If U.S. religion was its own country, it would be the 15th largest economy in the world, according to a new study that presents faith in financial terms.
Religion-related businesses and institutions, as well as houses of worship, bring in more revenue each year than Google, Apple and Amazon combined, contributing around $1.2 trillion annually to America's GDP, according to "The Socio-economic Contributions of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis," soon to be published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion.
Authors Brian Grim, an associate scholar with Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and his daughter Melissa Grim, a research fellow at the Newseum, calculated this figure using annual reports from religious organizations and other national data from 2014. For example, they summed the annual tuition paid to religious schools in order to estimate the economic worth of faith-related educational institutions.
Brian Grim, a former Pew Research Center analyst who is also president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which has argued for religious liberty as a key driver of economic growth and opportunity outside the United States, said this first-of-its-kind effort showcases the positive benefits of religion in the U.S. at a time when belief is often in the news for its negative side effects, such as clergy sexual abuse and religiously motivated violence.
"Do we need to know (religion's socio-economic value) in order to appreciate the value of faith? Of course not," he said. "But in an age where fewer people are raised in religious congregations, we need to show a more balanced perspective on faith than might come through in daily headlines."
The report comes in the wake of surveys that have shown religious practice is on the decline, reminding people of what would be lost if faith disappeared from society.
"Imagine what would happen if everyone woke up and said, 'I'm not religious and I don't want to join a congregation,'" said Ram Cnaan, director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, noting that more than 1.5 million full-time workers at churches could lose their jobs.
The study separates U.S. religion's socio-economic contributions into four categories: congregations themselves, faith friendly businesses, religious institutions and benefits to individuals.
These first three measures are relatively straightforward.
For example, to assign a value to congregations, the Grims totaled the average annual incomes of U.S. houses of worship. Congregations "are hiring staff, paying electricity bills, getting snow removed (from their parking lot), purchasing flowers" and taking part in a variety of other activities that benefit local economies, Brian Grim said.
The institutions category, accounting for $302 billion, includes the annual revenues of faith-based health care organizations, schools and charities, which add economic value to communities by hiring workers and supporting people in need.
The businesses category, totaling $438.4 billion, might be a little more surprising, Grim noted. The study not only includes obviously religious industries, like annual kosher food sales, but also faith friendly businesses, such as Tyson Foods, which employs chaplains to minister to employees.
It was most difficult for the Grims to arrive at a valuation of the individual and social impact of America's 344,000 congregations. They wanted to account for services like providing counseling to people with substance abuse problems or job training for unemployed church members. They arrived at $243.9 million with the help of Cnaan's previous research, in which he quantified the social goods that congregations offer to their communities.
In other words, the study offers an educated guess, but social science experts said it's more likely that it undervalues the socio-economic worth of religion in the U.S. than overvalues it.
"If somebody said to me, 'Religion contributes about 7 percent of America's GDP,'" I would think it's in the ballpark," said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
He noted that the Grims' research process was reasonable given that the ideal methodology wasn't available. They couldn't "run a controlled experiment on two Americas: one America with religious individuals and activities … and the other America with (religion) just pulled out," he said.
And so the study offers $1.2 trillion as a best estimation, as well as a smaller and larger figure arrived at using more conservative and less conservative methods, respectively.
"The study's most conservative estimate, which takes into account only the revenues of faith-based organizations, is $378 billion annually — or more than a third of a trillion dollars," the study reports.
The higher-end estimate, $4.8 trillion, assumes that religious practices affects the economic decisions made by people of faith. It includes average income for every religiously affiliated American.
Asserting religion's economic value
Social science experts call the Grims' data a starting point for faith leaders and policymakers alike who have struggled to articulate what congregations offer as churches shut their doors in cities across the country.
"One of the things that's problematic for religious leaders is how to show they're relevant in their communities," Cnaan said.
The estimated $1.2 trillion economic impact "is a beginning number and I think there will be a discussion by experts," he said. "In maybe 10 years, we may sit down and say, 'Brian Grim was very or too conservative.' But we have a number to start with."
Galston, who served as a policy adviser for President Bill Clinton, said this effort to assign a monetary value to U.S. religion is meaningful for people advocating for religious interests, whether in the White House, state legislatures or community organizations.
"Work like this makes it more likely that (religion) will be taken seriously in the corridors of power," he said.
Cnaan, who describes himself as secular, has dedicated the last 25 years of his career to quantifying the benefits of religion. His work had been used to estimate the impact of the government's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Cnaan said he applauds the Grims' research because it asserts the value of faith at a time when many Americans are leaving formal religious practice behind. The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. rose seven percentage points over the last decade, from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014, according to Pew Research Center.
Although the study does imply that increasing secularization could create a kind of economic crisis, Cnaan's doomsday scenario doesn't account for the ways in which nonbelievers also gather together to bring about social good. For example, members of Oasis, a secular group present in several cities in the Bible Belt, come together on service days to rake leaves or volunteer at a food bank, as The Atlantic reported this week.
The authors note in the report's conclusion that they haven't provided a cost-benefit analysis comparing public and faith-based programs. They don't claim that congregations always provide social services more efficiently or that businesses friendly to faith offer better products.
However, Grim does view the study as a reminder of what's lost when churches close their doors for good. Without religion, U.S. society would be weaker, both economically and socially, he said.
"I don't think we'd see all of the good of society disappearing. But I think it would be significantly less," Grim noted.
His research should be a cause for celebration for people of faith across the country, Cnaan said.
"I wish I could go to every congregation and say, 'You're part of something very big and something very important,'" he added.
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