In the United States on the seventh day of the week, trade and industry seem suspended throughout the nation; all noise ceases. A deep peace, or rather a sort of solemn contemplation, takes its place. The soul regains its own domain and devotes itself to meditation.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote these words in his 1835 masterpiece of political and social analysis, Democracy in America. During America’s finally-abating coronavirus quarantine, our nation, at least outwardly, seemed to have gained a more noiseless, contemplative, revivifying spirit. Now, in the terrible wake of murder, protests turned arsonous riots, and looting, not so much. Nevertheless, Americans in those early quarantine days—after the haze of their Netflix-binge had evaporated—woke up with a surprised appreciation for what earlier generations had considered normal: Sunday laws, otherwise known as blue laws. As America returns to normality, we should consider these laws and their manifold benefits afresh.
Acknowledging the rewards of the Sabbath are not limited only to Christians like Pope Francis, who in a 2018 interview declared: “One day of the week. That’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all of these things. We are not machines.” Jay Lefkowitz, a lawyer in New York City, in a May 7 op-ed for The Washington Post argues that the Jewish Sabbath observance brings healthy separation and balance. He explains:
when Jews sanctify the Sabbath and keep it holy, they are making a conscious act of separation. At its most elementary, Shabbat is about separating the profane from the sacred; the workweek from the Sabbath… Shabbat is about balance or, to use a modern word, mindfulness… We can’t recharge ourselves via a USB port.
This aligns with other movements that appreciate the need to “disconnect,” such as digital minimalism or “secular monkhood,” a phrase coined in a March First Things essay by Andrew Taggert.
More seriously, de Tocqueville identified several benefits to the once-common American inclination to rest. The first is how the worship of God orients man towards the transcendent and its purposes. At church, the American “hears of the need to control his desires, of the subtle pleasures of virtue alone, and the true happiness they bring.” When the American returns home,
he does not hurry back to his business ledgers. He opens the Holy Scriptures and discovers the sublime or touching depictions of the greatness and goodness of the Creator, the infinite magnificence of God’s handiwork, the lofty destiny reserved for man, his duties, and his claims to everlasting life.
In the worship of God, and recognition of His goodness in creation, man perceives his own created goodness and the goodness of the world he inhabits, including his peculiar nation. This in turn directs him towards his civic duties to love and serve his neighbors in an act of stewardship. He feels “the urgent necessity to instill morality into democracy by means of religion.”
The second benefit is the tempering quality of Sabbath observance on an American capitalism that can tend towards exclusively materialist ends that obscure man’s inherent dignity.
Thus it is that from time to time the American hides away to some degree from himself and, snatching a momentary respite from those trivial passions which agitate his life and the fleeting concerns which invade his thoughts, he suddenly bursts into an ideal world where all is great, pure, and eternal.
De Tocqueville perceived that democratic capitalism, if untethered from religion, would devolve into a dehumanizing, materialistic wasteland where men manipulate and exploit one another for profitable gain. This is because “democracy encourages the taste for physical pleasures which, if excessive, soon persuades men to believe that nothing but matter exists.” And if only matter exists, men are liable to do whatever they want to others (or themselves) to satiate their desires. Sabbath laws, in their implicit (or explicit) endorsement of the transcendent, remind citizens that there are greater, more noble pursuits than “self-actualization” and “self-realization.”
Third, in directing citizens towards transcendent ends, Sabbath laws inspire men to pursue societal goods that will endure beyond their own circumscribed lives.
Religious nations have often achieved such lasting results. They discovered the secret to success in this world by concentrating upon the next. Religions instill into men the general habit of conducting themselves with the future in mind and are no less useful to happiness in this life than to bliss in the next.
Citizens aware of their finitude and their spiritual, immaterial natures will work not just for today, but for the future of their children and grandchildren. Notre Dame Cathedral, that splendid manifestation of human skill and ingenuity, took about 180 years, or six generations, to build. Such glorious projects require a character defined by willingness to suffer and sacrifice, fully aware that one’s unknown descendants will be the ones who enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
When nations abandon consideration of transcendent ends, their citizens are more inclined to selfishly live for today without consideration for their neighbors or their progeny. “Let’s do it tonight, ’cause we may not get tomorrow,” the popular 2012 song goes. De Tocqueville warns:
In skeptical times, therefore, there is always the danger that men will surrender themselves endlessly to the casual whims of daily desire and that they will abandon entirely anything which requires long-term effort, thus failing to establish anything noble or calm or lasting.
For this reason, de Tocqueville warns and cajoles Americans to preserve their peculiar religiosity: “Do not seek to snatch from men their ancient religious opinions… lest…the soul finds itself momentarily void of beliefs and the love of physical pleasures spreads to fill it entirely.”
Yet this is precisely what America has done, eliminating remnants of once-common blue laws for the sake of the worshipful dollar. There was a time when even the United States Supreme Court favored these ordinances, Justice Stephen Johnson Field writing in Hennington v. Georgia (1896), “the prohibition of secular business on Sunday is advocated on the ground that by it the general welfare is advanced, labor protected, and the moral and physical well-being of society promoted.” No less than George Washington was once detained by a tithing-man for violating Connecticut’s law forbidding unnecessary Sunday travel. (He was permitted to continue after promising to go only as far as his destination.)
Now, with a few anomalous holdouts, Sundays are more or less indistinguishable from other days. Some counties still prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Some Florida counties prohibit the sale of sex toys on Sunday. Among other curiosities, horse racing and car dealerships are closed in Illinois.
Many European nations never abandoned Sunday trading restrictions, and their economies have managed just fine. Indeed, keeping stores open on Sunday disproportionately favors big retailers at the expense of mom-and-pop businesses. In Poland, the 2017 Sunday trading ban was “about helping small family stores, but also about letting people who are effectively forced to work on Sundays be free,” said President Andrzej Duda. Since the ban’s introduction, Duda has noted, more families have engaged in outdoor activities, and the domestic tourism industry has benefited.
America, for the sake of its own emotional and spiritual welfare—for the sake of its own sanity—needs to restore the blue laws.
There was a time, surprising as it may be, when Amazon did not deliver on Sunday, and Americans somehow survived. There was a time when citizens had to do their shopping at the hardware store on a weekday, or early Saturday morning, in order to complete their home projects.
To preempt accusations of “theocracy,” I am not advocating mandatory church-going (though it wouldn’t be the worst idea), but rather simple restrictions on which businesses remain open on Sunday. Political and cultural leaders could “opt-out” of things like social media: as de Tocqueville rightly notes, leaders who set the standard should “act every day as if they believed in it themselves.”
Blue laws may limit “freedom,” but only the freedom to limitless consumption. If promulgated in a prudent and focused way, they can cultivate virtue, strengthen neighborliness, and protect small businesses. Most importantly, they can help promote prayer and peace—now, when America needs them most.
Image: Sabbath Eve by Alexander Johnston