Religion a Major Driver of the National Economy

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Islam, Judaism, Christianity / Sara D.

September 15, 2016; Washington Post

We usually place a monetary value on various sectors of the nonprofit world by the amount they raise each year. Taken as a whole, charitable giving accounts for of GDP. Of that amount ($373.35 billion given in 2015), 71 percent ($268.28 billion) is given by individuals, and 32 percent of all giving is given to religious organizations, followed by education (15 percent), human services (12 percent), and so on.

But it turns out that religion is far better for the national economy than previously thought and multiple times greater than what the giving statistics would suggest. For the first time, a study published last Wednesday puts the dollar value of organized religion in the U.S. conservatively at $1.2 trillion. The catchy message emerging from this analysis is that “religion contributes more to the U.S. economy than Facebook, Google, and Apple combined.”

The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis,” found in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, indicates that the revenues of faith-based organizations are $378 billion annually. Churches, hospitals, schools, charities, gospel musicians, and even halal food makers are included in their analysis. But the researchers demonstrated restraint. Their analysis does not include the value of financial or physical assets held by religious groups, Christmas shopping, revenues of faith-linked businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, religious blockbuster movies, and so on. They admit there are limitations to the study, which they discuss at length along with “possible lines of research that could build upon and extend this research.”

The largest chunk of that $378 billion tally comes from faith-based healthcare systems. Religious groups run many of the hospitals in the United States; Catholic health systems alone reportedly account for one-in-six hospital beds in the country. Then there are churches and congregations themselves. Based on prior censuses of U.S. bodies of worship, the Grims looked at 344,894 congregations, from 236 different religious denominations (217 of them Christian, and others ranging from Shinto to Tao to Zoroastrian). Collectively, those congregations count about half the American population as members. The average annual income for a congregation, the study said, is $242,910. Most of that income comes from members’ donations and dues, meaning Americans give $74.5 billion to their congregations per year, the study said.

This first estimate of $378 billion has the most exact data. But the authors of the study assert that that is an undervaluation of this sector’s true contribution to the economy because it does not take into account the fair market value of the goods and services religious organizations provide, which would put the value of religion over $1 trillion annually. Their higher-end estimate based on the household incomes of religiously affiliated Americans places this value at $4.8 trillion annually, or a third of GDP.

The two authors are Brian J. Grim, PhD., and his daughter, Melissa Grim, at the Newseum Institute. Brian Grim is founder and president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, advisor for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (a project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation), an affiliated scholar at Georgetown and Boston Universities, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s global agenda council on the role of faith.

“Given the division of opinion on religion’s contribution to American society, this present study seeks to shed light on the topic by making an estimate of religion’s socio-economic value to society,” wrote the father-and-daughter team. “Indeed, we should know if the decline in religion is likely to have negative economic consequences.”

According to the Pew Research Center, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think churches and other religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (70 percent) and too involved with politics (67 percent). Fewer unaffiliated Americans than religious Americans believe that churches strengthen community bonds (78 percent vs. 90 percent), help the poor and needy (77 percent vs. 90 percent), or do anything to help solve social problems (45 percent vs. 70 percent). And the number of unaffiliated individuals is growing.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

Nearly a century after German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead,” TIME asked the provocative question: “Is God dead?” The answer to this question has more than eschatological consequences. Whether we use this study’s conservative or higher-end estimates, religion, though declining, remains vital to the nation’s economy.—James Schaffer

  • You point out that the bulk of this revenue flow is in the healthcare sector. But, as I understand it, less than 3 percent of funds flowing through Catholic administered healthcare systems actually come from church coffers. The fact that church affiliated corporations administer public grants and private insurance dollars and fee for service, and that they are employers of record for millions of doctors, nurses and otherwise secular administrators is, at least in part, an artifact of history. There is no reason to think that if these systems of care disaffiliated from the Church the economy would be harmed.