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Sunday Mail Service in a Christian Nation (Book Notes: Divided by God)

By February 19, 2006

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If America was founded as a Christian Nation like the Christian Right so often claims, why was mail delivered on Sundays until 1912? That's right, the absence of mail on Sundays is actually a modern development. The so-called 'Christian' founders didn't have a problem with Sunday mail delivery. Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem

In Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem, Noah Feldman writes:

When in 1810 Congress brought the national postal system into existence, it legislated for seven-day mail delivery without anyone initially raising the problem of Sabbath violation. By 1828, however, with national religious consciousness growing, local religious leaders began to complain that post offices, which doubled as gathering places in small towns, were diverting the faithful from attending church on Sunday. Committees were formed in both the North and the South to demand that mail on Sundays be stopped. [emphasis added]

Consider this very carefully: Sunday mail service wasn’t the object of criticism because it caused work on Sundays, thus violating prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. Instead, it was the object of criticism because it meant that post offices were open on Sundays, and this created competition for churches holding Sunday religious services.

In other words, Christian churches didn’t like the very minor competition created by an open post office and wanted the government’s assistance in eliminating that competition. They wanted Sunday all to themselves — they didn’t want anything to divert people’s attention from their church services. Because they recognized that what they offered was so poor, however, they wanted government help in doing this.

We can find the exact same thing happening today, too.

What followed was the first major national discussion of the proper relationship between the federal government and religion since the ratification of the Constitution. Stating that “our Government is a civil and not a religious institution,” Kentucky Senator Richard M. Johnson took the lead in arguing that the law should not be changed. Johnson made the pragmatic argument that ending Sunday delivery would delay mail service on the other six days and slow the growth of the national economy.

But he also emphasized the principled claim that changing the law would require the government to take a stand on what day, Saturday or Sunday, was the Sabbath. Once the government began to “determine what are the laws of God,” Johnson warned, there would be no stopping the rise of religious oppression. What was more, worried Johnson, the fact that religious groups were acting in concert to end Sunday mail service presaged further political activity by “religious combinations.” Here was a political concern that Madison would have found familiar: religious diversity might cease to protect nonestablishment when different religious denominations could form alliances.
[emphasis added]

How many politicians in America today would have the courage to say the same things as Johnson, that American government is civil and secular rather than religious or that the American government should not have the authority to determine which are the “real” laws of God and which aren’t? Not many, and the reason is largely because of the problem Johnson himself foresaw: the rise of “religious combinations” (the Christian Right) where religious groups organize and join together in order to establish laws which favor them over other religious groups.

Ultimately, Johnson persuaded both the House and the Senate to adopt committee reports in which he argued that the “spirit of the constitution” regarded the government as “a civil institution destitute of religious authority.” (Johnson switched jobs from the Senate to the House of Representatives in 1829, so he had the rare chance to convince members of both bodies of his views.)

Passing a law that decided a religious controversy, Johnson maintained, exceeded Congress’s “legitimate bounds.” Government’s job was to protect the exercise of religion; the job of religion was to do good deeds, protect the faith, and exercise a “moral influence,” not to call on Congress to enact laws. The measure to end Sunday mail service ultimately failed, and the mail was delivered in the United States on Sundays until 1912.

Richard M. Johnson offered the same basic argument which I keep emphasizing here: the separation of church and state is a separation of religious and political authority. American government is a civil institution and, as such, has not religious authority — which, of course, means that it has no authority to establish one particular day as a “sabbath” over any other possible choices.

Susan Jacoby also wrote about this issue:

In 1828, Congress referred the godly mess to the powerful Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads. Its chairman was Kentucky Senator Richard M. Johnson—a general, a hero of the War of 1812, and a devout Baptist. Johnson’s report to Congress uncompromisingly declared that any federal attempt to give preference to the Christian Sabbath would be unconstitutional. He reminded his fellow legislators of the religious persecutions and intolerance that had impelled their revolutionary predecessors to draw a firm line — “the line cannot be too strongly drawn” — between church and state. (So much for separation of church and state being a recently invented lie of the left.)

The report also noted that many Americans, Christian and non-Christian, observed the Sabbath not on Sunday but on Saturday, and that the Constitution and its Bill of Rights were designed to prevent the majority from dictating to minorities. Johnson emphasized that the Constitution “gives no more authority to adopt a measure affecting the conscience of a solitary individual than that of the whole community.”

Did you know that there are places in America where mail continues to be delivered on Sunday? The largest is Loma Linda, California, which has a high concentration of Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian group which marks the sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday. On Saturdays, practically everything is quiet and mail isn’t delivered; On Sundays, everything is active like a normal day and mail is delivered.

A few other communities in America have negotiated a similarly special relationship with the postal service in order to have mail on Sundays rather than Saturdays. This creates a precedent and, in the future, the growing Muslims population might lead to deals for mail to be delivered on Sundays rather than Fridays in a few places.


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