Georgetown University’s Brian Grim and the Newseum’s Melissa Grim — in a study sponsored by an organization called Faith Counts, which promotes the value of religion — produced a 31-page breakdown of all the ways religion contributes to the U.S. economy.
The largest chunk of that $378 billion tally comes from faith-based health-care systems. Religious groups run many of the hospitals in the United States; Catholic health systems alone reportedly account for 1 in 6 hospital beds in the country.
Then there are churches and congregations themselves. Based on prior censuses of U.S. bodies of worship, the Grims looked at 344,894 congregations, from 236 different religious denominations (217 of them Christian, and others ranging from Shinto to Tao to Zoroastrian). Collectively, those congregations count about half the American population as members. The average annual income for a congregation, the study said, is $242,910.
Most of that income comes from members’ donations and dues, meaning Americans give $74.5 billion to their congregations per year, the study said.
Religious charities also contribute to the economy. By far the largest faith-based charity, according to the study, is Lutheran Services of America, with an annual operating revenue of about $21 billion. The study counted 17 more faith-based charities, all among Forbes’s 50 biggest charities in America, with revenues ranging from $300 million (Cross International) to $6.6 billion (YMCA USA).
Almost all the charities are Christian, except for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with an annual operating revenue of $400 million.
Religious revenues also include faith-based colleges and universities, where 2 million students pay more than $46.7 billion in tuition annually, the study said. The tally includes tuition revenues for religious elementary through high schools as well, plus the Christian book industry, sales of Christian music, the Christian cable networks EWTN and CBN and the $1.9 billion halal food industry that caters to faithful Muslim consumers. The study counted $12.5 billion in annual sales of traditional kosher foods, but not the $300 billion in food sold that has a kosher certification but, like everything from Oreos to Coca-Cola, is generally purchased by non-Jewish consumers.
The study suggested all sorts of other ways one could count the contribution of religion to the U.S. economy — the revenues of faith-linked businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, the box office profits of religious blockbuster movies such as “Heaven Is for Real,” even the household income of millions of Americans who run their financial lives guided by their faiths.
But sticking just to the direct profits of faith, religion comes out as highly lucrative — a larger chunk of the country’s $16 trillion GDP, the Grims pointed out, than many giant corporations.
This isn’t the first time that Brian, 57, a longtime researcher of religion in society, has enlisted the help of Melissa, 33.
Melissa has had an academic career spanning numerous fields — she said she studied ballet at the University of Oklahoma, then philosophy at Penn State, then theology, then law. When her father started working on counting up the economic value of American religion, she had just finished DePaul law school and was a research fellow at the Newseum in the District. She was perfectly placed to help him, and she was eager to get involved in his research just as she had when she was an undergraduate years ago.
“I think we’ve both learned from each other. Since he’s worked with me, he’s had to have a little more patience and understanding with his interns,” she joked.
Brian said he was impressed by his daughter’s research as they tried to track down hard-to-find information. There’s no readily available list of all the religious charities or hospitals in the country, for instance, he said. “Sort of like a detective, she would find things.”
“There’s an extra commitment when you’re working together with your family member,” he said. “When a project is something you share with those you love, the project itself becomes a meaningful project. It’s just just a job or an academic paper. It’s really a process of discovery. It’s fun to do.”