One of the last ‘blue laws’ in Arizona has been repealed, making this Sunday the first during which someone in the state may buy alcoholic drinks before ten in the morning.

A ‘blue law’ is a law designed to enforce moral standards. Typically blue laws involve what people may do on Sundays, the day Christians call the ‘Lord’s Day’. Some of them prohibit shopping on Sundays, others regulate the times during which shops may open for business, or restrict sales of alcohol, tobacco, and other patently sinful things like that. Most American states have such laws on the books, and most European countries too.

But do the blue laws make any sense? And didn’t America’s Founders build a “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution, forbidding any laws “respecting an establishment of religion”?

The 1950s were an important time for evangelicalism in America. Billy Graham’s first revival meetings took place at the beginning of the decade. The National Day of Prayer was established in 1952. The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. The motto ‘In God We Trust’ was adopted in 1956, the same year The Ten Commandments was released with Charlton Heston in his iconic role as Moses.

And in 1961, the blue laws were challenged in four separate court cases, including a landmark Supreme Court case, McGowan v. Maryland, in which the Court held that laws with religious origins are not unconstitutional if they have a secular purpose. A curious decision indeed. What secular purpose, you might ask, did the state of Maryland serve by restricting what kinds of things its residents could do on Sundays?

The answer, according to the Opinion in the case, is that the provisions of the Maryland law were fashioned not for religious reasons but:

“…for the purpose of providing a Sunday atmosphere of recreation, cheerfulness, repose and enjoyment. Coupled with the general proscription against other types of work, we believe that the air of the day is one of relaxation, rather than one of religion.”

The air of the day?! In other words, it was okay for the state to tell its residents what to do on Sundays because its reasons were not, as you might think, because the Christian majority believed it to be the Lord’s Day (although the Opinion admitted that that was the original intention of the law) but because they all needed time to relax and come together!

How nice of the state of Maryland to think of its hard-working citizens like that. They had laws which forced them to relax! I’m sure these laws arrived along with shorter workdays, paternity leave, plentiful vacation time and piña coladas.

One might be forgiven for being skeptical of the motive behind this decision — after all, it’s not like some states were enforcing such laws on Saturdays, the de facto day of American recreation, if that were its true purpose — no, they were in effect on the Lord’s Day, when good Christians of boom-time evangelicalism went to church.

This, I would suggest, is the reason for the continued existence of the blue laws today; they are one piece of artillery in the larger culture war going on between the religious and the secular, the conservative and the liberal, the traditional and the progressive.

One Arizona pastor, Dave Summers, told the Arizona Republic newspaper he is “saddened” to see the Arizona blue law being repealed:

“This may be one of the last stands for Sunday.”

The “Sunday” to which he refers is, of course, not merely the day after Saturday, on which good people can be doing a variety of things. No, Pastor Summers is lamenting the loss of the traditional, church-going, roast beef-eating Lord’s Day, a day on which Jesus is said to have risen from the dead, a day which evokes the good old-fashioned feeling that God is always there and involves the coming together of fellow Christians in worship. It makes me nostalgic for my own very traditional childhood Sundays, just talking about it. I can almost taste the Sunday lunch.

But nostalgia is a powerful drug, and doesn’t always reflect the truth.

For a start, the Lord’s Day is not the same thing as the Sabbath. Jesus got into trouble with the clergy of his church for things he did on a Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath). The early Christian tradition that he rose from the dead on a Sunday gave rise to the custom of gathering together every Sunday to break bread. As many as 200 years later, this became conflated with the Sabbath, the day of rest mandated by God in Jewish tradition.

It was merely customary, then, for Christians to meet for ‘church’ (whatever that looked like during the infancy of Christianity) on a Sunday. It would appear that, over time, as Christianity became more and more like an established religion, it thereby became more legalistic. Suddenly, a custom becomes an obligation.

This is ironic, considering the anti-legalistic theme of Jesus’ message. I defy anyone to read the Gospels and then conclude that Jesus wanted more laws regarding things people are allowed to do on the ‘Sabbath’.

The point is that there may not be a good reason for Christians to feel a duty themselves, let alone obligate others via acts of law, to hold Sunday in particular as a ‘Lord’s Day’. Nowhere in the bible are they obligated to do so. (And even if they are, a custom of the Christian religion should surely be voluntarily observed by Christians rather than enforced upon everyone else, many of whom believe very different things.)

Some Christians might respond by saying that the holy day of rest is a theme found throughout the bible from the beginning when God himself rested on the seventh day and that, whether observed by Jews on Saturdays or by Christians on Sundays, it’s the principle that counts. Okay, but why then does it matter what day it is? Couldn’t a Christian decide to sit on his bed and think about God on a Wednesday, if they’re free on that day? My father, a minister in the Presbyterian Church, takes a Monday off as a day of rest, since he is technically working on a Sunday; wouldn’t it be ironic if our friend Pastor Summers does so too? And if my dad’s choice of Sabbath is valid, along with everyone else whose schedules don’t follow the traditional weekday/weekend structure, why would it ever be necessary to enforce a uniform day at all?

Yes, it is the day upon which most Christian communities decide to meet for church services. But that makes it a matter of mere convenience, not a matter of imperative, and certainly not for the many who don’t believe in the obligation! In this increasingly diverse society — with its nightshifts and weekend shifts and travel and 24-hour shopping and internet sermons — isn’t the getting-together just another scheduled activity, between breakfast at home and lunch at the park?

In fact, people getting together may be the real point here.

Many evolutionary sociologists believe that religion itself evolved because it bonded tribes of human beings together with common values, beliefs and goals; religion was simply good for our survival. (Meetings happen, rituals are performed, songs are sung, traditions are observed. There’s strength in numbers.)

But in the 21st century so deplored by Pastor Summers, people are finding this bonding and togetherness in places other than religious ones. How many Americans do you know who worship at the church of the National Football League or at the altar of NASCAR on a Sunday morning? How many Americans are regularly sleeping through the church bells after some late congregating the night before at the bar, or are busy purposing themselves with putting together the next sermon at their Rotary Club?

You see, Jews marking the Sabbath on Saturdays and Christians marking the Lord’s Day on Sundays are only two of the countless and diverse ways that average Americans are spending their time in the 21st century. The truth is that less than a quarter of the American population actually attends church on a weekly basis, despite the fact that more than three-quarters of the population identify as Christian. What does this tell us? It tells us that about half of Americans consider themselves Christians without placing a very high value upon the Lord’s Day as cherished by Pastor Summers. Their time has been spread out to more activities than ever before, and they don’t feel bound by old observances.

Those who feel this way have begun to overhaul the system. They may not be committed to traditions, but they are connecting and bonding with others. They are spiritual, and searching. They simply don’t consider it necessary to outlaw the purchase of a Bloody Mary from the clubhouse before a round of golf on a Sunday morning under the premise that the ban will help them relax, or help them be better people.

And the same goes for all of the blue laws which still exist, from the ones banning Sunday car sales in Louisiana to the ones restricting Sunday shopping hours in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They don’t make much sense at any time theologically, and they don’t make any practical sense for the 21st century.