Tag Archives: Sabbath Laws

Shopping on Sunday

Every year, it seems, Christmas becomes more commercialized. In NYC this year, we started seeing Christmas decorations in stores in October. In October. Christmas is starting to lap Halloween.

I was thinking about this when I read that the Catholic Church in Italy is working to repeal that country’s new Sunday shopping law. Earlier this year, in an effort to stimulate the Italian economy, the Monti government enacted a law allowing shops across the country to open on Sundays. The new law is opposed by a coalition including the Vatican, small shop owners, and some secularists who argue that a nationwide day of rest is in everyone’s interest. The Italian campaign is part of a larger movement called the European Sunday Alliance, a network of “trade unions, civil society organizations and religious communities committed to raise awareness of the unique value of synchronized free time for our European societies.”

The Sunday Alliance is not at heart religious . Sure, some Christians argue that Sunday shopping violates the Sabbath, but mostly the movement has secular goals, such as working less, putting a brake on commercialism, and spending time with family and friends. To be sure, small shop owners have an economic interest in ending Sunday shopping, since the practice disproportionately favors big-box retailers. But it’s not like the big-box retailers who favor Sunday shopping are being altruistic. They’re only advancing their economic interests.

The arguments for allowing Sunday shopping are pretty straightforward. Increased commercial activity means more wealth and greater tax revenues. More people will be able to find employment. And there is the matter of consumer choice. If people want to buy TVs on Sundays, why should the state stop them? Who’s harmed? Finally, allowing shopping on Sundays could be seen as a gesture toward religious pluralism. Not everyone observes the Christian Sabbath, and Sunday closing laws may create burdens for non-Christian businesses and consumers.

These arguments have carried the day in America. Notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has declared Sunday closing laws constitutional, most places allow Sunday shopping nowadays. Americans have become accustomed to the convenience and see nothing wrong with it. A movement to ban shopping on Sundays in America would go nowhere.

To my mind, though, opponents of the new Italian law have a point. Economics isn’t everything. It’s not unreasonable to think that, one day a week, society should forgo buying and selling, even if that means a reduction in wealth and tax revenues. (Tax revenues? In Italy? Who are we kidding?) In a culture as homogeneously Catholic as Italy’s, Sunday is the only realistic option. Moreover, it’s not unreasonable to think that Sunday store openings will create a situation in which observant Christian employees feel pressured to work, or that Sunday shopping will threaten traditions Italians enjoy. Perhaps Italians don’t want a society in which Christmas becomes, inevitably, the Biggest Shopping Season of the Year.

So, to the opponents of the Italian law, I say, Good Luck and Buon Natale. Not that any of this would affect us here at CLR Forum. We’re open seven days a week. 

Things that Aren’t on Enough Church-State Syllabi — Part II: Never on Sunday?

The first major nationwide battle over church and state didn’t take place when the First Amendment was adopted.  It happened decades later in the 1830s, and it involved the agency employing 75% of the U.S. government’s civilian workforce – the Post Office.  Congress required mail delivery seven days a week, and a coalition of prominent Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist and other churches led the charge to make sure that the nation (in their view, a Christian nation) lived up to its obligations under the 4th Commandment.  Richard John’s beautifully written, Spreading the News (1995), tells the story brilliantly.

 The Sabbatarian side can best be found in Jasper Adam’s essay, “On the relation of Christianity to civil governments,” found in Daniel Dreisbach’s excellent, Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate (1996):  In light of the “close relation between religion and Government that had always  existed” in the states, Adams concluded that it was “unlikely” that the Founders would “lay aside all connection with Christianity in the general institutions to which they gave birth . . . Though a strong aversion had arisen to the national establishment of any one form of Christianity, none had grown up against a  distinct recognition of Christianity itself as a religion of the nation.”

Colonel (later, Vice President) Richard Johnson chaired the relevant congressional committees, and he released sharply worded, largely anticlerical, reports that don’t really talk about the establishment clause or any other specific part of the Constitution.  The spirit of the Constitution, however, is clearly stated:  “The Constitution regards the general government in no other light than that of a civil institution, wholly destitute of religious authority.”  In a nice bit of irony, the official congressional reports were actually ghostwritten by Johnson’s Washington landlord, a Baptist minister named Obadiah Brown.

Here was the big church-state fight that we sometimes pretend happened when the establishment clause was adopted.  When it finally occurred forty years later, the first round went to the separationists.  But, the Sabbatarians never gave up, and they shut down the Sunday mails for good in 1912.  American’s competing church-state views seem to be so deeply rooted that these kinds of disputes – perhaps like the 20th century school prayer arguments – can literally endure for generations, if not centuries.

Don Drakeman