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Red wine

Pamela Dolan wrote a great piece about holiday drinking last week, and invited other Belief St Louis contributors to chime in, roundtable-style. I thought I’d take the bait, though it’s not obvious what I, a teetotaling Mormon, could add to a discussion about drinking in St Louis, a city awash in the influence of Anheuser Busch.

Faithful Mormons eschew all drinking, and that prohibition is absolute: no exceptions for holidays or special occasions, not even an occasional glass of wine. I have been an active Mormon all my life, and like many other life-long Latter-day Saints I have never tasted a drop of alcohol, even in college. Now in middle age, my habits and identities are so firmly set that the thought of having a drink at a party or tasting a sip of wine would never seriously cross my mind.

I am grateful to have been raised in an alcohol-free family and faith community. I have never had to worry about exercising poor judgment at a wild party -- or worse, losing control behind the wheel. I have never had to wonder where my limits for addiction lie. I’ve never even had to contend with a hangover. Frankly, it’s a relief not to have to remember which wines pair with which foods or master other oenophiliana.

Occasionally I feel awkward about not offering alcohol to non-Mormon guests in our home, and I do harbor some curiosity about wine, in particular. I have no doubt that I would probably enjoy a glass now and then over dinner if I were not LDS. But these small prices are well worth the security I feel in my alcohol-free religious lifestyle.

Yet this paints far too pat a picture of the role of alcohol in Mormon experience. Our history tells a more interesting story. The LDS prohibition on drinking originates in a revelation to Joseph Smith now enshrined in a chapter of LDS scripture commonly called the Word of Wisdom. Recorded in 1833, three years after the founding of the young Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the scripture comprises more than the commonly known injunctions against tea, coffee, tobacco and alcohol: the scripture also advises a near-vegetarian, grain-heavy diet of seasonal foods, and it promises both spiritual and physical blessings to those who comply.

At first, these guidelines were casually observed and rarely enforced. Early Latter-day Saints used wine in their communion services, for example, which would scandalize their present-day descendants: we currently use only water. Over time, however, the Word of Wisdom became more rigorously observed, and by 1921 the current interpretation of the scripture had emerged: emphasis on strict abstinence from the forbidden substances, with much less attention paid to the vegetarian diet. Adherence to the Word of Wisdom became one of several important criteria for gauging the seriousness of LDS disciples, and thus a requirement for the spiritual rite-of-passage that Mormon adults seek in the temple.

In the present day, our strict abstinence from alcohol continues to pose a challenge to the millions of Mormons -- and potential Mormons -- who convert to the faith from cultures in which alcohol plays a central role. I served an LDS proselyting mission in northern Portugal, known for its world-famous Port wines. It was painful for Portuguese Mormons to renounce this aspect of their cultural heritage, and their renunciation sometimes contributed to painful rifts in families. Yet those who did accept the LDS gospel found a new sense of community and security in their adopted religious tradition, and they attest to the spiritual benefits of observing the Word of Wisdom.

Even for lifelong Mormons in the heart of Zion, alcohol can wreak havoc on private lives. For any number of reasons, a Mormon might find herself struggling with a secret drinking or drug problem -- and far too often, she may fear shock or judgment if she confides in her friends at church. This is the cold side of a religious community with high behavioral standards: those who can’t or won’t comply -- very often the ones most in need Christian fellowship -- may turn away from church in shame, rather than seeking aid and succor from those who have, after all, promised to offer it.

I have hope that this need not be the case, though. One man in an LDS congregation stands up at the pulpit during our monthly testimony-sharing meeting and introduces himself: “Hello, my name is Eli, and I’m an alcoholic.” This surprised me the first time I heard it, but over time I learned volumes from this dear brother in Christ. Through his vulnerability and trust, our entire congregation was introduced to some of the best Christian theology our church has to offer. The LDS 12-step addiction recovery program, modeled after AA, is a wonderful resource for all Latter-day Saints on the path of Christian discipleship, addicts or not.

Addiction brings into focus the brokenness of all humanity, and our shared need for a Redeemer. In that sense, we should not hide from its painful realities. We should bring it into the light, and learn.