Religion often gets a bad rap in the 24/7 news cycle. And some strands of religion have been associated with the populism sweeping the globe, including the evangelical surge that helped put Donald Trump in the White House. This might blind us to the fact that religion is a significant source of America’s economic and social strength.
Religion annually contributes about $1.2 trillion dollars of socio-economic value to the United States economy, according to a 2016 study by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. That is equivalent to being the world’s 15th-largest national economy, outpacing nearly 180 other countries and territories. It’s more than the global annual revenues of the world’s top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google.
And it’s also more than 50% larger than the global annual revenues of America’s six largest oil and gas companies. You could say that’s a lot of spiritually inspired fuel being pumped into the US economy.
These contributions fall into three general categories: $418 billion from religious congregations; $303 billion from other religious institutions such as universities, charities and health systems; and $437 billion from faith-based, faith-related or faith-inspired businesses.
First, religious congregations – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and chapels – of every denomination add $418 billion annually to the American economy. These local congregations number more than 344,000 and employ hundreds of thousands of staff and purchase billions worth of services in every corner and crossroads of the country’s urban and rural landscape.
These local congregations do much more than just provide places of worship.
Each year congregations spend $84 billion on their operations, ranging from paying hundreds of thousands of personnel, to paying for goods and service as diverse as flowers, sounds systems, maintenance and utilities. Almost all is spent right in the local community.
Schools attached to congregations employ 420,000 full-time teachers and train 4.5 million students each year. By comparison, this is the same number as the total population of Ireland or New Zealand.
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The impact of faith-based schools in the US is significant. For instance, St. Benedict’s Catholic Prep readies 530 mostly poor, mostly minority boys for college and beyond. In an area where public schools are working hard just to keep young men from ending up in gangs, in jail or dead, St. Benedict’s sends 95% of its graduates to college, including a sizable number to Ivy League schools. And graduates, such as Uriel Burwell, return to make an impact. Upon graduating from Drew University, Uriel returned to his childhood neighbourhood to build 50 new affordable houses, rehabilitate more than 30 homes and attracted more than $3 million funding to build additional affordable homes and apartments in the area.
Indeed, congregations are like magnets attracting economic activity ranging from weddings, as I’ve already mentioned and can give personal detail on, to lectures, congresses and even tourism. For instance, 120,000 congregations report that people visit them to view their art and architecture.
Creating a community focus
Finally, and most importantly, it’s what congregations do in their communities that makes the biggest socio-economic contribution. These programmes impact individuals and families in a variety of important ways.
For example, congregations provide 130,000 alcohol recovery programmes such as the Saddleback Church “Celebrate Recovery” programme that has helped more than 27,000 individuals over the past 25 years. Congregations also provide 120,000 programmes to help the unemployed. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has employment service centres in each of their stakes across the country (and across the world).
Some of this work runs counter to stereotypes some may have about religious groups. For instance, nearly 26,000 congregations are engaged in some form of active ministry to help people living with HIV-Aids. That makes one HIV-Aids ministry for every 46 people who are HIV positive. Just this past weekend on 9/11, under the sponsorship of Walgreen’s and the “First Ladies” (pastors’ wives) of Chicago, nearly 50 Chicago churches hosted free screening for HIV and other diseases.
In fact, the data show that congregations overwhelmingly include a society-building, outward community focus, with over 320,000 congregations helping to recruit volunteers for programmes outside their walls, to non-religious groups, ranging from Big Brothers and Big Sisters to the United Way and the American Red Cross.
The role of religious institutions
If we extend our view beyond what happens at local congregations and schools, we can find tens of thousands of other religiously affiliated charities, healthcare facilities, and institutions of higher learning also doing these sorts of good works every day. These add another $303 billion of socio-economic impact to the US economy each year.
These includes charities such as the Knights of Columbus, whose 1.5 million members respond to disasters and other human needs. One in six people visiting a hospital in the US is cared for in a Catholic facility. And it’s not just Catholics. Healthcare services, such as provided by the Adventist Health Systems, employ as many as 78,000 people in 46 hospitals.
Institutions of higher education, such as Jewish-affiliated Brandeis University, is one of thousands of religiously based colleges throughout the country. And even small religious charities can have strategic impact. Islamic Relief USA, for instance, responded to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, by hiring 20 local staff and distributing 135,000 gallons of water during the height of the water crisis.
What businesses do
Religion-related businesses add another $438 billion to the US economy each year. These include faith-based enterprises, ranging from Halal and Kosher food industries to religious media such as EWTN and the Christian Broadcast Network.
The largest group within this sector are not religious companies, per se, but faith-inspired or religion-friendly companies. Tyson’s Foods, for example, employs a large force of chaplains for their multi-religious workforce.
Across the country there are associations of CEOs who seek to put the moral and ethical teachings of their faith to practice in their business. One such association is C12, with over 2,500 members, some of whom have businesses worth billions of dollars.
And the religion that inspires many businesses in the US also has a way of spilling across borders. One American CEO, Don Larson, motivated by his faith, has started a company in Mozambique that not only stocks the shelves of America’s major food stores – from Giant and Wegmans to Whole Foods – but empowers tens of thousands of people. His innovative business model is based on what he calls a “reverse tithe” – where 90% of profits go back into the local community. That means many American consumers are participating in a faith endeavor, perhaps unaware.