Should federal, state, or local governments enact and enforce “blue laws”? From both Scripture and natural revelation, it is clear that a regular day of cessation from labor is good for all people. But with this question we are not merely asking if it is good for people. We are asking if it is the prerogative of government to enforce such rest. Just because something is good for people does not mean that the government should enforce its practice.
The Scripture gives us some helpful direction here. Jesus clearly affirmed the legitimacy of human government, but also limited its scope (Mk 12:13-17). There are things that are Caesars, but there are also things that are not. The apostles also clearly instructed us to obey the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17). We should obey them in order to obey God and also, practically speaking, in order to avoid punishment. We see a two-fold purpose for government here: to punish wrongdoing (Rom 13:2-5; 1 Peter 2:14) and to promote good (1 Peter 2:14). [Note here that government always presupposes and incorporates a particular moral perspective. It simply cannot be otherwise.]
Recently, Robert P. George has summarized government’s role this way:
“The obligations and purposes of law and government are to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare—including, preeminently, protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.
“At first blush, this classic formulation (or combination of classic formulations) seems to grant vast and sweeping powers to public authority. Yet, in truth, the general welfare—the common good—requires that government be limited. Government’s responsibility is primary when the questions involve defending the nation from attack and subversion, protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and maintaining public order. In other ways, however, its role is subsidiary: to support the work of the families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society that shoulder the primary burden of forming upright and decent citizens, caring for those in need, encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another while also discouraging them from harming themselves or others.
“Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality. Government must not try to run people’s lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious bodies, and other character- and culture-forming authoritative communities. The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions is unjust in principle, often seriously so, and the record of big government in the twentieth century—even when it has not degenerated into vicious totalitarianism—shows that it does little good in the long run and frequently harms those it seeks to help” (“Law and Moral Purpose,” First Things, January 2008).
Notice how his description of the proper function and role of government incorporates both of the principles mentioned above.
Passing blue laws does fit within the general purpose of protecting public health, safety, and morals. But should the government do this, or should it leave such things to families and churches? That is a difficult and debated question. At the beginning of our nation, wide-ranging blue laws were universal amongst the states. But these days, many states have done away with them, and those that have retained them have limited them greatly to things like prohibiting alcohol sales.
Although there is much that would need to be discussed about the particulars, at the end of the day, I believe that such laws are rooted in a fundamental good for all humanity. All people need the basic liberty of time for worship and for rest. The government can operate in a subsidiary way by ensuring that families and religious communities have a regular day of freedom from coercions to work or to conduct business. This is particularly important for those who are employed in entry-level, service-oriented work. If allowed free reign, the demands of the more wealthy for service will always compel them to have to work. Therefore, the government should protect this liberty from encroachment from marketing and manufacturing by incorporating laws to that end.
These laws would need to be guarded against becoming overbearing. If the laws became exhaustive, they would actually usurp the role of families and religious communities. I would argue that it is sufficient to prohibit marketing and manufacturing. For example, many of the blue laws in our nation’s history spelled out in detail what people could or could not do on Sundays. I believe that this is going too far. It should be left up to families and churches what they will and will not do on Sundays. Personal, family, and church discipline comes in precisely at this point. We need to discipline ourselves to set aside time to worship and time to rest, and to allow others to do the same. This would mean that we would not use our time of rest in a way which would force others to work on our behalf.
The way we operate in this area actually shows a great deal about what we consider to be our true good in life. The driving force behind the repeal of most blue laws has been the almighty dollar. If we believe in our minds and emotions that having people serve us and getting more stuff is what is good for us, then we will always fight against blue laws. But if we believe that our highest good is found in worshiping God, then we will find great delight and refreshment in having time set aside specifically for that purpose.