When religion meets government, there is often a much-deserved hullabaloo. This occurs especially around the holiday season. People rightly worry about the government promoting one religion and discouraging others. The recent decisions by Gov. Scot Walker and President Obama have put a renewed political focus on one aspect of the holiday season: the Christmas tree.
In a minor, but controversial move, Walker renamed the evergreen tree that will sit in the Capitol the "Christmas tree" instead of the religion-neutral "holiday tree." Around the same time, in a non-controversial move, Obama decided not to implement a 15-cent tax on the sale of those trees. While the choices are quite different, both decisions brings up the conversation of government's proper roles.
When I first heard about Walker's decision to give a Christian name to a public tree, I have to admit I laughed. It seemed ridiculous to me that the tree was named the ‘holiday tree' in the first place, and I found it even more so that the governor found it necessary to change the name that has been around since 1985. It seemed like a silly thing to worry about.
But then I got to thinking why the government has a Christmas tree in the first place. According to a press release from the Walker administration, the Christmas tree's purpose is to hold ornaments that children send in to "showcase the diversity that makes up" Wisconsin. Honestly, the chances of getting a diverse set of ornaments seems pretty bleak, even if it was called a "holiday tree." Stressing the new name could only reduce the diversity of ornament makers.
Diversity is probably not the reason why Walker wanted to rename the tree, and it probably is not why he keeps the tree up anyway. If that were the case, he would not need to call it a Christmas tree. For some reason, he must believe that people prefer a tree that commemorates the birth of Christ (and the charity, good food and rampant commercialism that comes with it) to a nondescript tree that people can describe in any way they choose.
But whatever his reason, Walker should not have changed the name of the tree. The tree was already commemorating the holiday season, so labeling it "Christmas tree" can only discourage non-Christians from sharing in the celebration.
While Walker made a less-than-stellar decision, Obama made a surprisingly good one by choosing not to let the United States Department of Agriculture place a 15-cent tax on Christmas trees. The new fee, which was voted in by Republicans in 1996, was going to be used for promoting the Christmas-tree industry in America.
The issue at hand is really not the tax itself but what the federal government was going to do with it. The federal government often uses public funds to promote different industries. What people forget is that the government then implicitly chooses one industry over another. In this case, it chooses the true Christmas tree market over the synthetic tree market. This is not a proper role of government, and the federal government has no Constitutional standing to do so. It was wise for Obama to tell the USDA to back off its plan. With the many abuses of power the Obama administration has committed (including extending the USA PATRIOT Act and killing an American citizen without due-process) it is nice to see the administration do something that adhere to the Constitution, however small the act may be.
Governments at all levels need to stick to what they are meant to do. This does not include putting "Christmas trees" as opposed to holiday trees in the state capitol, and it does not include marketing for the Christmas tree industry. Governments have a hard enough time managing their basic duties -keeping their finances in check, keeping borders safe, maintaining good schools and so on-they don't need to take on anything else.
Matt Beaty is a junior majoring in mathematics and computer science. Please send all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.