That Faith Counts study: Religion is bigger than Facebook, Google and Apple combined

Whenever I teach religion reporting to college students, one of the first things I do is hand them a copy of an article by the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. It posed the question of what is of greater interest to Americans: Religion or sports?

Many people would choose sports but no, Americans in 1992 spent $56.7 billion on religion compared to $4 billion on sports, he wrote. I love giving people copies of Cornell’s piece.

Yes, it's old news. However, my colleague tmatt has written about its continuing impact. I have mourned the lack of a similar article with more recent data.

Until now. Recently, the Washington Post’s religion blog Articles of Faith told us there’s a new study out. The headline: “Study: Religion contributes more to the U.S. economy than Facebook, Google and Apple combined.”

I bet that got peoples’ attention.

Religion is big business. Just how big? A new study, published Wednesday by a father-daughter researcher team, says religion is bigger than Facebook, Google and Apple -- combined.
The article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion said that the annual revenues of faith-based enterprises -- not just churches but hospitals, schools, charities and even gospel musicians and halal food makers -- is more than $378 billion a year. And that’s not counting the annual shopping bonanza motivated by Christmas.
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.

Take a guess where the bulk of that money is concentrated. Journalists, there is a strong news hook here when it comes to recent church-state controversies.

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.

I looked up the study (there’s no charge but you have to register on IJRR’s site) and learned that the $378 billion figure was the lower estimate. The highest was $4 trillion, almost one-fourth of America’s $17.9 trillion GDP (in 2015).

That’s pretty amazing news, I thought, considering there’s a sizable minority of people in this country who’d like religion removed from the public square. Surely lots of newspapers will be reporting on this.

Well, not quite. The Deseret News did its own (and much longer) piece a day before the Post’s came out. The Daily Mail also did a piece, as did The Blaze. So did U.S. News & World Report, which posed an interesting question

A new study takes a look at the economically intertwined and potentially fraught relationship between America's two historical masters: God and money.
The country's trillion-dollar religion industry provides millions of jobs and financial, emotional and spiritual support to even more people across the country. And yet America is becoming less religious, threatening this sacred pillar of the domestic economy.

Is this study indeed, as U.S. News & World Report suggests, a reflection of the heyday of religiously involved Americans and something that may drastically change in coming generations? I’ve always thought that people who oppose any kind of religious involvement in public affairs haven’t a clue of the extent of religious groups’ involvement in, say, feeding and housing the homeless and mentally ill. Oh, and what America’s streets may be like if such groups lose their non-profit status and are forced to close.

After all, the study says, religious groups fund more than 1.5 million social programs, including 78,000 for mental illness alone. That is three times the number of Starbucks outlets worldwide. 

But other than some religious outlets, those were nearly all the secular publications I saw pick the story up. Missing was the Associated Press, which mystifies me in that the study was unveiled at the National Press Club, hardly an obscure spot. If I missed something, please put some URLs in our comments pages.

The scanty coverage goes to show that Cornell’s quote about media ignoring religion’s greater appeal is just as true 22 years later. He said:

Newly gathered comparative statistics in the 1990s on two key yardsticks of human interest -- financial and personal involvement -- show religion ahead of sports. Yet religion gets only a tiny fraction of media notice compared with the huge volume of attention lavished on sports.

That's news copy. Want to hear Cornell's own voice? As he once told tmatt (and you can sense Cornell is a bit upset):

"You know, usually, where people put their time and money, that's where their interests are," Cornell said. "Newspapers give a great deal of space to professional sports ... [Americans] put into the local and national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into professional sports. And that money is their work. That's them. That's a projection of their own lives. "They are putting much more time and money into religion than they are into sports-and sports are getting the vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the newspaper. ... Newspapers' attention and space are supposed to be geared to people's interest. Right?"

Well. Watch the above video and read the study. Then ask why this wasn't much bigger news.

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