Morality, Legality and Alcohol

The church issued a statement about alcohol laws in Utah. The last paragraph reads:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Utahns, including those who work in the hospitality industry, can come together as citizens, regardless of religion or politics, to support laws and regulations that allow individual freedom of choice while preserving Utah’s proven positive health and safety record on limiting the tragic consequences of overconsumption of alcohol.”

Those in the Utah liquor industry understand the statement to be heralding a “change” (a relaxation) in the church’s attitude toward alcohol in Utah. They might be right. In my opinion, one thing that the statement definitely does is recognize that “individual freedom of choice” trumps one’s particular beliefs about teetotalism. What I mean is this: despite the LDS belief that no one should drink alcohol, and despite the conceivable chance that a prohibition-type law could pass in Utah given the predominantly LDS state legislature, the Church recognizes freedom of choice; alcohol should be reasonably available for those adults who choose to drink, whether or not the LDS faithful think drinking is the right thing to do. (Very few would argue that it should be completely available, given the obvious social ills of drunk driving, overconsumption, under-age drinking, etc. So, there is a line drawn between complete freedom and morality by those not of the LDS faith, as well.)

General philosophies such as freedom of choice and freedom of religion are more important than any particular religious moral stance. That makes sense to me. What I don’t understand is where the line is drawn for particular moral issues—because it seems to vary.

For example: gambling. As with alcohol, most members of the church think gambling is wrong and thus no one should gamble. Yet unlike alcohol (which should be reasonably available), the church has (to the best of my knowledge—does someone know better?) regularly supported laws that do just that: prohibit the legalization of any amount of gambling, including state run lotteries. What about the line on SSM? The church’s statement from last summer recognizes that some rights should be accorded to those who choose to live in homosexual unions (ie hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights and probate rights—see church statement), though not the right to marriage. What about drug use? Once again, most Mormons don’t believe any person should use illegal drugs for any reason—yet the church supported Native American groups in their use of peyote, citing freedom of religion. What about polygamy? (I’m not even attempting this one). Or, a local Provo issue: keeping the Sabbath day holy? Given the predominance of LDS officials, it is possible to legislate the use of city facilities on the Sabbath. How far should city officials go in making laws that close public facilities on Sunday? How much do they legislate the observance of the Sabbath? Or do they leave the golf course open, citing individuals’ freedom of choice?

Where and why do we draw the line between freedom of choice and advocating or legislating a moral stance?

P.S. I am sure there are some people with legal backgrounds [hint, hint] who have a much better idea what I’m talking about than I do. Feel free to clear up my confusion.

20 comments for “Morality, Legality and Alcohol

  1. “the LDS belief that no one should drink alcohol”

    Is that the LDS belief? (I think some LDS think that moderate consumption is only a problem for those who have covenanted not to do it.)

    That quibble aside, I think your post poses excellent and provocative questions. I don’t know the answers to them.

  2. Brian Cannon in the BYU History Department has written an article (not yet published, I believe) on debates over Sabbath laws in Utah’s state legislature in the 1950s. The final outcome: proposed laws were defeated in the overwhelmingly Mormon legislature on the grounds of free choice.

  3. One odd thing: while on the one hand, the church (rightly, in my opinion) has put its weight behind opposition to any and all gambling, and especially state-sponsored sucker schemes like the lottery, but is not strictly prohibitionist regarding alcohol, on the other hand, one shot of whiskey or one beer might keep you from the temple, while there is no question directly about gambling in the recommend interview. And I’d be surprised frankly if $5 in the NCAA basketball pool, or a roll of quarters in a slot machine, would be considered a “sin” by most church members. Stupid way to waste time/money: yes. But not a moral wrong.

    Another thing about alcohol and drugs: all kinds of over the counter and prescription medicine contain alcohol. I don’t think most of us think that a shot of Nyquil is wrong, if used medicinally. (And you’d have to be one sorry boozehound to try to get drunk on that stuff!) And, most street drugs are “controlled substances,” meaning that their use is “controlled,” not strictly prohibited. (I know. LSD and crystal meth.) And I don’t think we’d have any problem with their use under proper control–prescription by a physician. I know I’ve really appreciated cough syrup with codeine, and pain killers with heroin deriviatives are really a godsend. On the other hand, if the doc suggests that someone have a glass of wine, or a martini, every evening to “calm his nerves” I think we may start to have a problem.

