I have a Mormon colleague who does not drink Coke or other soft drinks. He said his religion forbids it. Is this true?
Yes, by a circuitous route Mormonism has ended up forbidding all caffeinated drinks to its members, including the popular soft drinks.
On February 27, 1833, Joseph Smith reported a revelation known as "the Word of Wisdom," which is now enshrined in Mormon scripture as Doctrine and Covenants 89.
The elders of the early Mormon Church used to meet in a room over Joseph and Emma Smith's house in Kirtland, Ohio. After a good deal of pipe-smoking, they would take large chews of tobacco and spit all over the floor. Smith's wife was none too pleased with having to clean up the mess, and Smith quieted her by "inquiring of the Lord" (see Brigham Young; Journal of Discourses 12:157-158).
The resulting "revelation" allegedly was given "not by commandment or constraint," but as advice or counsel that henceforth members should not use tobacco, alcohol, or "hot drinks," interpreted as coffee and tea. Later prophets deemed this to refer also to cold coffee or tea and eventually extended to cover caffeinated colas as well.
Grains and vegetables were especially commended. According to the Word of Wisdom, meat was to be eaten sparingly, and then only in winter and times of famine. The "revelation" promised that those who followed it would "find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge."
Mormons tout the Word of Wisdom as a case of God protecting them from health problems stemming from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine (all of which were already under attack for health reasons in 19th-century America). Yet the Mormon God was apparently not farsighted enough to inform his followers of the dangers of salt, fat, and cholesterol.
At first the "Word of Wisdom" was presented only as advice, not as having the force of law. But the "advice" from God soon took on the status of a commandment.
Observance of the Word of Wisdom was sporadic, even by Smith and other early leaders. By 1930, however, it had become more rigorously enforced. It is now enjoined "by . . . constraint" and not merely as advice. Prior to a candidate's baptism, he is interviewed by a senior missionary who asks him questions, including about his compliance with the Word of Wisdom. For example, has he refrained from all alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea? For decades now members have been asked in their yearly interviews with church authorities if they keep the Word of Wisdom. Failure to do so--except for the meat prohibition, which has silently fallen through the cracks--bars one from attending the temple and from church leadership positions.
In the Mormon view, this has grave consequences, for unless a Mormon does his "temple work" he is unable in the next life to achieve godhood. Joseph Smith may have been able to use alcohol, tobacco, and coffee, even after the "giving" of the Word of Wisdom, but no Mormon today can, on pain of becoming a second-class citizen in theafterlife.
Of course, the Mormon prohibition on certain foods is in marked contrast to the biblical and Christian view. While Paul does urge moderation (Phil 4:5), and while periodic abstinence from foods can be a healthy spiritual discipline (Dn 10:2-3), the Bible stands fast in maintaining that all foods are to be received with thanksgiving: "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Tm 4:4). Specifically, as a matter of Christian liberty, Paul commands us not to have food laws imposed on us on religious grounds: "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink" (Col 2:16). This includes even alcohol, so long as moderation is observed. Rather than condemn the consumption of alcohol, for example, the Bible clearly permits and even advises it (1 Tm 3:8, 5:23; Ti 2:3; 1 Pt 4:3; also Dt 14:24-26; Prv 31:6-7).