According to a new study, the economic value of religion in America is $1.16 trillion per year, or a little less than the GDP of Russia.
The estimate comes to us from a father and daughter team, Brian and Melissa Grim. Brian is an associate scholar at Georgetown and the founder and director of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, which aims to “[educate] the global business community about how religious freedom is good for business.” Melissa is an RFBF research fellow at the Newseum Institute.
Their $1.16 trillion estimate is a staggering amount of money—something like 7% of the United States’ GDP. It’s also, on reflection, a somewhat silly figure. How do you possibly estimate the economic value of something as gigantic and amorphous as American religion? And even if you do pin down a number, what does it tell you? That religious organizations should list themselves on Nasdaq? That the Methodists really need to step it up in FY 2017? That religious groups handle a lot of cash?
That last one isn’t a secret: we already know that religious institutions take in large sums. The Grims are trying to turn a truism into a number. That’s always a delicate exercise. At best, figures can help us grapple with the experience of living in a mass society. But they can also produce a kind of false certainty that obscures more than it clarifies.
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