  4. Interesting Mark B. I didn’t think to throw temple recommend questions into the mix–that makes things even more complicated, as you point out. I knew there was a problem with drugs when I brought it up. Of course we think it’s immoral to use illegal drugs. I guess I should have been more specific and asked about legalizing marijuana or something like that–that’s a favorite topic with my freshman BYU students. I have been somewhat surprised that the best papers the last few years have been pro-legalization. You are too right about the cough syrup and pain killers v. glass of wine. Is it true that there is “speed” in Tylenol PM to wake you up? I heard that the other day. Hmm.

  5. “Is it true that there is “speed” in Tylenol PM to wake you up? I heard that the other day. Hmm. ”

    i thought tylenol pm made helped you fall/stay asleep? it wouldn’t make sense that it has speed (an upper) in it.

    or am i totally off here?

  6. “Is it true that there is “speed” in Tylenol PM to wake you up? I heard that the other day. Hmm. ”

    i thought tylenol pm helped you fall/stay asleep? it wouldn’t make sense that it has speed (an upper) in it.

    or am i totally off here?

  7. Yes, Melanie. It has whatever in it to make you sleep, but then someone was trying to tell me that it has a different narcotic to wake you up in almost exactly 8 hours. I interested in how that could work, too. Or if it could work.

  8. According to Tylenol’s website, Tylenol PM contains 500 mg of acetamenophen and 25 mg of Diphenhydramine HCl, an antihistamine, which it describes as a “nighttime sleep aid.”

    I don’t know why something might help one sleep in the nighttime but not in the daytime.

    And the length of time it “works” would depend upon the size of the person who took it, and a bunch of other factors that someone who knows something about medicine would have to explain.

    I think the thing that wakes them up 8 hours later is either a cup of hot coffee (not for any of us, of course) or a cold shower.

  9. I realize this is getting a bit into the dreaded “moral relativism”, but is there even a way to draw the line at things that clearly are bad for the community? It seems that at some point any legislation has to be based on what is morally acceptable to the population in question. 50 years ago when the non-member population of Utah was much smaller than it is now, there probably was little outcry for the liquor laws and Sabbath closings. But now that Utah is becoming more cosmopolitan, perhaps the laws need to change to reflect the accepted mores of the populace. I agree with Julie that the WoW is almost a separate issue, as is Sabbath observance, since these are unique religious practices that are not shared by most people, and shouldn’t necessarily be enforced on others who haven’t made those covenants. Maybe the libertarian philosophy should prevail, and the government should only legislate on items that harm or infringe on the freedom of choice of others. But then that opens up big problems too. I’m thinking “Potterville” in “It’s a wonderful life”: Pool Halls, Dancing clubs, Gambling casinos, utter debauchery! I’m not sure about this one either, it’s a hard question.

  10. Acetaminophen is more dangerous than anything added to Tylenol. Exceeding the recommended dose leaves you open to elevated liver enzymes. Acetaminophen is one of the most common pharmaceutical agents involved in overdose, fortunately the majority of patients survive. I don’t use it because I have a five year old.

  11. MattG, you are reminding me of a debate I heard once where someone was arguing that we “shouldn’t legislate morality.” The opponent just said, “What else do we legislate?” In a sense, your moral relativism argument has to be correct: majority rules (thankfully with minority rights protected). Whatever the majority of people/representatives feel is right becomes the law–be that about pot holes, facilities opening on Sunday, or alcohol.

    I am interested in your idea about what constitutes “unique religious practices.” How would you define gambling? Other social/moral issues?

  12. Kyle,

    I agree that the “majority rules, but protects the minorities” is about the best we can do to make everyone happy with a diverse population. I guess what I mean is that there are behaviors that many outside the church would agree with us as being morally reprehensible (e.g. being drunk and disorderly, vandalism, assault, prostitution, gambling, etc.), as they adversely affect the well-being and rights of individuals in a community, and weaken the community itself. So what I mean by “unique religious practices” are things like the WoW that don’t necessarily impact anyone else negatively, or in many cases are even visible to others. Is a non-member going to know (or care) if you are keeping the Sabbath day holy? Or if you have a testimony of the Restoration, support your local church leaders and sustain the First Presidency? These unique beliefs all affect our ability to participate in the LDS community and in the higher ordinances of the temple, but don’t cross over much into everyday secular life. So maybe legislating against Sabbath breaking and WoW should not be considered as “on the table” for legislation.

