To Reverse Our Despair
A new study by economists shows a profound correlation between deaths of despair and the repeal of blue laws.
A new study by economists Tyler Giles, Daniel Hungerman, and Tamar Oostrom, “Opiates of the Masses: Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion,” finds that the cause of the dramatic increase in so-called deaths of despair—such as suicides, deaths by opiate addiction and overdose, and alcoholism—is, quite simply, the decline of “organized religion.”
In just the past two decades, suicides are up 30 percent. The authors of the study sought to understand the factors causing “one of the most important economic and demographic issues of our time,” and they found that very little provided an explanation for the rise in despair, with one glaring exception: a decline in religious practice was highly correlative since the late 1990s, following a steep downturn in “religious adherence” (presumably the collapse of mainline Protestantism) in the late 1980s. Using the General Social Survey, the authors find that this had a disproportional effect on the poor, and especially on “white middle-aged Americans without a college degree.” One can immediately see that the class of people most affected by religious decline are those who lack all the social and economic “buffers” of the middle and upper classes. One might even speculate that those most affected by the rise in deaths of despair and the decline of Christian devotion would gravitate toward any political candidate who could offer some hope of reversing their despair.
Yet the most powerful aspect of the study, especially for readers of Postliberal Order, is that the authors track the rising despair and the decline of religion most precisely to the repeal of blue laws.
“These laws have been shown to be strongly related to religious practice, creating discrete changes in incentives to attend religious services . . . the repeal of these laws lowered religious participation.”
Of course, “lowering religious participation” was always the intent and purpose of repealing Sunday Closing laws, and this all negatively confirms that law is a teacher, and sometimes teaches what is false and demonstrably bad for a people. The activists who sought (in their hatred of Christianity) to repeal such laws, and the legislators and justices who did the repealing, failed to foresee how damaging the loss of such laws would be on “the social fabric of communities generally.” Among their findings is that the loss of blue laws depressed religious participation, and that this in turn made very significant portion of the population unstable, lacking the strength of “religiosity,” unable to deal with “enormous negative shocks” such as large-scale wars and natural disasters—which is to say, unable to deal with suffering.
Restoring blue laws is not a panacea. Yet as the authors show, the decline of religious adherence in America is not simply one correlative among many, but rather it is so highly correlative as to be reasonably considered the principal cause of our despair. Of course, as a theologian, I could’ve told you that, but it’s nice to have some confirmation from those who practice the dismal science as well.
St. Augustine once wrote that neither pagan religion or Stoic indifference really made Rome strong in the face of suffering. Rather, in Rome’s greatest suffering, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, all found refuge in the great Catholic basilicas of the city. Devotion to true religion, supported by just laws under the emperors, was not a guarantee that you would not suffer, but rather it was a refuge which trained a people in the way of the Cross, in a school for facing “enormous negative shocks,” so that suffering would not devastate a people by despair, causing them to flee from God, but instead test their faith, unite themselves to Christ Crucified, and so paradoxically increase in strength under the very virtue of humility. Augustine concluded that “what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings,” and that laws supporting Christian devotion are not contrary to the common good of Rome, but positively in its interest. So it is for us today.
I do not believe we can survive as a country without restoring something as simple as blue laws. Even if you were an atheist, you could at least see it from the point of view of the economist. As T. S. Eliot once said about Christianity and the laws of Europe, as Christianity goes, so does the whole culture. “And I am convinced of that,” he wrote, “not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology.” Our economists can confirm.