By Eric Schansberg
In his new book, “A Brief History of Sunday,” Justo Gonzalez explains how we arrived at our sense of Sunday and “the Sabbath.” It is worthwhile to review this history and then consider how it relates to “blue laws” — legislative restrictions on economic activity on Sundays.
Before Christianity began to dominate world culture, civilizations used different ways to identify “weeks” and “months,” needing to observe lengths of time between days and years. Setting the table for Christianity, the Jewish calendar was built around a seven-day week, with its Creation-based Sabbath.
In Mesopotamian culture, the number seven was seen as evil — a day to avoid work in order to avoid accidents and harm, a day of doom and gloom. This is another area where God purposed to redeem a pagan custom, turning the Sabbath into a day of rest, joy and celebration for Israel.
The Sabbath ranged from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. It was not usually a time of ritual worship, given how far most people lived from Jerusalem and the Temple. With the fall of Jerusalem, the sacking of the Temple, and the exile in Babylon, local gatherings and ritual worship became more important. This resulted in the formation of synagogues for regular worship and study.
Early Christians met with Jews in the synagogues as much as possible (as depicted in the book of Acts). We’re not exactly sure how and when they worshiped. But it’s most likely that they attended synagogue and gathered for a meal on Friday evening. Often they would also gather pre-dawn on “the Day of the Lord” — early Sunday morning.
All of this fit around “work schedules” — on the Jewish Sabbath and before work would begin on Sunday. Christians were concerned about following Jewish norms into legalism. So, “Sabbath rest” was debatable and “Sunday rest” was a non-issue.
Before Constantine, the Church was often persecuted, functioning at the margins of society. With his edict in 321, Christianity exploded in popularity. He used the power of the state to legislate a restful approach to Sunday, so it became the legally mandated day of rest. With work prohibited on Sunday, Sunday morning (but post-dawn) became the clearly preferred time for worship.
Of course, legislation and political economy are always a matter of theory versus practice. If one wants to legislate rest, the ideal may be prayer, study, acts of service and devotion. But those who don’t want to pray or pray so much will do other things with their “spare” time. So, the reality was often a desire to play instead of pray — something which legislation also sought to regulate.
This brings us to today’s “blue laws.” While fading in recent decades, such laws are still on the books in many states. In Indiana on Sundays, for example, dealers cannot sell cars. And as the recent case of Rickers Oil Company reminded us, there are restrictions on alcohol sales (although fewer so for bars, restaurants, and breweries and wineries that have been granted exceptions by the state).
An economist would expect “blue laws” to be driven by three motives. First, some people don’t want to engage in certain activities on Sunday — and are eager to use the law to restrict others too. This “moral” case has come from inner-city African-American Democrats and some socially conservative Republicans.
Of course, ethically, there’s a big difference between me deciding X is wrong and pursuing the law to prohibit you from doing X. Ironically, it’s exceedingly difficult to make a coherent biblical case for such uses of government.
Second, businesses may like to use government to enforce an implied cartel — to keep all sellers from operating on Sundays. As with Indiana’s car prohibition, this ensures that we get a day off, with lower costs and about the same revenues — as people simply shop with me from Monday through Saturday. (Businesses near state borders may be harmed by this.)
Third, even more cynically: some businesses like to use government to allow them to operate, while restricting other suppliers — a form of crony capitalism. Everybody likes to restrict competition for the things they sell, and will use a variety of stories to motivate why this is supposedly good for society.
From what I understand, support for restrictions is driven by greenbacks more than blue laws: the “package store” lobby versus consumers, convenience stores, groceries and big-box stores. At the end of the day, Hoosiers must decide whether Sunday is just another day in terms of economic activity. If it’s legal on Monday through Saturday, why should it be illegal on Sunday?
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.