The Economic Benefits of Religion

Religion is a highly significant sector of the American economy.

A study published last week in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion reveals that religion has a huge economic impact on the U.S. economy.

Brian and Melissa Grim, a father-daughter team at Georgetown University, conducted the research which culminated in the publication of “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis.” The Grims found that “religion in the United States today contributes $1.2 trillion each year to our economy and society.” That’s more than the top ten technology companies – including Google, Amazon and Apple – combined.

The study examined nearly 345,000 congregations from 236 religious denominations, 217 of which were Christian. The Grims summarized the contributions made by Americans of faith as follows:

The data are clear. Religion is a highly significant sector of the American economy. Religion provides purpose-driven institutional and economic contributions to health, education, social cohesion, social services, media, food and business itself. Perhaps most significantly, religion helps set Americans free to do good by harnessing the power of millions of volunteers from nearly 345,000 diverse congregations present in every corner of the country’s urban and rural landscape.

The study makes a point of noting that religious congregations spent an estimated $9.2 billion on social programs in 2012, most of which came from individual donations.

Here are some additional headlines:

  • The largest percentage of the annual $1.2 trillion is from businesses that are faith-based along with religious media.
  • Religious groups are responsible for operating much of the U.S. health care system.
  • The Catholic Church accounts for one in six hospital beds in the country.

The study also notes what it calls the “halo effect” by which communities with religious congregations benefit in several ways from their presence. This includes providing centers for childcare, social events, charity and education, to say nothing of providing actual jobs.

Beyond the congregations, the study points out the contributions of overtly religious faith-based businesses, citing the Knights of Columbus. With a mission to “protect families from the financial ruin caused by the death of the breadwinner,” the Knights employ over 1,400 people to operate their faith-based insurance and retirement programs. “Not only do the Knights provide a safety net for their members, they also provide jobs, charity work, and avenues for social involvement and networking, all of which are direct socio-economic contributions to American society.”

Ram Cnaan is director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he describes himself as secular, he believes this study should encourage Americans of faith to take pride in their contributions to the U.S. economy. “This is the beginning of a national debate – not if religion is important but how much it is important.”

Writing about the study for National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis makes an excellent point about how society in general and the government in particular should view religion:

This study is compelling evidence of religious believers’ material contributions to society, even as many faithful Americans are being marginalized by increasingly invasive government policies, particularly in the realm of ‘reproductive rights’ and the health-care industry. In light of this information, lawmakers should focus on religion’s positive role in the country and stop trying to force religious Americans to conform on the issues on which they dissent from elite opinion.