Blues for Blue Laws
Today, Americans are more likely to meet their Sunday football obligation rather than their religious one.
Despair has gripped our nation. From an overbearing work-culture to the drug epidemic, an unprecedented rise in the deaths of despair has taken place, particularly over the last few years. Blue-collar Americans, once the backbone of American society, are hit the hardest by these burdens.
What is to blame for this rise in deaths of despair? The answer may reveal itself in the repeal of blue laws.
Blue laws, which restricted commerce and closed businesses on Sunday, incentivized individuals and families to attend religious services, and for all to rest from a hard week of labor and share in relaxation and community. The repeal and unwillingness to enforce blue laws today is in part the culprit behind these deaths of despair and the instability our nation faces. This is not to even mention the long hours and poor working conditions that many Americans face, which also needs to be addressed.
Recently, three researchers investigated these rising deaths in a working paper titled “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair And the Decline of American Religion.” The results of the paper linked the repeal of Blue Laws to an increase in deaths of despair.
The rising deaths of despair began to infect American society in the 1980s, affecting middle-age Americans the most. This coincided with the most significant decrease of religious participation in American history. The researchers studied the relationship between deaths of despair and decreased religious participation.
In recent decades, death rates from poisonings, suicides, and alcoholic liver disease have dramatically increased in the United States. We show that these “deaths of despair” began to increase relative to trend in the early 1990s, that this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans.
The report compared fifteen states with the most significant decline in religious participation since the 1980s to the number of suicides. The study found an increase in the rates of suicide and alcoholism in those states among the same demographic group following the decline in religiosity.
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According to the paper, the repeal of blue laws in the 1960s served as a “shock” to American religiosity, as there was a five to ten percentage point impact on weekly attendance of religious services and an increase of deaths of depression by two deaths per 100,000 people in the decades following the 1960s. The study claims that with the repeal of blue laws, there was less of an incentive to attend religious services, causing communities to lose their sense of common worship.
These laws have been shown to be strongly related to religious practice, creating discrete changes in incentives to attend religious services that are plausibly unrelated to other drivers of religiosity. … Using repeals of blue laws as a shock to religiosity, we confirm that religious practice has significant effects on these mortality rates. Our findings show that social factors such as organized religion can play an important role in understanding deaths of despair.
While religiosity in America was already declining before the repeal of the blue laws, repealing them only exacerbated this decline. The result was a monumental decrease in America’s attendance in religious practice, especially because of their important role in the American tradition. Because of this, we must ask why blue laws had such an impact on our culture?
It is because blue laws promoted one of the basic elements of our culture: leisure. Instead of holding to the traditional connection between rest and labor, our culture has embraced the liberal view of labor. The classical view of labor does not prioritize work in itself but views it as an end to support the religious and political communities. In contrast, liberalism warps the relationship between man and labor, viewing man as a perpetual laborer, where work is best used to satisfy ambition.
Leisure is not to be conflated with sloth, but has always been understood as a contemplation towards higher goods. Leisure is what builds culture. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper wrote, “Culture lives on religion through divine worship. When culture itself is endangered, and leisure is called in question, there is only one thing to be done: to go back to the first and original source.” If the proper understanding of leisure is to be understood, the reimplementation of blue laws can help revive its lost meaning.
But why is leisure so important? Leisure is best understood through the celebration of Sunday mass. Sunday, the Sabbath, is a day of leisure, not another day of work. It is a day meant to pursue the summit of our faith in the Eucharist and engage in edifying work. This edifying work can include communal gatherings like visiting friends and family, reading great books, or contemplation.
How do we reclaim a proper leisure? The answer lies in our Christian faith. The faith teaches that Sunday is a day of rest. God rested on the seventh day and Christ rose from the dead on Sunday after a perfect rest. A proper rest is an important aspect of the faith and it ought to be accounted for in our laws.
When the American order reflected these principles, businesses were closed on Sundays to allow individuals to attend religious services and be leisurely. Sundays were also days of spending time with family and the community, grounding the political order in something tangible. During Christendom, all citizens were given days off for major feast days. However, in liberal America, Sunday is a regular day of the week. Sunday is detheologized, with the average American meeting their Sunday football obligation rather than their religious one.
From a theological perspective, the correlation between despair and a declined religiosity is evident. As Catholics, we understand that the sin of despair festers when Christ is removed from our lives. Christ’s suffering in His Passion teaches us perseverance and hope can blossom in our hearts through His resurrection. The abandonment of Christ is the submission to the Kingdom of Satan. The consequence is the despair we see.
An acute observer can see that repealing blue laws has left America in ruins. The solution is simple: bring back blue laws. Currently, fifteen states and many counties have blue laws. In particular, Republican-controlled states such as Florida, Arkansas, and Ohio still have blue laws on the books. Even Democrat-controlled states, such as New Jersey, have blue laws in some of the most “blue” counties in the country. It is time to use them. As our culture becomes more overworked and but less goal-oriented, politicians at all levels of government must take this as an opportunity to enact blue laws at every level of government.
The conservative movement should make blue laws a staple of family and economic policy. Along with pro-natal policies and pro-marriage policies, blue laws can be a great resource to strengthen the American family. Blue laws once served as a tool to strengthen religious life and build communities. The repeal of blue laws has given way to an American public life full of despair and has only aided in destroying American communities.
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