I am an active Mormon, which means that I don't drink alcohol, coffee or tea, don't smoke, and that I wear "modest" clothing according to the standard of temple-attending Mormons, including knee-length pants or skirts, a fully covered torso, and at least a short sleeve as well as a modest neckline. Every day I make the choice to follow these rules. And yet there are certainly days when I find myself wondering, does an immortal, omniscient, all-loving God really care what I eat or drink and what I wear? I mean, it seems a pretty small thing in comparison to wars, famines, racial hatred, global warming, and just about everything on the news. If I wore a bikini and drank myself into a stupor every day, would God care?
Well, one answer to this is a simple one that I was taught in Primary as a child: God gives us commandments not because He needs us to worship Him or even because He wants us to show our obedience to any law, but because the commandments help us to live good and happy lives. The Word of Wisdom is a useful health code for avoiding some now medically known dangers. If you follow it even more strictly than the average Mormon, eschewing meat except in "winter" and "times of famine," you might get even more health out of it. Mormons are known to have much lower cancer rates than the average, about 24% lower , excluding smoking cancer rates. Mormons also have a much higher life expectancy, about 10 years on average higher for men, and 5 years higher for women (84 for both). You could argue this has more to do with the strong community ties of Mormons than it has to do with following the Word of Wisdom's rules against drinking coffee or tea, but the result is incontrovertible in any case.
What about clothing, though? Does my wearing more modest clothing do anything to make me live longer? Not according to this article, which claims that Utah is leading the country in deadly melanoma cases. This may have more to do with elevation and with the many Mormon pioneers who came from Nordic stock and thus have very fair skin than it has to do with modesty issues, but it still makes me wonder about clothing. If I wear a short skirt, does it offend God? Is he truly like the men who claim that I've distracted them from thinking about holy things? I have to assume not. Is he offended by the very sight of my body? Well, despite the many scars from childbirth I have, I would hope that God accepts all the parts of me and loves them. But He doesn't want me to show them? Because it bothers other people?
Hmm. Well, if God didn't want me to do anything that bothered other people, then surely that would be one of the commandments. #11: Thou shalt not do anything to bother or offend other people. Thou shalt keep thy mouth shut at all times. Thou shalt keep away from all people at all times so that they do not have to look upon thee.
Mormon missionaries are surely proof that our religion isn't about not bothering other people, right? So why the rules about clothing? Modesty, if taken in a larger sense, is about not bragging and showing pride. This is less because God wants us to hide who we are and more about being humble and knowing that there are things that matter a lot more than what we show outwardly, in particular signs of wealth. I can see how that applies to clothing choices, but it should extend far beyond knee length skirts and sleeved shirts. I hope that it does for most Mormons.
What I'm beginning to wonder more and more is how much God is part of the checklists of rules that we humans like to call "religion" and how much is our human desire to quantify devotion. Mormons are certainly not the only nor the first religion to make lists of things that prove that we are "true" and "devout." That kind of thing was happening even before Christ's time and it wasn't limited to the Jews counting steps on the Sabbath, either.
The reality is that it is a lot easier to make up a checklist and finish it and then feel good about yourself than it is to do some of the real work of religion, which is surely service and love, true change in yourself, and finding peace. This is from someone who has a hobby of exercising fanatically (I do Ironmans, ultramarathons and other crazy stuff) and who counts every step, every swim stroke, and every bicycle revolution because I find numbers "soothing" because they are always the same. But the idea that God cares about my race finish times, or even worse, that He loves me because of them, is not only absurd, but obscene.
So why am I still measuring my religious observance through a checklist? I suppose because it is a beginning place. It is a way to show that I am willing to give up a certain amount of comfort to show devotion to God. I'm willing to fast once a month for a full day, give up ten percent of my income as tithing, and to spend time in church each week at a minimum. It is only a beginning, though, and it's only a superficial show. It isn't the end of my religion. It doesn't mean anything other than I'm trying.
I hope that other Mormons would agree with this, that following the Word of Wisdom doesn't make us better than anyone else. It doesn't make us holy and accidentally ingesting something against the code (as is often depicted on TV) doesn't make us unholy. It is just a small offering, and perhaps it matters less what form that offering comes in than it matters that there is humility involved in the offering, a bowing of the head and a willingness to do more, as we see what is needed. Mormons make the same offering together and it binds us as a community, which helps us to see those who are moving past the beginning point of the barest observances. At least I hope so.