Monday, December 28, 2009

Wrapping up 2009 and Looking Toward 2010

Time to wrap up the 2009 year with some big religion stories.
  1. The Pew Forum released this month a big study on religious regulations around the world. Here is the executive summary. The big item was that an estimated 70% of the world's population live under high or very high religious regulations.
  2. For the fifth year in a row, the United Nations passed a resolution against religious defamation, yet support for this is declining each year. The main criticism of the resolution is that it can be used to support the suppression of some minority religious groups whose members speak out against persecutions enacted by member of other religious groups.
  3. These two stories are mentioned in this Economist Magazine article.
  4. Another Pew Forum study on trends in American's religiosity. In short, there is a lot of switching and mixing. Here's a Wall Street Journal article on it.
Putting the year in perspective is Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which posted online their annual roundtable on the major religion stories during the past year, and Howard Friedman of, who gives his Top-10 Religious Liberty Developments of 2009.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly also gives a look ahead to 2010.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

End-of-quarter Thoughts on the Blog

I welcome your feedback on the value of the blog. Please take a few minutes to answer the following questions.
  1. Which one or two blog posts did you like the most?
  2. What did you like about the blog? What did you not like about it?
  3. In what ways did the blog contribute to the class, if any?
  4. Would you come back to visit this blog later even though you will not be a student in the class?
Any other comments are appreciated as well. If there is interest, I can continue to post stories even though the class has ended. I have enjoyed our interaction on the blog, and I hope it has contributed to your understanding of the economics of religion.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sikhs and the Possibility of Religious Freedom

Sikh-Americans are small in number: there are only 211 Sikh congregations in the U.S.A. in the year 2000 according to the ARDA web site. Yet Sikhs stand out because of their many distinctive practices. The Pew Forum just published online a short but nice Q&A about the difficulties Sikh-Americans face in practicing their religion in the U.S.A. Much of this has to do with some of the particular requirements of Sikhism, e.g., men must wear head coverings, believers must carry a kirpan (a small curved sword), and more.

The Q&A examines the difficulty in balancing our ideal of religious freedom with other ideals in our society. For example: Should Sikh students be allowed to bring kirpans to school when the swords could become dangerous weapons? Should Sikhs be allowed to wear head coverings when it violates the uniform code required at a place of employment? Should imprisoned Sikhs be forced to shave their beards to comply with prison dress standards?

These questions are often resolved in the courtroom, where judges must perform a balancing act in trying to weigh a person's right to act in line with religious beliefs with another person or group's rights to set rules for behavior. In general, the courts rule in favor of the religious person unless there is a reason compelling enough to overrule that person's right to religious practice. For example, a 1984 ruling went in favor of an employer who required his Sikh employee to shave his beard because the beard hair hindered the operation of a gas mask that must be worn by employees for safety.

But we see here the difficulty in putting into practice our basic notion of religious freedom. Religious freedom often comes into conflict with other freedoms and responsibilities, and this means that religious freedom, even in the U.S.A., is not a right that trumps all other rights at all times and in all places in the eyes of the courts. This conclusion has even led at least one person to conclude that religious freedom is impossible.

It is true that religious freedom in the fullest sense of the term will never be realized because in a pluralistic society there will frequently arise conflicting claims and rights. Yet, saying that religious freedom is impossible can be misleading. Religious freedom is better thought of as existing in a matter of degrees rather than as an either-or condition. There is no doubt that people are more free to practice their religions in some countries than in others. Thus, the notion of religious freedom is still useful even if it can never be experienced in totality. Unfortunately, it also means that some people, like Sikhs in the U.S., will give up some religious practices even in relatively free religious environments.

