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Notebook Religion

Deep impact

(Associated Press/Photo by Tom Hood)

Kaveh Sardari

Brian Grim


Deep impact

Research finds organized religion has a big economic benefit

More than three-fourths of Americans associate with a religious belief, and for Christians the blessings are spiritual and eternal. But what is religious belief worth to society in dollar terms? According to new research, religion benefits the United States’ economy with trillions in economic value each year.

“The socioeconomic impact of religion on the U.S. can’t be overstated,” said Brian Grim, a Georgetown University researcher who authored the first-of-its-kind study to quantify the economic value of religion. “Whether directly or indirectly, whether we realize it or not, religion’s influence positively impacts all of us in substantial and measurable ways.”

As media outlets routinely select to cover religion only for its scandals, Grim told me he wanted to find a way to quantify what religion adds to America’s economy. He concluded faith adds $1.2 trillion to the economy each year, based on the revenues from religious congregations, religious institutions, and faith-inspired businesses—more than the country’s 10 largest businesses combined. But broader estimates, which included how persons of faith use their money, suggest religion could add nearly $5 trillion in annual value.

More than 150 million Americans attend one of the country’s 344,000 congregations. From Adventists to Zoroastrians, religious congregations can be found in every corner of the country, including impoverished areas, inner cities, and rural communities. U.S. congregations collectively buy billions of products and services in their local communities and employ hundreds of thousands of persons. Together, they contribute $418 billion in positive economic impact each year.

But faith extends well outside church walls; its influences are found in nearly every kind of business and institution.

Religiously affiliated healthcare networks have annual revenues of $161 billion and serve millions of Americans. And during the 2011-2012 academic year, Americans paid $46 billion for faith-based higher education and $27 billion for religious elementary and secondary schools.

Grim defines religious businesses broadly. He includes those which do not have an expressly religious purpose but still have faith backgrounds such as Walmart and Tyson Foods.

The research is not meant to influence specific policy changes, but Grim told me he hopes it will be a starting point for policymakers to recognize the economic value of faith and ensure Americans are free to worship.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked for the Clinton administration, said the hard numbers the research assigns to religion’s impact could prove persuasive in the future.

“I have found senior officials distinguish pretty sharply between feel-good rhetoric on one hand and actual substance on the other,” Galston said. “You need a credible calling card to get in the door, and work like this, I think, makes it more likely that these questions will be taken seriously.”

Grim’s report highlights the economic importance of having faith congregations in communities and how their absence can lead to negative consequences. A 2015 study from Nancy Kinney and Todd Bryan Combs in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that religious congregations help sustain the structure of communities and that eliminating them in cities leads to socioeconomic collapse and declines in neighborhood viability.

Such research may suggest problems ahead for the United States, as religious affiliation decreases. The Pew Research Center reported last year that one-third of adults under 30 choose not to affiliate with religion. In total, around 6 percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, while 14 percent claim no particular religious affiliation.