Thursday, June 1, 2017

Aftermath of the Russian Supreme Court Ruling on Jehovah's Witnesses

The aftermath of the recent Russian Supreme Court ruling on the Jehovah's Witnesses (mentioned earlier on the blog here) is beginning.  There have been several reports of increased persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, including -- as reported here -- children as targets.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have themselves released a document that lists abuses since the ban (here).  Some of the events include police raids on in-home private religious gatherings, arson, and loss of jobs.

We would classify these developments as increases in government regulation, social regulation, and religious violence.  They demonstrate how a change in government rules go beyond the strict confines of the new laws but can also lead to other increased tensions with society.  The new laws have created an environment where educational leaders and community members have the confidence that their own punishing of Jehovah's witnesses will not be punished.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Church of England Investment Returns

One advantage of being a large church with many members and congregations is that you can pool certain resources to leverage your scale of operations.  Such is the case for many large denominations that pool financial resources when making investments.  Many churches have endowment of funds that they invest and that earns a return each year.  Those return can then be used as additional income for the church.

The Church of England made news this week because its investment fund had huge returns during the 2016 year, incredibly earning more than 17%.  The £7.9 billion fund is managed by a church commission, and it's 2016 earnings more than doubled the earnings from 2015.  The investments are in global equities, private equity, residential property, and timberland, and the high return allowed the investment fund to contribute over £230 billion towards church operations and activities, a robust 15% of the church's income that year.

Of course, discussion of money of this scale often raises other questions and even controversy.  As a reward for a job well done, the Church of England gave out very large yearly bonuses to a small number of fund managers.  Critics claimed that these large bonuses are hypocritical and not in line with what should be church priorities, while Church leaders claim that good fund managers should be rewarded to prevent them from leaving.  What do you think?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reforming the U.S. Tax Code on Religious Giving

Congress and the Trump Administration have proposed a number of significant changes to American tax policy.  The effects of these new policies on religious giving is now being reported in a new study by personnel of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  Read the summary here (mandatory).  The full report is too long to read in detail but can be found here.

The finding can be summarized as follows:
  • The combination of lowering the top tax rate and raising the standard deduction will reduce donations by about $13.1 billion.
  • The reduction can be offset by adding a non-itemizer deduction.
To understand what this means, you must first understand what are deductions and what it means to itemize.  Consider a taxpayer that donates $C total to various charitable organizations (including churches).  When calculating how much to pay in taxes, the taxpayer decides whether to use $C for the amount to deduce from her taxes or whether to use another amount $S which is called the standard deduction.

For those persons that donate a lot, including many that donate large amounts to churches, C is greater than S.  To deduct $C, they must give an item-by-item account of all the donations that added to $C when filing their taxes, and so they are called itemizers.  The person that uses S does not need to provide the item-by-item accounting, so that person is called a non-itemizer.  Currently, only itemizers are able to deduct their actual charitable giving.  Non-itemizers can still give to charity, but they just cannot deduct it from their taxes.

Notice that if you are an itemizer, then every additional dollar you give increases the amount you can deduct.  That is, the additional dollar you donate costs you less than a dollar because you get some of it back in the form of lower taxes.  However, if you are a non-itemizer, then every additional dollar costs you a full dollar because you are just using the standard deduction of $S.  So giving the extra dollar costs more to the non-itemizer than it does to the itemizer.

If the standard deduction amount S is increased, then more people will find themselves in the position where the additional dollar donated costs the full dollar instead of less than a dollar.  This in turn will lead to several people reducing the amounts they donate.  It might not sound like a big deal, but when millions of people each donate a little bit less, it can add up to billions of dollars -- $13.1 billion in the example the study provides.

One way to counter the drop in donations is to allow non-itemizers to deduct their charitable donations in addition to using the standard deduction.  In fact, the drop in donations from raising S can be fully offset if non-itemizers are allowed to deduct their donations.

There is no consensus on what is best.  Some people think that the deductions are good because they think religion creates many positive externalities.  Some people think that the deductions are bad because they essentially allow people to shift money that could go the government and into their own individually-preferred activities.  There are still other opinions.  What do you think?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Religion in Central and Eastern Europe

The Pew Research Center has released a lengthy report on religion in central and eastern Europe.  The report is much too long to require students in the class to read.  However, everyone should skim the overview page here.

