My home state of North Dakota just removed the respirator from a dying vestige of American culture.
On March 25, Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation repealing the state’s blue laws. These laws, which made it illegal for retail stores to be open from midnight to noon on Sundays, used to be common throughout the country. But now, only some liquor stores are still subject to such constraints. Sunday rest for retail is a relic of the past.
Puritan theology certainly lurks behind these blue laws. But the principle that the state should ensure we have rest goes much deeper than narrow-minded prissiness. God’s rest on the seventh day was of great comfort to the Israelite slaves in Egypt, who knew not rest. The Exodus story implies that the goal of our rest is worship, and the result of worship is rest: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me”’” (Exodus 8:1). God fights to keep us free from all powers that seek to enslave us. Today's culture of slavery does not involve overlords cracking whips, but rather the irresistible urges of a consumer economy.
The 24-7 retail culture hurts our poor. Those who suffer most from the loss of blue laws are those conscripted into hourly wage jobs: the young, the impoverished, single mothers, and all those who struggle. Are they not allowed to attend Mass? Worship the God of freedom? Blue laws protected the weakest among us by making sure they could attend church on Sundays.
As those who work in retail know, it’s not as simple as asking for different hours. During high school I had to work at the grocery store all evening Saturday and all day Sunday. The only time I could attend Mass was during my lunch hour, which meant arriving late to Mass and leaving it early (and no lunch). It was not an option both to keep the job and ask for different hours. One of my high school students recently told me that she had to work at a retail store on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Her Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a Taco in a Bag (a Midwest recipe). The legal protection of Sunday rest helps the individual worker and preserves the family from the arms race that is our consumer society.
One North Dakota legislator opined that the Catholic Church precipitated the decline of Sunday worship and diluted our case for legal preservation by moving Sunday Mass to Saturday evening. There may be something to this. But what is certain is that our society has eliminated yet another protection for the working man. If proponents of capitalism wish to resist the rise of socialism in our country, a bit of advice: Don’t overplay your hand. If the libertarian impulse goes unresisted, it will create a society like the nineteenth-century industrial capitalism that gave birth to its misbegotten child, Marxism. Removing God as chief protector of man’s freedom leaves a void to be filled by faux-luminaries like Karl Marx and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Man’s meaning is not the sum of his production and consumption. The sins of libertarian omission give rise to the sins of Marxist commission.
As Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure, the Basis of Culture: “Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” We are made for more, yet society keeps ensuring us less. Christ said it best: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Fr. Dominic Bouck is a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck.