1, 2006, p. B3.

4/14/2007 09:39:00 PM  

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