Economy & Business

How Faith-Based Groups Power the U.S. Economy

Faith-based groups contribute enormously to American society and the U.S. economy.

A recent study reveals that faith-based groups contribute more to the U.S. economy than the top ten technology companies — including Google, Apple, and Amazon combined — producing a total revenue of $1.2 trillion each year. If this figure were put in terms of GDP, U.S. religion, as defined by researchers, would be the 15th largest national economy in the world.

Brian and Melissa Grim, a father-daughter research team at Georgetown University, published their study, “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis,” last week in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. The project, sponsored by the nonprofit, non-denominational organization Faith Counts, revealed the numerous and varied ways that religion contributes to the U.S. economy, whether through obvious means such as churches, religious schools, or charities, along with hospitals and other assorted businesses, as well as through other less apparent faith-based enterprises such as gospel musicians, religious films, and traditional kosher and halal food distributors.

The largest percentage of the annual $1.2 trillion total comes from faith-based businesses and religious media. Faith-based health care also accounts for a significant portion of the overall revenue; religious groups operate much of the U.S. health-care system, with the Catholic Church alone accounting for one in six hospital beds in the country.

The study also examined nearly 345,000 congregations from 236 unique religious denominations, 217 of which were Christian: Together these contributions equaled an average annual income of almost $243,000, most of which stemmed from member donations. Over 150 million Americans — nearly half of the country’s population — are members of these congregations.

Faith-based colleges and universities enroll about 2 million students each year, and these students pay a combined $46.7 billion in tuition

Eighteen religious charities with revenues in the million and billion range were an important part of the $1.2 trillion total — the largest example being the Lutheran Services of America, which has an annual revenue of $21 billion. The remaining charities generate revenue anywhere from $300 million to $6.6 billion. These faith-based charities account for 40 percent of the top 50 U.S. charities. Meanwhile, faith-based colleges and universities enroll about 2 million students each year, and these students pay a combined $46.7 billion in tuition annually.

The study also noted that some faith-linked businesses — not as closely connected to a particular faith as an explicitly religious group might be — could be counted under the broader umbrella of U.S. religion, especially on the grounds established in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. Using this criteria, the revenue of closely held businesses such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, whose owners have well-known religious commitments, also count toward the annual total. Similarly, the box-office profits of religious movies such as Son of God and Noah could be considered a form of religious business as well.

Ram Cnaan, director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, traveled to Washington, D.C., to help Brian Grim unveil the results of this study. Cnaan describes himself as secular, but he wants this study to help religious Americans take pride in their contributions to the U.S. economy. “This is a new day for the people who study congregations,” he told the Religion News Service. “This is the beginning of a national debate — not if religion is important but how much it is important.”

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.

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