Update: Coincidently, a Sikh man's is currently suing a transportation company claiming it did not hire him because of his beard and turban. Story here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Market for Martyrs

Our thanks go to Larry Iannaccone of Chapman University for his terrific guest lecture on religious extremism and suicide bombings. Students in the class can go to the class dropbox for access to his paper "The Market for Martyrs." He also mentioned the following books (obviously not required reading for the final exam):
Berman is an economist, and Sageman is a psychologist. Another book of interest is by a political scientist:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sunday Shopping Restrictions Upheld by German Court

From this article about a ruling earlier today by the German Constitutional Court:
The court said the German capital could no longer allow stores to open on the four Sundays prior to Christmas, but permitted shopkeepers keep their doors open this Advent season one last time.

With the least restricted shopping hours in Germany, Berlin’s 2006 decision to allow stores to open on ten Sundays and holidays a year sparked a constitutional challenge by the Protestant and Catholic churches afraid the sanctity of their holy day was being unduly impinged.

After allowing the liberalisation of opening hours on every day of the week except Sunday a few years ago, the high court justices agreed there could be no further weakening of Germany’s Ladenschluss [German store closing] laws.

“A simple economic interest of merchants and the daily shopping interest of potential consumers are not fundamentally enough to justify exceptions for opening stores on these days,” said the court’s president, Judge Hans-J├╝rgen Papier.
Well, I guess December church attendance in Berlin should increase a little.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Swiss Minaret Ban

Following up on an earlier post, you might have heard by now that Switzerland passed yesterday by a margin of 57.5% to 42.5% a law to ban the construction of minarets. Here is the NY Times write-up.

Update (December 1, 2009): See ReligionClause for information about reactions to the ban.

Update (December 2, 2009): See IslamOnline about the possibility of additional regulations on Muslim practices in Switzerland, including bans on hijab and burqas. Meanwhile, the U.N. calls the ban "clearly discriminatory."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Religious hate crimes in the U.S. in 2008

Today the FBI released its hate crime statistics for 2008 (thanks to ReligionClause for the heads-up on this). Religious hate crimes would be an extreme type of "social regulation" that we discussed in class last week. Many statistics are reported by the FBI, and I will mention just a few.

Of the 7780 incidents that had a single bias in 2008, 19.5% were religious hate-crimes. Thus is much less than the racially motivated crimes (51.3%), but more more than the sexual-orientation motivated crimes (16.7%), ethnicity/nationality motivated crimes (11.5%), and disability motivated crimes (1%).

There were 1606 religiously motivated hate crimes in 2008: nearly two-thirds were anti-Jewish, 13% were "anti-other religion," 8% were anti-Islamic, 5% were anti-Catholic, 4% were anti-multiple groups, 4% were anti-Protestant, and 1% were anti-agnostic/anti-atheist.

It would be interesting to compare these with religious hate crime rates in other countries. It is not surprising that the anti-Protestant hate crime rate is very low given that Protestants are not a minority in the country. It is also not surprising that anti-Jewish is the most common type of religious hate crime. I was surprised that "anti-other" was not bigger. Most new religious movements would fall into category.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Lutheran Break-off in Process

Yesterday in class we discussed sect-to-church transitions, including sect break-off formation. Though we discussed why this cycle is not a natural evolution for all religious groups, we also discussed how some religious groups do follow such a trajectory.

Well, some big news broke yesterday: a coalition of Lutherans upset with the direction the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) has taken has decided to break-off and form their own religious group. Here is the write-up from the Washington Times. They are breaking off for similar reasons why a similar split is occurring in the Episcopal Church: disagreement over interpretation of scripture and Church policy. As we discussed in class, those unhappy with the direction of the Church break off to form a new group that better matches what they consider to be the more original and true teachings.

Such splits happen periodically but not everyday events, so we are witnessing American religious history in the making.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom

Just a couple weeks ago on October 26, the U.S. State Department submitted to Congress its annual Report on International Freedom. The USCIRF,which was mentioned in our recent book club reading and which we will discuss more in our class, issued a press release with their reaction to the report.

The report is too long to read in its entirety in one sitting. However, take a look at the entry for France. Click here for the full entry, but here is an expert:
The [French] Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, discriminatory treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists remained a concern. Some religious groups voiced opposition to legislation passed in 2001 and 2004, which provides for the dissolution of groups under certain circumstances and bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by public school employees and students...

