Talking Points

Americans need a break. Maybe blue laws can help.

One of the more interesting and consequential developments in politics in recent years has been the emergence of "common good conservatives," a small but vocal (and largely Catholic) group of right-wing thinkers who eschew the Reaganite coalition of free-market libertarians and religious conservatives — as well as America's liberal traditions — in favor of Donald Trump's economic populism and an explicitly religious agenda for lawmaking and policy. 

Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard Law professor who counts as one of the more prominent common good conservatives, on Friday offered a Tweet-length summary of the movement's policy agenda:

The "etc etc" in that tweet covers a lot of potentially controversial ideas that progressives — and most other Americans — might find objectionable, and most of the rest of Vermeule's bullet points are vague or inscrutable. There is something intriguing about reviving Sabbath laws, however. 

Until the last few decades, Sabbath laws — also known as "blue laws" — effectively shut down Sunday commerce in much of the country. I grew up in a small rural town in the 1980s, where the cultural legacy of such laws was still in full force: Churches were open on Sunday mornings, but very few businesses were. At noon, a couple of restaurants opened for post-worship mealtimes, but otherwise the downtown business district was quiet and empty. It was a day of rest because there was literally nothing else to do.

Rest is hard to come by these days. For many Americans, the pandemic has given rise to remote work that has blurred the divisions between home and labor, while working-class folks are often subject to "just in time" scheduling that makes home life difficult to sustain. Post-religious American capitalism doesn't leave us much room to just relax, and it shows: We're a stressed-out country.

So a new era of blue laws could hold some appeal even to the not-so-religious left. "Elevator pitch: a secular Sabbath that starts on Thursday evening," Jeet Heer, a columnist for The Nation, tweeted on Sunday. "This will create a four-day workweek and also preserve religious neutrality."

Heer's pitch might have been made somewhat in jest, but it offers an answer to the most obvious complaint about Vermeule's proposal: Whose Sabbath are we talking about, anyway? The country is more religiously diverse — and in many cases, non-religious — than ever. Sunday isn't the only day of rest in our collective traditions. So if the idea is to get Americans back in the pews, common good conservatives might end up disappointed. But if the right and left can agree on anything these days, maybe it's that workers should get a day off now and then.