Here are a few things that caught my eye.  First, religion is strong again despite decades of official atheism under communism.  Second, state-affiliated religious groups remain the most prominent groups in those countries.  Third, religiosity in central and eastern Europe appears can be described as "believing and belonging without behaving."  This last pattern is quite different from "believing without belonging" in western Europe and "behaving without believing or belonging" in east Asia.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The U.S. Military's Definition of Religion is Expanding

As stated in class, how we define religion is not merely an arcane academic matter;  it has real consequences for people's behavior and well-being.  This announcement reported by the Religion News Service provides a nice case in point.
The Department of Defense announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces.
The move, which came at the end of March but was made public this week, means servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups.
The move was lauded by humanist organizations, which have been pushing for full recognition, including their own chaplains, for 10 years.
Supports applaud the move as it extends benefits to people previously prevented from those benefits, but critics argue that the definition of religion is too broad.  Is secular humanism a religion?  Well, it depends on your definition, and the military is now using a broader definition than before.

Also of interest is that the military is now allowing soldiers to choose from a much wider selection of options when reporting their religious affiliation.  So when will they allow someone to choose more than one option...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Russian Supreme Court Ruling on Jehovah's Witnesses

Remember the recent post from a couple week ago (here).  Well, the Russian Supreme Court has just ruled that the Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremist group that must hand over all of its property to the state.  See a short article here.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which you will learn about later in this course, has issued a statement condemning the decision (here).  The chair of the commission calls it "harassment."  The USCIRF notes that the Russian law in question enables Russia to label groups as extremist even when those groups do not advocate or engage in violence.

What do you expect will happen to Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia?  How might this ruling affect other religious groups?  Will it hurt or hinder their success?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pew Research Center Report on Global Restrictions on Religion

Earlier today, the Pew Research Center released a special report on global restrictions on religion around the world.  The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan organization that conducts public opinion polling and demographic research around the world.

The entire report (pdf here) is about 80 pages, so it is too much to ask you to read all of it.  However, do read the summary page here (hint: that means reading the summary page is required for the class).

Let me point out a few things that stood out to me.

First, "Government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion increased in 2015 for the first time in three years, according to Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion."  We should expect slight upticks and downticks from year to year, so it is not the slight uptick that is so important but rather that there has been a more noticeable increase in religious restrictions and hostility over the last decade.

Second, "The global rise in social hostilities reflected a number of factors, including increases in mob violence related to religion, individuals being assaulted or displaced due to their faith, and incidents where violence was used to enforce religious norms."  The increases were around the world:  Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

Third, Europe had the largest increase in measures of government harassment of religious groups.  "Two countries in Europe, France and Russia, each had more than 200 cases of government force against religious groups – mostly cases of individuals being punished for violating the ban on face coverings in public spaces and government buildings in France, and groups being prosecuted in Russia for publicly exercising their religion."

Fourth, "Jews and Muslims remain victims of social hostilities in most European countries," and "Muslims and Christians – who together make up more than half of the global population – continued to be harassed in the highest number of countries."

These trends in global hostility of religion constitute one of the most important trends in religion today.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia

Last month the Russian Justice Ministry suspended the operations of Jehovah's Witnesses, claiming that their activities violate Russian laws meant to combat extremism.  See the NY Times article here.  There are almost 200,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, so many people are affected by the action.  Various groups have criticized the move, including the USCIRF here (you will learn more about the USCIRF later this quarter).

Just yesterday, the Russian Supreme Court began hearings on the action by the Justice Ministry.  They will have to determine whether or not the suspension is constitutional.  Stay tuned to see the outcome.

These events in Russia illustrate the importance of the "rules of the game" discussed in our first lecture.  By changing the rules of the game for Jehovah's Witnesses, the success of that religious group is dramatically affected.  If they must cease operations, current adherents will lose religious support, and fewer people may be exposed--and possibly convert--to the group.  Moreover, if the suspension stands, then more religious groups could be targeted for similar sanctions.