Can any other issue unite the core constituencies of the new right quite like Sabbath restoration?
The future of the American right is post-liberal. Don’t take that from me. Take it from the mainstream media. In recent days, prestige outlets have published a number of “deep dives” into the cohort of scholars and writers (including yours truly) pushing the right to govern for the common good, rather than abandon society to acidic market forces, corporate domination, and the progressive left’s cultural furies.
These include an essay in the New Republic attempting, with some success, to untangle the relationship between political Catholicism and national conservatism and what’s afoot in Central and Eastern Europe; an admirably fair Washington Post profile of Ohio Senate contender J.D. Vance; and a Vox interview with Sam Adler-Bell, a left-wing writer who pitches himself as something of an expert on the new right (I think he has much to learn yet). Moreover, the New York Times editorial page turned to me for a right-wing take on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol; take a glance.
Yet with the growing attention comes often-heard questions and criticisms, some lodged in good faith, others not. The most commonly heard question-cum-objection is this: What do you post-liberals want, concretely? Why do you always deal in abstractions, rather than in practical politics?
There’s a lot to be said for a pragmatic spirit, of course. But unless we get the theory right, we may find ourselves engaging in furious but ultimately fruitless activity. It’s the speculative that determines our ultimate horizon, the end goal. More to the point, though, it simply isn’t true that the post-liberals don’t deal with legal and policy specifics.
Adrian Vermeule, for example, is a council member of the Administrative Council of the United States and the nation’s foremost expert on administrative law. Gladden Pappin has toiled for years on family policy, and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic seek out his counsel in this area. And Christopher Rufo’s campaign against critical race theory is best understood as a post-liberal project. At the core of his argument, after all, is the notion that the state must ensure that children are taught the truth in school. His claims, in other words, aren’t grounded in the liberal theories of neutrality that prevail on the establishment right.
Then there’s restoration of the American Sabbath (“blue laws”), a proposal Vermeule brought up in response to the latest round of questions about why post-liberals don’t dwell in policy detail. In my most recent book, The Unbroken Thread, I devoted a chapter to exploring Sabbath’s meaning in the modern world—and why the loss of America’s Sabbatarian tradition has made us less, not more, free. An essay based on that chapter appeared in the Wall Street Journal when the book was first published.
I don’t want to recapitulate the whole argument here. Rather, I want to make a case for why post-liberals should pursue it as a concrete campaign in 2022 and beyond.
For starters, Sabbath speaks profoundly to the restlessness and misery that is the lot of millions of Americans. The erasure of the boundary between toil and rest is something felt as much by white-collar professionals as by working-class Americans, albeit in different ways. America’s blue laws were abolished in the name of freedom, but it turned out to be freedom for Jeff Bezos and other large employers. Not freedom for workers or families.
Plus, the Sabbath is good realignment politics, at a time when workers have the job-market advantage. A campaign for the Sabbath can bring together labor unions, religious conservatives, and small-business owners (that last group historically opposed abolishing blue laws for lack of ability to compete). Can any other issue unite three core constituencies of the new right quite like Sabbath?
Such a union wouldn’t be a novel thing, moreover. As historian Gillis Harp recounts in his book Protestants and American Conservatism, it was an alliance of Christians and the nascent labor movement that at the turn of the 20th century managed to put a stop to Sunday mail delivery (applying Sabbatarian laws to federal mail delivery was a flash point between Protestant activists and pro-business types throughout the 19th century).
A Sabbath campaign would also serve as a reminder that America has nonliberal traditions. A certain kind of classical liberal likes to pretend that America was a Reason magazine project from its origins. But this is what Patrick Deneen calls “an invented tradition.” In fact, Americans carved out a day for rest and worship going back to the colonial era, not just in Puritan New England, but even in New Amsterdam and Virginia.
Finally, there is no “originalist” case against Sabbatarianism. As I noted in the WSJ essay, “so seriously did early Americans take the Sabbath that, legend has it, even President George Washington got an earful from a local magistrate for riding from Connecticut to New York on a Sunday in 1789.” By insisting on Sabbatarianism, post-liberals can highlight how free-market fundamentalists have no roots in the tradition.
“Bosses, Give Us Our Weekend Back” would make for a potent slogan.