Christian TraditionsCulture

The Sabbath Can’t Be Secular

In his new history of Christian politics, The Two Cities, Andrew Willard Jones discerns that modern people, including Christians, erroneously divide the world up into distinct religious and secular realms. The former sits “totally outside of history” and the latter refers to what is “in time,” which is to say, devoid of the timeless, eternal, and supernatural. The religious realm intervenes in the secular only extraordinarily. Absent a miraculous event that defies the status quo, never shall the twain meet. Jones argues that this bifurcated outlook, a recent innovation, reduces the Church to a temporal actor among many competitors. This flattens her into the visible, horizontal plain. Counteracting this default assumption, Jones channels many, perhaps most, who have come before, insisting that

“The Church… includes within her everything that is in time, all the moving pieces of the cosmos, all the ‘secular’ things, and yet it points all of this beyond time to what is eternal, to God… the natural bits and the supernatural bits of the cosmos are intimately connected in the Church making her what she is.”

This explanation of the Church’s nature is right in line with the so-called Two Kingdoms theory of John Calvin and subsequent reformers, properly understood. As Harro Höpfl shows in his study of the polity of Geneva, in terms of social order, the Church sits within the temporal realm alongside the state. But so too does she occupy a vertical reality, a heavenly orientation. She is quite literally not one dimensional. (And this is, in part, why true Two Kingdoms theory does not correspond to the jurisdictional boundaries of church and state within the temporal realm.)

In any case, if the Church, her very nature, is not temporally bound, then, obviously, neither is her teaching and proclamation. This, I think, is why “secular” justifications for Sabbath or Sunday laws stick in my craw a bit. Lately, certain members of the post-liberal right have taken up such justifications. Sohrab Ahmari, in particular.

I am largely aligned with that cadre of the nascent new conservatism and, though I’m not sure Ahmari was the best messenger to for confronting French-ism, he was then the only one willing to define and engage and it with a certain kind of slightly bombastic flair necessary for a budding movement—insurgencies and rebels must always define themselves negatively at the first, either over and against the other or as the other itself. (And they said my postcolonial studies reading wouldn’t come in handy.) Let’s be serious too, that Catholic University debate was good fun and Ahmari has been, in my mind, fully vindicated by his one-time interlocutor’s descent into monotonous, petulant, anti-Evangelical screeds. (It must also be said that Sohrab’s Covid-era commentary has been superb.)

Anyway, Ahmari has, for several years now, floated the renewed enforcement of public indecency laws and the return of Sunday blue laws as part of a recovery of basic public morality. Worker’s rights and drag queen story hour are in view. Ahmari is right to point out that both prongs of his proposal were thoroughgoing elements of American society not too long ago—the last blue law expired in August 2019 in North Dakota—and that there is no iron law against reestablishing them. In theory, these are attainable goals.

Attainable doesn’t mean easy. The evolving standards of decency make revival of more stringent restrictions on public nudity (on and off line) and other activities that appeal to the prurient interest complicated on an enforcement level, not to mention line drawing. The pan-party, neutral public forum brigade has repeatedly made clear that they won’t take encroachment on the “blessings of liberty” lying down. But, of all the vestiges of the cultural Protestantism that was officially disestablished by the early nineteenth century, Sabbath laws hung on the longest insofar as they repeatedly survived legal challenge for another century.

Here’s the rub, however.

The slow demise of Sabbath laws, in both intensity and ubiquity, followed the trajectory of case law justification of the same. (Or, perhaps it’s the other way around.) Courts initially defended America’s Sabbatarianism rather summarily. As enthusiasm for blue laws and the like waned so too did the reasoning of courts in defense: “secular” justifications emerged where “religious” ones had once been. The two developments went hand-in-hand suggesting that calling for a return to blue laws predicated on appeals to worker’s rights, family time, and the like won’t work. It amounts to feeble reverse engineering that can only ever reproduce the conditions that precipitated its demise anyway. As the public reason for Sabbath laws dropped out of currency, so too did its observance and energy from the bench to defend them.

It turns out, defending something inherently transcendent in strictly non-transcendent terms with non-transcendent reasons falls flat. This is not to say that the whole of the Decalogue is not attested to in the natural law and therefore accessible to man absent special revelation. Nor is it to suggest that obedience to any of those commandments renders purely transcendent results. That’s the whole point. (John Owen, among so many others, once droned on for nigh a hundred pages about how the keeping of the Sabbath could be shown from the light and law of nature.) The commands, which are interwoven and should not be so neatly divided, like the Church who continues to preach the deposit of truth, extend beyond one dimension.

The impetus for Sabbath observance is the Decalogue itself which does not simply advise a day or rest but enjoins man to keep the day holy. Contemplation and worship of the holy not only deserves undivided attention, but is, in fact, rest itself.