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice, but there continued to be concerns about the treatment of some minority religious groups. ... A 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools by employees and students continued to be implemented during the reporting period. ... Discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and other groups considered dangerous sects or cults remained a concern and may have contributed to acts of vandalism against these groups...

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice; however, prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom. ... There were 36 violent acts and 99 threats (down from 256 in 2007) directed against individuals of North African origin in 2008. ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #5

At the close of their book, God is Back, the authors point us to the future of religion. I want to highlight two particular points made in their conclusion.

The first is that religion is not inconsistent with modernity:
The great forces of modernity--technology and democracy, choice and freedom--are all strengthening religious rather than undermining it. Give people the freedom to control their lives and, for better or worse, they frequently choose to give religion more power... The triumph of pluralism means that all religious beliefs (and indeed all secular beliefs) become competitors in the marketplace. (Pp. 355-356)
This discussion fits in well with the economic approach to religion. Many religious goods do not have close substitutes, and the fact that religion has persisted for so long ought to clue us to the fact that religion provides something valuable to many of people's daily challenges.

A second point of the authors is that America has failed to appreciate "the ability of religion to solve problems as well as create them" (p. 362). They consider the USCIRF, which we will study more in this class, to fall short in this respect because it is focused too much on American policy and "does not make a robust intellectual case for religious freedom as a fundamental building block of a civilized and successful liberal society" (p. 362). On the second point, I think the authors expect more from the USCIRF than it was designed to accomplish. Its policy focus is intentional, and a government agency should not be expected to make intellectual arguments--intellectuals and academics should.

But here, then, is the challenge for you: can you make a case for why religious freedom is a fundamental building block of a free society? Or can you make a case for why religious freedom is a stumbling block for a free society?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Religious Regulation in Recent News

If you want to get a glimpse of how religion is regulated in the real world, just follow the news. In the past two weeks, I have seen dozens of stories that illustrate how the rules of the religious game are currently being negotiated. Here are a bunch of them, some from in the U.S. and some from out of the U.S. You do not need to read all of these; just get a sense of the variety of ways that religion is regulated.
  1. From the Baltimore Sun: Missouri says Yoga centers must pay sales tax despite the practitioners' claims that it is religion that should not be taxed.
  2. From Florida Today: the self-titled "pot pastor" is found guilty in a Florida court of illegally growing marijuana, though he claims it is used for religious purposes.
  3. From Religion Clause here and here: a West Virgina court ruled that requiring students to get immunizations does not violate religious freedoms, while a teacher sues her school claiming that forcing her to submit fingerprints violates her religious freedom.
  4. From the NY Times: a British court must confront how to define who is and who is not a Jew.
  5. From the Wall Street Journal: a debate in Switzerland centers on whether Muslim buildings can have certain external features.
  6. From The Globe and Mall: a French court finds Scientology guilty of "organized fraud."
  7. From Forum 18: Jehovah's Witnesses are denied legal status in Nagorno-Karabakh (an internationally unrecognized region in Azerbaijan).
  8. From WorldWide Religion News: there is a proposed law to place restrictions on evangelizing in Russia.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #4

