The Secular Trend Toward Secularity, or Do Blue Laws Make Us Happier?

In Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, blue laws prohibit most retail activity on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I am not aware of empirical research correlating this restriction with greater vs. lesser happiness.  Rhode Island is so small, anyway, that driving to Connecticut to shop might not take long.  And much of Massachusetts is less than an hour’s drive to either New Hampshire, Vermont, or Connecticut.  Residents of down east Maine would have a tougher time making it to a physical store, if online shopping isn’t enough to float their boats.  If it weren’t so cold up there, I might head to Bar Harbor to ask people how happy they are today.

In the other forty-seven states, marts are already open, perhaps partly because Thanksgiving never falls later than November 28 (since 1939, at least, when retailers prevailed upon FDR to move up the date, causing much scandal at the time).  In a larger sense, the secular trend is toward secularity, even on Thanksgiving Day.  We (outside of three New England states, at any rate) are no longer living in a premodern age where commandment and counsel are so closely linked that, as Remi Brague has written, “law bathed in counsel as in a nourishing environment.  Counsel preceded the law that was based upon it, but it also surpassed the law by adding a further stage to it.  On the one hand, the law was what had to be observed to assure the full deployment of a nature that, by that fact, realized what counsel wanted.  On the other hand, counsel, in the form of evangelical advice, led to reaching beyond the minimal demands stated in the law and to striving for perfection….With the modern age, the two poles of law and counsel separate, each going its own way in a pursuit of extremes” (The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea, 232-33).  Except, of course, for Reverend Billy of The Church of Stop Shopping, who has heroically refused to separate divine commands from counsels of prudence.

Our contemporary insistence on freedom from constraint and commandment can, remarkably, often still coexist with good deportment.  And yet the “binding tie of cohesive sentiment” Felix Frankfurter evoked in 1940 as “the ultimate foundation of a free society” seems precious and elusive sometimes.  Perhaps it is a good sign when an Elkhart, Indiana Pizza Hut manager is fired, then rehired amid outcry, for refusing to open up the restaurant today.  Here’s hoping no one is trampled to death in a mall this year.

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