Some artifacts from the period in reference will help illustrate the point that objectively moral and decent laws like Sunday restrictions on non-religious activity only make sense within a public reason conditioned by Christianity, even when dissenters can still objectively benefit therefrom. (Hence, “secular,” merely civil, or purely temporal justifications are ill-fitted for the task; they’re not convincing because they cannot be.)  

Writing for the Missouri Supreme Court in 1854, the otherwise detestable judge William Scott, after noting the existence of religious exceptions to Sunday observance (i.e., Jewish Sabbath), wrote:

“Those who question the constitutionality of our Sunday laws, seem to imagine that the constitution is to be regarded as an instrument framed for a state composed of strangers collected from all quarters of the globe, each with a religion of his own, bound by no previous social ties, nor sympathizing in any common reminiscences of the past; that, unlike ordinary laws, it is not to be construed in reference to the state and condition of those for whom it was intended, but that the words in which it is comprehended are alone to be regarded, without respect to the history of the people for whom it was made.

It is apprehended, that such is not the mode by which our organic law is to be interpreted. We must regard the people for whom is was ordained. It appears to have been made by Christian men. The constitution, on its face, shows that the Christian religion was the religion of of its framers. At the conclusion of that instrument, it is solemnly affirmed by its authors, under their hands, that it was done in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty–a form adopted by all Christian nations, in solemn public acts, to manifest the religion to which they adhere.”

Scott then explains,

“The framers of the constitution, then, recognized Sunday as a day to be observed, acting them selves under a law which exacted a compulsive observance of it. If a compulsive observance of the Lord’s day, as a day of rest, had been deemed inconsistent with the principles contained in the constitution, can anything be clearer than, as the matter was so plainly and palpably before the convention, a specific condemnation of the Sunday law would have been engrafted upon it. So far from it, Sunday was recognized as a day of rest, when, at the same time, a cessation from labor on that day was coerced by a penalty. They, then, who engrafted on our constitution the principles of religious freedom therein contained, did not regard the compulsory observence of Sunday as a day of rest a violation of those principles. They deemed a statute compelling the observance of Sunday necessary to secure a full enjoyment of the rights of conscience. How could those who conscientiously believe that Sunday is hallowed time, to be devoted to the worship of God, enjoy themselves in its observance amidst all the turmoil and bustle of worldly pursuits, amidst scenes by which the day was desecrated, which they conscientiously believed to be holy? The Sunday law was not intended to compel people to go to church, or to perform any religious act, as an expression of preference for any particular creed or sect, but was designed to coerce a cessation from labor, that those who conscientiously believed that the day was set apart for the worship of God, might not be disturbed in the performance of their religious duties.”

In other words, the cessation of trade and other business on Sunday’s was meant to privilege the free exercise of Christians—a reminder that the two clause of the First Amendment are mutually supportive, as Justice Thomas has recently pointed out. Per judge Scott, the constitution was framed by Christians, for Christians (generally speaking) such that whilst others were not forced to attend church or observe Sunday rest in a religious way at all, the rhythms of life were orchestrated for a particular people. And judge Scott was flabbergasted that anyone would be puzzled by this fact… a Christian people structuring their society to be conducive to Christian living.

“Bearing in mind that our constitution was framed for a people whose religion was Christianity, who had long lived under, and experienced the necessity of laws to secure the observance of Sunday as a day of rest, how remarkable would it have been that they should have agreed to make common, by their fundamental law, a day consecrated from the very birth of their religion, and hallowed by associations dear to every Christian.

Convert Sunday into a wordly day by law, and what becomes of Christianity? How can we reconcile the idea to our understanding, that a people professing Christianity would make a fundamental law by which they would convert Sunday into a wordly day? It would have been an act of deadly hostility to the religion they professed, exposing it to the danger of being reduced to the condition in which it was before the Roman world was governed by Christian princes.”

Again, Scott makes no bones about it, Sunday laws were intended to consecrate the Lord’s day by state sanction. If Sunday laws were abolished, said Scott, not only would the heritage of the state’s constitution and framers be trampled, but, more practically, Christians would be, in fact, disadvantaged by their own laws, a prospect that clearly made no sense to the old Missourian. He appropriately grasped the centrality of that ancient injunction to the faith: Convert Sunday into a wordly day… and what becomes of Christianity? A Connecticut court in 1818 had implicitly recognized Jones’ argument above, stating explicitly that the Christian Sabbath required abstention from “secular business.” Its observance was a recognition of the transcendence of the secular by the Church spiritual. That was the point. 