In Ch. 10-12 of God is Back, the authors look more to the future and lay out where they see rising tensions between religious and secular and between religion and religion. Ch. 10 is quite provocative in pitting Muslims and Christians against each other in a battle for world domination, or so the book seems to read. The authors claim that Christians will win out in the long run, and let me list some of their argument in my words.
  1. Muslims are less willing to translate the Koran than Christians are the Bible. This fosters more adaptation in Christian groups, thus suggesting that they might be amenable to competition with substitutes. (P. 273)
  2. Christians are more willing to combine religion with commercial enterprises in disseminating the Bible, again suggesting greater flexibility in competition with substitutes as different versions of the Bible can appeal to different market niches. (P. 275)
  3. The Christian population is wealthier overall and has more resources to devote to spreading its message. (P. 277)
  4. Christianity and its various denomination forms has proven adept at competing in open religious markets, while Islam's strongest manifestations are in state-supported nations. If religious freedoms are trending upward around the world, then Christianity has a leg up in succeeding. (P. 277)
  5. Islam has not confronted modernity and pluralism to the extent that Christianity has, and this hinders the spread of Islam in an increasingly modern and pluralistic world. (P. 278)
I wish the authors included some numbers to support their overall argument. I certainly agree with their points that Christianity has proved adept at facing various religious and secular challenges. However, consider these points. (See this Pew Forum Report for more information on the first two points, but this is not required reading.)
  1. Islam is the fastest growing religion tradition (as distinguished from denomination) in Europe, due to both immigration and high birth rates. Muslims comprise about 5% of the European population today, but are predicted to comprise 10% by 2020. This suggests Muslims can compete with Christians on their own turf.
  2. The rise of Muslim populations in Europe has led to increased persecution and restrictions--sometimes even state sponsored--on Muslims in Europe. Those on the European political right disagree religiously with Islam, while those on the political left disagree with Muslim culture. Many Christians fear Muslim competition enough to start changing the rules of the game.
  3. Muslims often try to use democratic methods to enact policies in line with their teachings, which suggests that Muslims are more adept at operating in pluralistic societies than the authors give credit.
Maybe the authors are right that the Bible will win the "Battle of the Books," but with Islam on the rise in many parts of the world, we should be careful to not underestimate the ability of Islamic entrepreneurs to compete with their Christian counterparts.

Who do you think has the edge in this "Battle of the Books," and why? Does one have a competitive advantage in the religious marketplace?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A reincarnated monk as a challenge to the economics of religion

Every so often we come across something in the world of religion which seems beyond the scope of the economic approach to religion. Consider excerpts from this Telegraph article from last week:

Jigme Wangchuk, an 11-year-old boy based in Boston, was today enthroned near Darjeeling [in India] as the reincarnation of Gyalwa Lorepa, a monk who passed away in 1250 AD. . .

The fifth-grader from Boston’s St Peter’s School will now have to spend the rest of his life at the Druk-Sa-Ngag Choeling monastery at Dali, 3km from Darjeeling. He can visit Boston later in his life but to deliver discourses. If he badly misses his friends back in the US — he is an American citizen now — he can speak to them but the conversation cannot be as carefree as what 11-year-olds usually indulge in. . .

The reincarnate touched upon some things he has left behind. “It is a big transition, and yes, I do miss being a joyful schoolboy and my friends, my home, my grandparents, aunts and uncles.”

The rinpoche added later: “In fact, I already miss them” but took solace in the fact that his parents had moved to Darjeeling to serve him.

I mentioned at the start of the quarter that there has been little effort in the economics of religion to study eastern religions. Anyone want to take a stab at this one? Can you give a good economics explanation for this practice of identifying reincarnated monks? Other comments are welcome, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Religious innovations in finance

A German bank is soon to begin offering financial services that comply with Islamic Sharia law. See these earlier posts here and here for some background info. Such financial services have existed in other countries, and actually did pretty well during the recent financial crisis. This news is another indication of the continued growth of Islam in Germany and Europe. And in case you were wondering, yes, financial services also cater to people of other faiths. Overall, this is just another way in which religion and other aspects of life intersect.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #3

In chapters 5-7 of their book God is Back, the authors explore why and in what ways religion is thriving in America. One argument they make is that religion provides something that is without close substitutes and that is demanded just as much in today's modern world as in the past. Another claim is that Evangelicals, which form one of largest categories of highly engaged religious persons, have ramped up their intellectual credibility. But it is another claim that I want to explore here:
The American religious marketplace is almost a study in perfect competition: there are no real barriers to entry, the domestic market is big enough to support a mind-boggling variety of religious producers, and new religious entrepreneurs are always rising up to challenge incumbents. (P. 174)
I agree with their conclusion, yet their discussion misses a glaring issue. How is it that the religious marketplace is so competitive when there are such strong network effects that work in favor of religious monopoly?

