It’s an overstatement to say the road to hell leads through the mall, but somewhere Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards must be saying “I told you so.” Notre Dame economist Dan Hungerman has reported an interesting link between public morality and the repeal of “blue laws,” which originated with the Puritans and, most notably, banned stores from doing business on Sunday.
Specifically, the assistant professor of economics and a colleague from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that drinking and drug use rates increased among young people after blue laws were repealed. At the same time, religious attendance and church donations fell. “[Since] the subsequent increase in drinking and drug use is found only among the initially religious individuals, this suggests that religious participation might really have an impact on other choices that people make,” Hungerman says.
For their study “The Church vs. the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition,” the researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began its survey in 1979 and has conducted periodic follow-ups. The authors reported that following a state’s repeal of blue laws, the rate of “religious youth” who said they had six or more drinks at one sitting sometime in the previous month jumped 5 percent. Meanwhile, the rate for marijuana use rose 9 percent and cocaine use increased 1.5 percent, equaling the rates of “nonreligious youth,” which were 18 percent and 3 percent respectively for marijuana and cocaine. At the same time church attendance fell 5 percent and donations dropped 13 percent.
“This may not mean we should go back to the days when blue laws were widespread,” Hungerman cautions. “After all, people are voluntarily choosing to go to church less; no one is forcing them.” However, he says, “it brings up the old issue of how far the government should go to protect people from themselves.”