A mortal affliction affects much of America’s heartland. Known as “deaths of despair,” both the Rust Belt and Appalachia have seen incredible spikes in rates of addiction, overdoses, violence, and suicide. In addition to the thousands who die each year by various forms of self-harm, thousands more live Gollum-like, trapped by their chemical chains and in loneliness.
It is a complex situation. While we must not diminish anyone’s moral agency, the downward paths we are on are paved, lined, and greased by a number of contributing factors. For example, Beth Macy, the author of the book Dope Sick, has documented the lethal partnership of doctors and drug companies, not to mention the co-option of government oversight agencies, which inflicted a plague of highly addictive opioids on some of America’s poorest areas of the country.
A new recent study, however, points to an additional complexity, an oft-ignored element of this cultural disease: the decline of religion. According to the study’s authors, there is some correlation between the end of so-called “Blue Laws” and the opioid epidemic. In certain parts of the country, Blue Laws have long limited the range of activities allowed on Sundays. Certain businesses were not allowed to be open, and certain things (especially alcohol) could not be sold. Though these laws continue in certain areas, particularly in Europe, they began to disappear in parts of the United States as the 20th century wore on, to the point that now they are few and far between.
Of course, a significant, culture-wide phenomenon like the opioid crisis cannot be reduced to something as simplistic as whether or not people can shop on Sunday. To do that would be to mistake causation for correlation, kind of like saying murders go up with ice cream sales. And this is something the study’s authors readily admit.
Rather than claiming that the end of Blue Laws created the opioid crisis, they use the end of Blue Laws as a marker to track the decline in American religiosity. The diminishing connections to faith in communities across the country, especially in those areas where they were once so strong, are among the factors that contributed to our nation’s chemical plague. In other words, Blue Laws are a kind of canary in the coal mine, marking when we’ve crossed a dangerous line.
In light of these diminishing religious commitments, reinstating Blue Laws likely will not lead to a reversal in rates of addictions or other deaths of despair. Even if they were an important part of our cultural life of faith at one time, too much has changed for such an easy fix. However, what these laws represented and what has been lost as they disappear points to the underlying causes, not only of the opioid crisis but many of our parallel pains as well.
As much as we prize our individualism, particularly here in America, human beings aren’t just dust motes of consciousness, floating on the air currents of life. We’re connected, not just to one another, but to a host of other elements through relationships that give us meaning, identity, direction, and hope. To be healthy, as individuals and as communities, these relationships (upward, inward, outward, and downward) must be strong.
Human beings need a connection to something beyond ourselves, something higher and transcendent in order to find ourselves, to know who and what we are, to be sure of our identity. We need connections with one another, especially the links of family and friendship, in order to be accountable, supported, and complete. And, we need proper connection to the physical world around us, so to be tethered to reality through things like meaningful labor, a place to call home, and some part of the world to call “mine.”
Marx got it wrong. Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses, but instead a part of life most needed, irreplaceable by technological convenience or scientific mastery. The loss of religion has been a bad idea wherever it has been tried, and those suffering across Appalachia and the Rust Belt are some of its most obvious victims. By abandoning religion, specifically the Christianity which once provided meaning to these now missing relationships, the essential connection between individuals and communities and a higher purpose has been lost.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said all the way back in 1983, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Blue Laws didn’t hold off the effects of substance abuse, but the religious impulse that such laws represented were part of a way of seeing life and the world, one in which we weren’t just reduced to being cogs or animals or sexual expressions. The Christianity that the world has rejected offers the hope that the world so desperately needs.
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