Network effects, also called network externalities, arise when one person's consumption of a good influences another's consumption of that good. For example, my benefits from using Facebook are more enjoyable if all of my friends also use Facebook. A similar effect arises with religion: if all of my friends belong to religion X, then I would enjoy religion X more than if they were not in religion X.

Economists have long recognized that network effects often result in natural monopolies, which arise when a single-supplier is the most efficient industry structure. That religion exhibits network effects but has not led to a natural monopoly in the U.S. may be due to the other characteristics of religion that are not found with other natural monopoly settings, such as low barriers to entry.

What other reasons help explain why religion in the U.S. is quite competitive despite the network effects that work in favor of natural monopoly?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Religious capital and the Vatican

What a coincidence that on the same day (yesterday) as our lecture on religious capital the Vatican announced a new policy that makes it easier for dissatisfied Anglicans to switch to Roman Catholicism. The key background to the story is that Anglicans disagree about what should be the Anglican Communion's policy on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays and women.

From the third paragraph of the AP news article:
The change means conservative Anglicans from around the world will be able to join the Catholic Church while retaining aspects of their Anglican liturgy and identity...
In our language, the Vatican is deliberately reducing the costs of switching from Anglicanism (Episcopalianism in the U.S.) to Roman Catholicism by making it possible for Anglican switchers to retain more of their religious capital.

A simple prediction is that this new Vatican policy should lead to more switching from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. I expect this will be the case, however, there are mitigating factors. An important one is the perceived trajectory and timing of changes in Anglican policy. If policy is expected to change in the direction of supporting, say, same-sex marriages, then there would be more switching today than there would be without such expectations. Moreover, some people may seek to remain Anglican until policy changes actually occur, staying in the meantime with the hope that the policies will not change. The bottom line is that the exact number of switchers might not be very large initially, and the total number of switchers over the course of the next years will depend on the timing of the changes, if any, in Anglican policy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Donating money to church during the recession

A recent USA Today/Gallop poll finds that, relative to twelve months ago, the number of American donating money to churches has not changed and the number of Americans volunteering at churches has increased.

This second finding is intuitive: if people out of work have a lower opportunity cost of time, they may devote it to religious volunteering. The article does not specify what type of volunteering is done, and that would be informative. Perhaps some volunteering may also serve indirectly to help networking for job opportunities.

The first finding may seem counter intuitive, but later in the article you read that people are donating less money rather than not donating at all. If incomes take hit, this is not surprising. The benefits associated with religious giving may not have changed dramatically during the recession, but the cost of giving up part of your now lower income may be higher than before. People reduce the amounts they give but not down to nothing.

Seems like our simple economics logic does pretty well explaining this pattern found in the poll.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #2

In chapters 1-4 of God is Back, the authors offer an explanation for why religion is so different in the United States than in Europe. One of the biggest factors they cite is the American First Amendment. In the authors' words:
[The First Amendment] created tolerance in its fullest sense: not just the top-down tolerance involved in allowing dissent but the bottom-up tolerance that recognizes that individuals have a right to choose their own religious opinions. And it introduced competition: churches had to get people in through the door. (P. 62)
Why did this make lead to religious vitality in the U.S. while religiosity declined in Europe?
Adam Smith gave the best answer to this question more than two centuries ago in The Wealth of Nations: a free market in religion forces clergy to compete for market share. (P. 64)
By drawing lines between churches and the state, religion was actually, and perhaps surprisingly, strengthened. This is less surprising if we imagine that government, should it intrude into churches, would undermine churches' innovation in the face of competition, just as government intrusions into other markets could undermine innovation. In fact, religion might be one of the best examples of this.

