When Sunday is just another day

Society loses, a study finds, if it doesn't promote a day of rest and regeneration.

Maybe early leaders in America were on to something when they insisted that people take time out on Sunday for worship, or at least a day of quietude. A new study on the effects of fewer "blue laws" seems to back that up.

Today's relentless seven days of commerce exacts a measurable toil on society, it says, especially in the form of more heavy drinking and drug abuse – and that's just among churchgoers.

"The church versus the mall," a study by two economists at MIT and Notre Dame universities, found that the repeal of state blue laws banning retail sales on Sunday over the past half-century, has lead to an increase in drinking and drug use among those who attend church. What's more, congregants visited their place of worship less frequently and donated less money to it as well.

In sum, the study said that competition from alternative Sunday activities (i.e. shopping) "may have negative consequences for individuals or society."

Retailers have argued with great success that busy Americans need time on Sunday to shop. The Distilled Spirits Council has led the charge to repeal bans on Sunday liquor sales. As a result, only 15 states have kept some kind of restriction. Legislators have buckled to this powerful lobby, unable to resist the promise of extra revenue from liquor taxes.

Like it or not, Secular Sunday is here in full force to compete with Sacred Sunday – and appears to be winning.

US society is a mix of religious adherents and nonbelievers. It would be wrong to argue a special halt to commercial activity for the benefit of a single religion.

But the time-tested "Sabbath rhythm," a week consisting of five working days, a day to attend to personal chores, and a day of rest, ought to be defended by more than Christians or adherents of any religion. (It should be noted that the Sabbath for Jews and some Christians falls on Saturday, while Muslims take off Friday as a religious day. These allow for a similar rhythm.)

Observing a Sabbath isn't just about switching from work to private chores and fun. It's a time for contemplation, rest, regeneration, communion – a time to ponder something larger than oneself. Many find this in a place of worship and benefit from fellowship found there. It's also time for nurturing relationships with family and friends.

States and communities that have kept blue laws have the right to preserve them without feeling the laws are only a vestigial legacy of religion. Nothing requires that every day of the week have a dreary sameness. Those who ponder dropping blue laws ought to consider whether they are only bowing to pressures from commercial interests and weigh the cost of that irresolution.

Of course, individuals can carve out their own personal "blue law" on part of a weekend. But, as the study suggests, government has provided a public good by encouraging such a time out from the mall crawl and liquor store run. And it's given retail store workers the same opportunity for a weekend respite.

The eminent 18th-century British jurist William Blackstone wrote that keeping one day out of seven free from commerce "humanizes" society, "which would otherwise degenerate into a sordid ferocity and savage selfishness of spirit."

Those words still ring true.

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