Blue Laws Won’t Fill America’s Churches Again
In the age of Trump, many American conservatives are adopting populist positions. Policies that were once considered the right-wing status quo are being questioned and assailed, particularly when it comes to capitalism and markets.
Fox News personality Tucker Carlson is often on the front lines of this iconoclasm, with his regular diatribes against unfettered capitalism and financial elites. His voice is that of a growing traditionalist movement that has begun to vocalize their idealistic challenges to basic capitalist principles. These traditionalists want a larger role for religion in the public square. Unfortunately, they want the state to help facilitate this, and in seeking government’s help, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
Recently, a great many traditionalists were up in arms over North Dakota’s repeal of its blue laws, which prohibited retail businesses from operating before noon on Sundays. Blue laws were once in place across the country and increasingly have been rolled back. Usually they take the form of bans on alcohol and retail sales, hunting, and certain other recreations.
In response to North Dakota’s repeal, Father Dominic Bouck, a Catholic priest in Bismarck, argued in First Things that the move will hurt the poor and even make the siren song of socialism more palatable to the tired and restless masses.
Without blue laws, Bouck contends that many workers “conscripted into hourly wage jobs” will be denied the ability to attend mass and enjoy holidays with their families. In Bouck’s words, “the legal protection of Sunday rest helps the individual worker and preserves the family from the arms race that is our consumer society.” He also cautions that the decline of blue laws has helped facilitate the rise of our hyper-consumerist culture and the tendency to view man as “the sum of his production and consumption.”
Bouck is onto something here. However, blue laws aren’t going to address his concerns.
Rest from work is crucial, and a person’s worth doesn’t stem from his ability to be a cog in the retail machine. This lack of regularized rest has doubtless contributed to the current increases in anxiety and depression. In 1843 Magazine, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen notes that “anxieties about burnout seem to be everywhere these days.” Coupled with this problem is a lack of togetherness and fellowship. Whereas Sundays have traditionally provided opportunities for families and friends to spend time together, Cigna reports that there’s currently an epidemic of loneliness in the United States.
There can be no doubt that most people would benefit from taking Sundays slowly and spending time with their friends, family, and God. However, reinstating blue laws won’t solve the problem. It’s completely off-base to attribute the dramatic decline in American churchgoing to the lack of legal prohibitions on Sunday work. According to Gallup, weekly religious attendance has been going down since the 1950s.
Ask a young person why he didn’t go to church last Sunday, and I doubt he’ll offer a work shift as the reason. More likely, you’ll hear that church isn’t relevant to his life.
As sociologist Robert Nisbet noted in his classic work The Quest for Community, the relevance of a social institution depends on its maintaining a function and fulfilling the needs of its members. As the centralized state has usurped more and more of the traditional functions of important mediating institutions such as the church and family, the relevance of those institutions has waned. Relying on the same state to rejuvenate church attendance would only further religion down the path of irrelevance and decay.
In his essay “The Balance of Power in Society,” sociologist Frank Tannenbaum discussed the importance of maintaining a balance in society between the various institutions that comprise it: the family, the church, the state, and the market. According to Tannenbaum, these institutions are frequently in conflict and constantly trying to encroach upon the territory of the others. This push and pull is natural, Tannenbaum says, and even healthy when it results in societal balance. Unfortunately, when one institution gains too much power, the result is usually chaos and disorder.
There’s no doubt that our society is woefully out of balance. Family and church are deprioritized in favor of the market and job concerns, and all three are dominated by the powerful centralized state. Many in our Western world see their primary value in their jobs to the neglect of other aspects of their lives. It’s this imbalance that traditionalists are getting at with their call for more blue laws. But legislation is a poor method of restoring balance and order to society because it fails to address the underlying issue: the values that motivate people’s actions.
In the long run, consumers determine the shape of the market, a concept known as consumer-sovereignty. As I’ve argued previously, it’s inaccurate to say that markets are responsible for the decay of community and family. Markets are merely a mirror of people’s values. Employers can’t actually force or “conscript” others into working for them, Father Bouck’s hyperbole notwithstanding. Although man must eat “by the sweat of his brow,” that does not mean he must let the world determine in what manner he will sweat. Employers only have as much power as their employees give them. It may be uncomfortable and inconvenient to resist, but no one is forced to worship mammon.
Blue laws are merely an attempt to make the already very low barriers to church attendance even lower—to match the low value people ascribe to it. That isn’t going to fix anything. Early Christians were martyred and fed to the Roman lions because they valued their beliefs even more than their lives, much like the merchant seeking the pearl of great price. Have contemporary Christians really fallen so far that they’re unable to organize their economic lives so they too can worship?