Government involvement in religious markets can be justified by arguments similar to those used to justify other government interventions. For example, if religion is a public good that is under-supplied in open markets, then government intervention would be warranted according to standard economic theory. The fact that religion thrives in places like the U.S. where it is not provided by government raises questions. Is there something about religion that makes it different from other goods that we believe ought to be supplied by government? What exactly makes it different? What are the economics behind any difference?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Religion and the Nobel Winners

With all economists say about markets in which products are bought and sold, you might want to stop and think about all your interactions that are outside of such traditionally conceived markets. The two 2009 Nobel Prize winners in Economics Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson made their careers exploring the boundaries of markets. But do their insights have any bearing on the economics of religion?

Elinor Ostrom is best known for her work on common property resources. Think of the overfishing of lakes or overgrazing of pastures. Her work shows that, although people usually cannot enforce the most efficient consumption of common resources, they often are able to coordinate efforts to do better than what simple theory predicts they would do. Some of her insights into how people work within communities to detect and punish free-riders are directly relevant to our study of how religious groups coordinate their own actions. Groups devise internal ways to enforce good behavior, and they are very creative in doing so. We will talk about religious groups in this way, i.e., as institutions that have developed ingenious ways of solving collective action problems.

Oliver Williamson's work focuses on the boundaries of the firm. His ideas confront why it is that firms even exist, why some exchanges occur at prices, and why some exchanges occur within hierarchies, like boss-to-underling. Firms often must decide which decisions to make via the price mechanism and which to make through hierarchies, and his work argues that the cost of engaging in transactions--the so-called transactions cost--determines, in part, which method is used. Churches face similar problems in deciding how best to structure their congregational activities, which goods to produce themselves, and which to have group members get from outside markets, and so on.

Though I see connections between the Nobel winners' work and the economics of religion, I know of no systematic attempt to tie their work more directly to religion. Maybe the announcement of their prize will help spark such work. I would love to see it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #1

In the introduction to their book, God is Back, Micklethwait and Wooldridge set up a number of arguments of interest to us. Instead of summarizing them all here, let me highlight one of their claims that they will attempt to establish during the course of the book.

They explore the distinction between what they call the American and European views of the relationship between religion and modernity. They say that whereas Europeans (and non-European intellectuals) tend to view modernity as undermining religion, Americans have believed that religion can thrive in the face of modernity. With this in mind, they notice a trend:
It now seems that the American model is spreading around the world: religion and modernity are going hand in hand... The very things that were supposed to destroy religion--democracy and markets, technology and reason--are combining to make it stronger. (P. 12)
More specifically:
The biggest problem for the prophets of secularization is that the surge of religion is being driven by the same two things that have driven the success of market capitalism: competition and choice. (P. 21)
Here's the big question for us to chew on: How might competition and choice, as they increase, actually lead to a surge in religion?

One simple explanation is that religious goods are like other goods in an important way: competition breeds innovation, which increases the choice and quality of goods available in the market, and leads to an increase in amount of goods consumed by market participants.

But this answer needs more. Innovations are also occurring in the markets of substitutes for religion, so how is religion keeping up? Will religion eventually reach a saturation point once previously closed countries have been open a sufficiently long time? Does an increased awareness of religious choice imply that religious groups are catering to satisfying what people want rather than trying to convince people to change what they value and therefore imply less staying power as people religious tastes change?

So back to the big question: If the authors are correct that God has surged back into people's lives, can we attribute any credit to increased competition and choice, and if so, how much?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Selling your house the supernatural way

Supernatural methods are available for many things including selling your house according to this NY Times article. It is really quite simple. St. Joseph is a Catholic saint who intercedes on behalf of many people for many various concerns, including help for families, expectant mothers, selling a house, and more. To enlist his help in selling your house, you can purchase a St. Joseph statue (see here), and bury it in your yard. Some prayer may needed as well.

Many things pop out from the article. First, sales of St. Joseph statues appear to be countercyclical. That is, they sell better during bad economic times. See this earlier post for another countercyclical religious good and a simple supply-demand explanation. Can you think of other countercyclical religious goods? Any evidence for your claim?