And yet, judges waxing eloquent about the Christian purposes and underpinnings of the constitutional order were not naïve. The New York Supreme Court acknowledged in 1868 that

“That we live in a Christian country is certainly true. It is acknowledged by the laws of the land, which prohibit blasphemy and profanity, and enjoin the observance of Sunday. That we believe in a governing Providence, by whom crime will be punished and virtue rewarded, is assumed in every oath that is administered. To say, however, that every man is presumed to be a personal Christian, upon whose mind and upon whose actions the precepts of the Gospel exercise an influence, is so much against our common experience, that it cannot be assumed as a legal principle.”

Scott’s opinion is useful on another level too. Upon secular justifications of the Sabbath in policy debates the inevitable question will be, why that day? Why the Christian day? Which is exactly the question at issue then. True enough, Scott adopted a socio-historical explanation, viz., majority Christian societies naturally adopt laws favoring their preferred holidays, etc. But what would we do today in a thoroughly polytheistic society?

The Ahmari option relies on appeals to the general secular interest. A little more than a decade after Scott’s opinion, courts in California–no surprise there–were already beginning to justify preexisting Sabbath laws on this basis. Ex parte Andres (1861) claimed that the object of the act “for the Observance of the Sabbath” was “only to require duties purely civic or secular.” It was not an issue that an ancillary effect might be the promotion of piety too. It took eastern states longer to come around but eventually they too folded: upholding Sabbath protections on secular grounds before eventually giving up the ghost entirely. 

That Ahmari’s case coincides with the (present) Establishment Clause standard(i.e., secular purpose) is a bit self-defeating insofar as the supposed goal of readopting older legal regimes is to encourage a particular (Christian) morality and said legal regimes were explicitly Christian. Purely secular laws, like purely civil societies, cannot be truly moral insofar as they are not cognizant of man’s dual nature and higher end. Likewise, a society cannot be properly ordered to the common good unless it is also ordered to the highest good. After all, politics, in the Aristotelian sense, is the direction of temporal affairs to higher ends.

More importantly, laws feigning to uphold, in a more direct way, divine (and natural) law cannot rightly be justified by non-transcendent excuses. Law, as a sub-alternate discipline, must receive its moral data from elsewhere. The justifications as much as the substance or results reflect this. Accordingly, a law explained via the logic of liberal secularism adopts the same character.

Honest progressive scholars like Khyati Jonsi, author of White Christian Privilege, would see right through them anyway. People like her would argue that codified preference for the Christian holy day of rest are always and everywhere really furthering what the Supreme Court of Missouri once defended. In a way, she would be right. So, why not just own it? Ultimately, honor of the Sabbath is, in the first instance, a question of duty, not benefit. (Though the fulfillment of duty yields immense benefit.) Adopting anew blue laws would, it could be argued, at least give Christians an easier go at fulfilling their duty. Fair enough. I suppose I just assumed post-liberal ambitions were a bit grander than adding to the religious liberty “wins” that David French never tires of invoking; what amounts to begrudged breathing room for bigots and rightly described by Ryan Anderson as proxy wars for deeper moral conflicts.


It is a testament to the atrophy, the thorough secularization, of our public reason that we have reached a dead end at this point. These kinds of quandaries are what, at times, dampens my post-liberal, “rad-trad” spirits. Sabbath laws would be an objective good policy for many reasons. The reader must not misunderstand me. I am not against them as such. But it’s not very “trad” to justify them in pluralistic fashion. (Kind of like the emergent Evangelical pension for adopting my body, my choice language to resist vaccines.) 

Some of us still refer to Sunday as “the Lord’s day.” This is for good reason. As Gilbert Meilaender says in his terse but beautiful reflection on the Ten Commandments, Thy Will Be Done, Sunday is like a “little Easter,” breaking into “the rhythms of work and everyday life, reminding us that our life and all life continually depends on God and inviting us to offer back to God with thankful hearts the whole creation.” It is an act of looking forward to final rest, the “eight day,” as Augustine referred to it. Sunday is a decidedly transcendent event, insofar as it participates in a trancedently gathered community to worship an ascended Christ, and anticipate a final, transcendent existence in glory. The dual nature of Church and man is expressed. The purpose of he Sabbath is worship and holiness with an eye toward eternal rest; a foretaste of glory, especially in the taking of the sacrament as a mirror to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb. Appropriately, the Westminster Catechism (Q. 117) directs Christians to sanctify the Lord’s day by “holy resting” and “public and private exercises of God’s worship.” From this view sprang Sabbatarianism and concomitant laws in America. 

The last time Sabbath laws were widespread was when the public reason could countenance religious demands and transcendent goods. Circumventing that prerequisite feels like a façade. It seems to me that a resuscitation of the public reason must necessarily precede a resurrection of the public Sabbath, and we’re, lamentably, a long way from that.


Image: Embarkation of the Pilgrims, by Robert W. Weir (1843)

Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

Previous post

Paradise for Thieves

Next post

God of Spirits and All Flesh: The Grace of Prayer for the Dead