[Updated 9/16/2012: Please note the link to the essay to which I refer, no longer works. I have had no success tracking down the author of the site to find out if the article was transfered to another site or domain. I apologize--it was a really great essay on the topic!]
I must say first, that this is by no means a religious-themed blog. But I feel I should address a religious aspect of me being vegan, or rather how my faith influences this choice, as my faith encompasses and touches everything in my life, including my dietary decisions.
I belong to the Mormon faith, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have been a member of this church my whole life. I am active, and always have been active in my faith; holding callings (serving in various capacities in my ward), attending weekly church services, and practicing my religion in my home (scripture study, prayer, ect.). I tell this not to say, look how righteous I am, but rather to indicate that I do believe and act on my faith. Indeed I have a testimony of the doctrine(s) of my faith. This may come as a surprise to some Mormons, as being vegan and Mormon cannot exist in their minds. And I don’t understand why this is.
Let me explain.
If you’re not LDS or familiar with this faith, we believe in what we call the Word of Wisdom. It is included in our canon of scripture, more in particular, in the Doctrine of Covenants. Essentially, it is a code of living, or rather a code of health that includes abstaining from tea, coffee, alcohol, drugs but it also includes the “do’s” such as grains and herbs/plants are good for the body, and meat should be eaten sparingly, among other things. I recommend you read it for yourself and see what amazing counsel it is, especially considering that it was issued in the 1830′s, long before any of the ill effects of tobacco, coffee, or alcohol were known.
If you’re not LDS, you are probably thinking, where’s the dilemma? Sounds like vegetarianism doesn’t conflict with the Word of Wisdom, in fact it sounds like it lends itself to a plant-based diet, right? Perhaps, but in practice, the fact is, most LDS people are not vegetarians, and some are even supicious, wary, or even hostile of the thought.
[If you want to know more about how I respond to inquiries about the word of wisdom and vegetarianism, check out one of the comment sections from a prior post, here.]
I mention all this to you because I came across the most interesting essay that I highly recommend, especially if you are Mormon, that really outlines my feelings about the WOW (word of wisdom) and how it pertains to me being Mormon & vegan. I have never come across anything that so thoughtfully and objectively outlines the dilemmas and situations that Mormon vegetarians or vegans find themselves in. Specifically, that of feeling a little alienated at times by the fact that we chose not to eat meat yet, the WOW is very clear in supporting a diet based on plants with little or no meat. Further, I have yet to find a scripture in all of the LDS canon, that suggests that I must eat meat or animal products to obtain salvation, or to be a righteous latter-day saint. Yet as the essay points out, Mormon vegetarians/vegans can be met with some degree of hostility from fellow saints regarding their dietary choices.
To me, this makes no sense. An LDS person could be on the Atkins diet for example, or eat a wide range of extremely unhealthy junk/processed foods, or just eat the SAD (standard American diet) which is largely based on animal products, all options which are not healthful or wholesome, and is never questioned as to their following the Word of Wisdom. Yet, if that person were to chose to become vegetarian, they would find themselves being questioned as to their commitment to the Word of Wisdom. I find this discrepancy a perplexing issue.
I am able to relate to this man’s experience outlined in his essay about going to church social/functions and seeing the gaping holes between the culture and the doctrine (at least what is presented in the WOW regarding meat, that is that meat should be used in times of famine or winter) as without fail, one or more of the following are always served as part of the main part of the meal: steaks, turkey, hams, hot dogs, hamburgers, or chicken.
Let me be clear. This dilemma in no way inhibits my Mormon faith. Rather, I understand that culturally we seem to be living something much different than what is suggested in scripture. But isn’t this the case with so many aspects of the gospel? We are commanded to love our neighbor. Yet which one of us loves our neighbor perfectly? And we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, mind, might, and strength, yet again, which one of this does so? I suppose all I am saying is that the Word of Wisdom suggests we eat a diet primarily of plants, yet meat seems to be the staple for most of our meals.
It is never my wish to get into an argument or even heated debate with anyone about this issue. Really, my experience with others within my faith has been quite positive. That is not to say that I’ve had many in-depth discussions with other members about it. But rather, people’s reactions have been one of politeness and acknowledgement. Like, “oh you’re vegetarian, that’s nice.” And notice how I say vegetarian, not vegan. I find that using the word vegan is still much too polarized for people, and some don’t even know what it is. Not only that, I don’t particularly like labeling myself which usually lends itself to negative stereotyping, like “you’re vegan? did you help burn down that fur factory last week?”
The bottom line is this. I believe that how you practice your religion is your business. In my case, I am Mormon and believe there are a few people within my realm who do it make it their business to know how I am living and how this relates to my spirituality. These people happen to be my spiritual leaders: my bishop and stake president. And thus far my experience with these people as it relates to being vegan has been positive. One bishop actually wanted to know more about incorporating a plant-based diet because he suffered from a number of health problems some of which included high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol. Another bishop said, “Oh I need to eat less meat and more vegetables.” That’s it.
People, fellow LDS saints no different, typically say, after hearing that I’m vegetarian, “Oh, yah, I don’t eat very much meat either,” or “I try to eat vegetarian a couple times a week,” or “I really should be doing better with my diet.”
It’s funny to note that I get that “I don’t eat very much meat” comment a lot, and I guess the amount of meat you think you are eating really depends on the person. Because someone saying that, may eat meat for only 2 meals instead of 3, or only use meat as a side dish with every meal instead of a main dish, which I think does not fit under the category of “not very much meat.”
It becomes subjective when people use these very imprecise gauges, and what I would call an inordinate amount of meat someone else would call a “sparing” amount. But as mentioned before, I think it’s clear what “sparingly” means: in times of famine or winter (and winter back in the 1830′s did mean very few food options, not so today). Which really is in alignment with the fact that our bodies have no nutritional dependence on animal products (meaning we can survive, even thrive without them) but we are able to eat and digest meat and it does have some nutritional properties that can save our lives if we were ever in a state of starvation/famine.
I don’t go around telling people to “put down that hamburger, you’re not obeying the word of wisdom!” I would hope fellow saints would be kind of enough to do the same and not say, “put down your beans and rice and get yourself a steak, you’re not obeying the word of wisdom!”
I understand for a lot of people they claim the “moderation in all things,” argument, quoting this as scripture, which it is not, but rather a quote from Terance, a Roman comic dramatist. I think balance is good, but moderation can and does kill. Poison in moderate amounts, is still as deadly as poison in large amounts.
I think there are a lot of things we tell ourselves so we don’t have to face the reality of certain situations. The truth, as they say, is hard to swallow sometimes. Not only that, but cultural traditions, especially as they relate to our diet, are deeply embedded and are often very difficult to change.
Finally, I would say to anyone who has objections to a vegetarian diet because they are Mormon to consider their own health. I find it interesting that a lot of these objectionists, are often themselves in a state of poor health due to dietary/lifestyle choices that could have been prevented by eating a more healthful plant-based diet based on those foods emphasized in the Word of Wisdom. Not that I go around judging people’s health, this is simply my observation based on my encounters over the past 3 years as I have been vegan.
Whatever your dietary choices may be, it simply is not my business. If your LDS, as with any commandment given, it is up to you, the individual to study, ponder, and pray and decide for yourself how you will apply the knowledge and understanding given to you.
One last thought.
I believe in God. I believe that he wants us to be happy. I know that part of that happiness depends on how well we care for our bodies, as well as how we care for our fellow creatures (animals included).