Second, about tw0-thirds down, the writer seems to confuse magic and religion. I would classify this as religion because, as I understand it, St. Joseph himself is to be involved and not just the statue.

Third, notice that people report different experiences. Some believe the supernatural appeal worked; others do not. But we can understand that the practice can persist because, first, it is not falsifiable, and second, it is not very costly to do.

Finally, at the bottom we learn that non-Catholics as well as Catholics to use the St. Joseph statue for help selling a home. We often see that people mix practices from multiple religious traditions. One question is why we do not observe more mixing than we do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Second Annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative Christian organization that promotes the expansion of certain privileges to religious groups, announced yesterday that its annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be this Sunday, September 27. What is this all about?

Current IRS tax law states that a church that endorses a political candidate will lose its tax-exempt status. (See this earlier post for more background information.) The ADF and others argue that this is an infringement on freedom of speech. The IRS says that churches that act like political organizations should be taxed like those other organizations. Groups with agendas opposite the ADF, like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, take it upon themselves to report religious leaders who speak out about candidates.

To be clear, it is not illegal for a church to endorse a candidate; it just means that the church will have to pay a bunch of taxes if it does. Also, a church can endorse stances on political issues and retain its tax-exempt status; it is endorsing candidates that is the problem.

Which brings us to Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, religious leaders around the country will protest the current IRS policy by intentionally endorsing candidates from their pulpits during their sermons.

I think it is easy to understand where the ADF is coming from in disputing the rule. It is less obvious why a religious leader would favor the current restriction. One explanation is that those leaders who want to endorse candidates would be better able than other leaders to have influence over their respective church members. As we will discuss later in the quarter, stricter churches, which tend to be right-of-center, have denser social networks, and this may allow them to operate more effectively in collective efforts, including mobilizing before an election. Less-strict churches, which tend to be left-of-center, would then have more difficultly in fostering this type of collective action. Thus, we have an economic explanation for why those in favor of endorsing candidates would be the ones who would benefit more from a change in the regulation, while those who prefer the status quo benefit more as is.

Can you think of another reason why a religious leader would prefer the status quo? And what do you think of this policy? Should religious leaders be allowed to endorse political candidates? Why or why not?

Book club rules and information

This quarter for our ECON 17 book club, we will be reading God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, Penguin Press 2009, by Micklethwait and Woolridge, two writers for The Economist Magazine.

The book is required reading; exam questions will address ideas from the book. Please obtain your copy ASAP via if you have not already.

We will read the book during weeks 2-7 of the quarter. Here is the schedule (also on syllabus):
  • Oct 8 - Introduction.
  • Oct 15 - Ch. 1-4.
  • Oct 22 - Ch. 5-7.
  • Oct 29 - Ch. 8-9.
  • Nov 5 - Ch. 10-12.
  • Nov 12 - Conclusion.
On each of the six dates above, I will post on the blog some thoughts and discussion questions based on the assigned reading for that day. You are encouraged to participate in an online discussion when each post goes up. Online participation is not mandatory, yet a comment I consider to be of very high quality result in extra credit (maximum five extra credit points during the quarter for good blog comments). So that we may properly assign extra credit, please use your first name and last initial when making the comment. (If you do not use both, we cannot guarantee the extra credit.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

ECON/RELSTD 17 Course Information Fall 2009

This blog will act as our course's web site for the ECON 17 course in the Fall 2009 quarter at UCI. Please bookmark this page in your browser and visit it daily.

Relevant course materials (syllabus, lecture notes, homework assignments and solutions, etc.) will be available for you to download via links in the sidebar.

You can also participate in online blog discussions. Once or twice a week I will publish a post on some topic related to our course that is inspired by current events or lecture material. Everybody is encouraged to make comments.

Finally, this web site will also serve as the hub for our book club with God is Back by Micklethwait and Wooldrige, with more details to follow.