Christmas Tree Tax on the Way

I cannot quite decide whether this report is in jest or not, but it appears to be real.  But if it is real, I am having a difficult time understanding the aims of the tax.  Why is it necessary to improve and expand the Christmas tree market?  What secular government purpose is at stake, other than improving the lot of people who sell Christmas trees?  And if that’s all that is at stake, why did the government choose Christmas tree sellers as opposed to a different group; say, clothes retailers or winter sled manufacturers?  At least on one currently popular understanding of the Establishment Clause, why is collecting revenue for the explicit purpose of promoting the image and marketability of a “sectarian symbol” like this not problematic?  — MOD

UPDATE: Thanks to my alert colleague, Mark, I see that the US Department of Agriculture has decided to delay imposition of the tax.  The Administration spokesman does not want to call it a tax, but prefers to call it a “fee” which the “industry group [is] deciding to impose . . . on itself.”  If that is the case, then why is the US Department of Agriculture involved in imposing the fee?  On the other hand, it appears from at least some accounts that none of the money is going to the federal government itself.

Polish Group Demands Removal of Crucifix in Parliament

An interesting development in Poland, where the new left-wing party, “Palikot’s Movement,” which got some 40 seats in the most recent election, has demanded the removal of the crucifix that hangs in the Polish parliament (picture of the parliament at right, wooden crucifix at far left).  The reason given for the demand is that the presence of the crucifix violates the constitutional guarantee of a secular state.  The story reports that at least some of the resistance to removing the crucifix stems from its political and cultural importance in recent Polish history, including the role of the Catholic Church in overthrowing communism.  — MOD

Russia’s Proposed Abortion Law and the Influence of the Orthodox Church

From Reuters’s FaithWorld blog, a story about a proposed abortion law in Russia. The new law, which seems likely to pass, would ban all abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy, impose a one-week waiting period, and require women who are more than six weeks pregnant to view an ultrasound picture of the embryo and listen to its heartbeat before going through with an abortion. The new law has the strong backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, a powerful force in Russian society, and the FaithWorld story focuses on that angle.  I wonder how much the church is really driving things, though. Russia faces a demographic crisis; by 2050, the UN predicts, Russia’s population will have fallen by 20%, if current trends continue. And its abortion rate is the highest in the world, 73 per 100 births in 2009. So I suspect that secular forces support the new law as well; their influence may be the decisive factor. — MLM


Readers are no doubt aware of the horrifying charges arising out of the Penn State University incident, in which it is alleged that an assistant coach of the football team molested several boys and that several members in the front office of the football organization did not report the crimes.  If the charges are true, they are loathsome indeed.

Loathsome in a different way is this line in today’s New York Times column by Maureen Dowd: “Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique.”  Whatever may be the viability of the charges against Penn State officials under Pennsylvania’s failure to report statute, or against specific clerics in the Roman Catholic Church in positions of power in entirely distinct cases (and they may well be legally viable), the blanket smear of this comment — its suggestion that all cases look alike, or that it is appropriate to indict an entire Church, whatever the facts may look like, for what Dowd perceives as “arrogan[ce]” — is, in my opinion, despicable. — MOD

Does Democracy Reduce Religious/Political Terrorism?

Here is a well-written and acute review by Samuel Helfant of Katerina Dalacoura’s (LSE) interesting book, Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East (CUP 2011).  As Helfant notes, the book was written before the upheaval in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc., but its themes and thesis are more relevant now than ever.  Here’s a bit from the review.  — MOD

The link between repressive political systems and terrorism seems obvious. It is not difficult to imagine why some people without the means to express their political will peacefully would eventually turn to violence. Add to this the findings of the democratic peace theory, which highlight the fact that no democratic state has ever gone to war with another democratic state, and democracy would appear to be an apt remedy for the political violence, including terrorism, that has plagued the Islamic world in recent decades. Thus, countless studies since September 11 have argued that democracy in the Middle East could “drain the swamps” of Islamic terrorism. Indeed, this idea formed the theoretical foundation for the Bush administration’s adoption of its “freedom agenda” as a central tenet in its war on terrorism.

In practice, however, the link between political systems and political violence has never been as strong as some would suggest. The unfortunate truth is that authoritarian regimes are rather good at preventing terrorism. There were only a few reported incidents of political terrorism in the Soviet Union, and in 2003 the London-based World Terrorism Index classified North Korea as the state “least exposed to international terrorism.” In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that democracy, and especially the process of democratization, can actually encourage terrorism. It should not be surprising that the Middle East is no exception to these trends, and empirical studies on the links between political participation and moderation among Islamists, such as Jillian Schwedler’s important book Faith in Moderation, have come to similar conclusions about the questionable link between political systems and extremism.

Yet books such as Schwedler’s have been limited to studies focusing on one or two groups over a specific period of time. Dalacoura’s work, by contrast, offers an analytical tour of the major Islamist movements in the Middle East. Through a plethora of case studies, Dalacoura covers a wide geographical and political range, and with a social-scientific methodology that separates her work from that of pundits and journalists, she challenges hypotheses instead of simply searching for evidence to reinforce received wisdom. What she finds, across the board, is that the links between political freedom and political violence are unsubstantiated.

Personhood Amendment Fails in Mississippi

An update on the proposed Personhood Amendment on the ballot in Mississippi, about which I posted last month. The measure, which would have amended the state constitution to define life as beginning at  the moment of conception, failed yesterday. The defeat was surprising, given earlier opinion surveys in this socially conservative state, but the Personhood Amendment had divided abortion opponents, including the Catholic Church, which declined to endorse the measure for pragmatic reasons. — MLM