  13. Thanks for the clarification. You’re right–gambling fits in the first category (generally morally reprehensible), as does (thanks to science) smoking which otherwise might be a WofW issue. It would be completely bizarre to legislate on some other WofW issues, such as eating meat sparingly or fruits in the season thereof.

    So, can I understand that you are answering my original question as this: the line between freedom of choice and church’s stance on a particular moral issue has much to do with whether that issue is “legislate-able”? Is that a word? On a churchwide basis, the church will take the WofW stance and other particular moral stances, but, in the public policy realm, the church will only push its stance as far those outside the church can understand/agree with? And try, to Julie’s consternation, to use logic that those not of our faith will understand?

  14. Kylie,

    I think so, in some cases. But even then we get on shaky ground. I guess I would see 2 categories: moral issues and criminal activity. While these both have to be defined by the community, I think in general I would consider criminal activity to be those that cause immediate injury to persons, property, or rights of others. Moral issues are a bit more of a gray area. The Church can (and does) take stances on many moral issues like sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, etc, but as to whether or not these should be “legislate-able” I think is a separate issue that has to be decided by the majority of the affected constituents. I personally don’t think the Church should be actively lobbying or “pushing” its stance on any moral issue to legislators, but it should make its position on such issues publicly known so it can be acknowledged by those in the community who care to know. Witness the current blood-letting over legislating same-sex marriage and the discussion today over on BCC regarding abortion. Regardless on how we feel about the issue at hand, it gets messy when you legislate to restrict a person’s right to exercise their will regarding a moral issue that you disagree with, unless it is an obvious taboo such as murder, pedophilia, other “reprehensible” behaviors listed above. I’m sure a lawyer could put better terms to what I’m describing, and I’m not sure I’m making much sense to myself either!

  15. “Blue laws” just annoy people who aren’t of the dominant religious persuasion — I think it’s wise of the Church to pick its political battles carefully. I don’t recall any widespread efforts to strengthen anti-sodomy laws or a constitutional amendment in the wake of Lawrence; the issue seems to have been taken up officially sometime after “Heather Has Two Mommies” and before the first non-judicial gay marriage movement at the state level. I was getting letters and emails about the issue from Protestant groups long, long before the Church got formally involved in anything.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with moderate consumption on the part of people who haven’t made promises to abstain. I’m also pro-legalization on pot, and in general stick to the civil rights positions I learned as a kid in a UU church.

  16. MattG, so we agree: it’s messy, complicated and gray!

    I think you said it well, “Regardless of how we feel about the issue at hand, it gets messy when you legislate to restrict a person’s right to exercise their will regarding a moral issue that you disagree with.” It’s enough to make a person a libertarian.

    Sarah, are you on lists for Protestant groups? I don’t recall receiving information. But, then again, I live in Utah. Our debate a few years ago ran a bit differently.

    And can you or Julie help me out with the “moderate consumption of alcohol” thing. I know I was raised in a conservative LDS family and all, but I have never heard that before.

  17. Kylie,

    I think what Julie and Sarah mean is that Utah laws probably should not restrict moderate drinking (like they do now) by non-LDS folks, since most people don’t drink alcohol to get drunk per se. However, laws on drunkenness or large-quantity alcohol sales should probably be enforced.

  18. Got it. For a second there, I thought they were saying that Latter-day Saints think it’s okay for members to drink a bit unless they had made temple covenants.

  19. I was interested to hear when we visited the Bahamas a few years back that the local laws allow gambling for tourists, but prohibit locals from participating. It felt like they recognized the negative impact gambling could have on the community but as long as the only people participating were leaving shortly it was fine for them to do it. They didn’t mind profiting from that activity, of course.

    Not sure we could make a similar sort of distinction in the states, though. Sounds like it would be asking for a legal challenge right off the bat.

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