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What’s US religion worth? $1.2 trillion, says one demographer

First-ever measure of religion’s quantitative worth to US comes up with $1.2 trillion.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Religion is big bucks — worth $1.2 trillion annually to the American economy, according to the first comprehensive study to tabulate such a figure.

“In perspective, that would make religion the 15th largest national economy in the world, ahead of 180 other countries in terms of value,” said Georgetown University’s Brian Grim, the study’s author.

“That would also make American religion larger than the global revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google,” he continued. “It would also make it 50 percent larger than the six largest American oil companies’ revenue on an annual basis.”

Brian Grim, associate scholar at Georgetown University’s Religious Liberty Project, presents his new study on the worth of religion to American society at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 14, 2016. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

Brian Grim, associate scholar at Georgetown University’s Religious Liberty Project, presents his new study on the worth of religion to American society at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2016. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

It might seem folly to try to put a number on religion’s value to American society. Even Grim understands why the religious and nonreligious alike might look upon the exercise skeptically.

You may think that’s not possible,” he said at the study’s release Wednesday (Sept. 14) in Washington, and he compared it to putting a price tag on love.

“But if you realize that love often results in marriage and marriages often happen in churches … ” Grim continued. “I can tell you exactly how much money poured into center city Baltimore when my daughter got married there a year and a half ago.”

To put a value on the work of the nation’s 344,000 religious congregations — representing all faiths — Grim looked at the schools they run, the soup kitchens, the addiction recovery programs and their impact on local economies. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship mostly spend locally — employing hundreds of thousands of people and buying everything from flowers to computers to snow removal services.

A pie chart represents the results of a study titled "The Social Economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: an Imperical Analysis," by Brian Grim of Georgetown University and Melissa Grim of Newseum. Graphic courtesy of Faith Counts

A pie chart represents the results of a study titled “The Social Economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: an Imperical Analysis,” by Brian Grim of Georgetown University and Melissa Grim of Newseum. Graphic courtesy of Faith Counts

Grim came up with three estimates and settled on the middle one — the $1.2 trillion — as what he called a “conservative” appraisal of the work of religious organizations in American society annually.

Why crunch these numbers? Grim, an associate scholar at Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project, said it’s good to know where religion stands. By one of his colleague’s estimates, that $1.2 trillion equates to about 7 percent of the nation’s GDP.

But Grim also wants congregations and clergy — and the society that benefits from the charitable work of the religious — to appreciate this generosity. In a culture in which people often hear much more about the evils committed by religious people — from sex abuse scandals to genocide — it’s time for some “balance,” Grim said.

Even clergy often downplay the value of their work, said Ram Cnaan, who directs the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania and came to Washington to help Grim unveil the new study.

Cnaan — though quick to describe himself as secular — hopes Grim’s work boosts the confidence of the religious and allows them to take pride in their contributions to the economy and society.

“This is a new day for the people who study congregations,” he said of the study, titled “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis.”

“This is the beginning of a national debate — not if religion is important but how much it is important,” Cnaan said.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister from Boston known for his efforts fighting crime and drug abuse, seemed glad for the acknowledgment.

When it comes time to deal with the messy drug problems of the inner city, he said to the group of clergy, lay leaders and journalists gathered for the study’s unveiling, “none of the the secular left shows up.”

Grim put Rivers’ point in context. Secular organizations certainly contribute generously to the social health of the nation, he said. But he also noted a recent Pew Research Center study that showed that the religious are more likely to volunteer to help others, and give more to charity on average than the nonreligious.

Without the charitable work of religiously motivated people, “I don’t think we would see all the good of society disappearing,” said Grim.”But I think it would be significantly less.”

Grim’s study notes that congregations and religiously oriented charity groups are responsible for:

  • 130,000 alcohol and drug abuse recovery programs.
  • 94,000 programs to support veterans and their families.
  • 26,000 programs to prevent HIV/AIDS and to support people living with the disease.
  • 121,000 programs to train and support the unemployed.
    University of Pennsylvania Prof. Ram Cnaan, left, and Brookings Institute scholar William A. Galston, speak at the unveiling of new study on the worth of religion to American society on Sept. 14, 2016, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

    Brookings Institution scholar William A. Galston, left, and University of Pennsylvania Professor Ram Cnaan speak at the unveiling of new study on the worth of religion to American society on Sept. 14, 2016, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

     

William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton administration official who writes on religion and society, called the $1.2 trillion “a sensible number.”

Faith issues and religious leaders don’t get much attention by senior government officials, continued Galston, who served as a deputy assistant to former President Bill Clinton for domestic policy and who was invited to speak at the study’s release.

Grim’s paper, Galston said, can be used by religious organizations as “a credible calling card to get in the door.”

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

13 Comments

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  • There was a little girl,
    Who had a little curl,
    Right in the middle of her forehead.
    When she was good,
    She was very good indeed,
    But when she was bad she was horrid.

    Religion’s a bit like that little girl. Very, very good when good, but really horrific when not.

  • Why does it seem so often in this nation that money is the measure of all things? At the same time since the report opened the door, I am gratified by the good and charitable works quantified in the article, but I’d rather see much more of that than the sums poured into gigantic edifices and disproportionate salaries and benefits to so called “successful” ministers. God honors the humble; the Church might be more persuasive if it channeled greater effort into ameliorating the conditions of the poor, ill, and spiritually wounded while at the same time edifying them with God’s Word.

  • A couple of gripes with the article
    1) “the religious are more likely to volunteer to help others, and give more to charity on average than the nonreligious”

    The money the religious contribute to are more likely not to go to actual charitable efforts than those of the non-religious. Generally less than 10% of contributions to churches go to actual charity. Most goes to maintenance and upkeep of church infrastructure. There is also the tendency to contribute towards purely sectarian ends such as prosletyzing/missionary efforts. These are not by their nature charitable works.

    2) “Faith issues and religious leaders don’t get much attention by senior government officials”

    An entire department of faith based initiatives (which barely skirts Establishment Clause issues) is not enough?

    What about faith issues and religious leaders setting the tone and tenor for the platform for an entire political party in the country?

  • Hahaha! Both Agni’s and Mglass’ comments are not only clever and funny, but also accurate. Thank you both.

  • And Spuddie, I wonder about this:

    “none of the the secular left shows up,” Rev. Rivers. How about the secular right? In addition, that’s probably an off-the-cuff generalization plagued by gross inaccuracies. He should have avoided what amounts to a cheap political shot. It doesn’t serve his case and cheapens him.

    It is good that religion contributes. However, in some instances I don’t know how many, those contributions really aren’t for charities, as Spuddie suggests. They’re another endowment to an already wealthy institution that promises to put the giver’s name on something.

    I share Edward’s concern with the visual double take sometimes required. A perfect example is the Vatican. Millions, more likely billions of dollars are visible in opulent buildings, accoutrements, travel, clothing, food and so on. Yet that institution, with so much visible wealth, professes a powerful feeling for the poor and struggling. WHAT!?

    The US is dotted with great cathedrals and stadia for religion. They give the lie to claims of generosity.

  • Yet that institution, with so much visible wealth, professes a powerful feeling for the poor and struggling. WHAT!?”
    Obviously, they can afford to!

  • Actually, religion is more like Sausage. All kinds of things go into it– some of them you really don’t want to know about–, and you don’t want to see it being made.
    On the other had, when it’s good, its very good indeed. And when it’s bad, its bad for you.

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