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Transatlantic Blog

What does faith add to the economy? $1.2 trillion, and counting

Once again, the national news reports that the government has legally prevented a Christian ministry from expanding its services for fear it will lose tax revenue. This opposition proves that politicians overvalue the role of government and undervalue the immense benefits that churches provide their community. Religious institutions generate trillions of dollars for the U.S. economy every year, according to a recent study.

When a nonprofit petitions a zoning board, politicians see only the lost property taxes they can no longer collect and allocate. But a good leader, according to Frédéric Bastiat, “takes account both of the effects which are seen and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.” Statistics show that churches and religious institutions are almost as great a blessing to their communities as they are to their members..

What value is a church or ministry?

The total economic impact of all 344,000 U.S. religious congregations is somewhere between $1.2 trillion and $4.8 trillion, according to a 2016 study by Brian and Melissa Grim. The lower estimate was, at the time, “more than the annual revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google combined.”

Churches increase property values, and hence property taxes, throughout their neighborhood. One study found that “real property values decrease … as distance from a neighborhood church increases.” The benefit of churches extends across the Atlantic Ocean. The Wall Street Journal reported that churches provide a “halo effect for real estate” in Germany:

A study of the housing market in Hamburg, Germany, found that condos located between 100 to 200 meters, or 109 to 219 yards, away from a place of worship listed for an average of 4.8% more than other homes. The effect was similar across all religious buildings studied, including churches, mosques, and temples.

Religious belief impels believers to improve their community and help the least fortunate. Each year, Christian church members volunteer 56 million hours outside their congregations. Those who are civically engaged are twice as likely to say religion is important in their lives as those who are not active in their communities.

Most churches provide at least one social program for the poor: free community meals, food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, clothing drives, and job fairs, to name a few. Often as the economic fortunes of the region decline, the value of church-provided services increases. Churches in Philadelphia alone provided $230 million worth of services, according to one estimate.

Conversely, as government spending increases, private charity decreases. This is lamentable, since ministries have lower levels of overhead and abuse, are less likely to foster dependence, and can address each individuals' underlying problems in a personalized and loving way.

All of this merely accounts for churches' and synagogues' services to non-members (something that the government has too often punished rather than facilitated). Numerous studies find that church attendance decreases criminal or anti-social behavior, especially for at-risk communities. “The greater the proportion of a county's population that is religious, the lower the violent crime rate for Whites and Blacks,” discovered Jeffery T. Ulmer and Casey T. Harris after studying 200 counties in three states. African-American youth are 22 percent less likely to commit crime if they actively attend a religious congregation, according to Byron R. Johnson of Baylor University's Institute for the Studies of Religion.

Churches do this by creating “moral communities,” to use Rodney Stark's term. They leaven the culture with normative ethical standards that lead their practitioners to success and further social harmony.

Reduced crime, delinquency, and vandalism provides another unseen economic benefit. Incarceration costs an average of $31,000 per prisoner each year, with some states paying as much as $60,000 annually. The cost of time and talent lost to the felon – and, worse, the cost of the crime to the victim – is immeasurable.

Another factor in reducing crime is outstanding education, such as that provided by religious schools. A 2003 study found that every additional male who graduates high school creates $2,100 in social savings every year by lowering incarceration rates. Graduation rates from religious schools range from 97 to 99 percent, as compared with 73 percent for public schools – and Catholic school graduates are twice as likely to attend college, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Combining education with moral principles, as religious schools do, reinforces both socially beneficial phenomena.

These quantifiable, ancillary social benefits flow from churches' greatest service, which is proclaiming a message of unconditional love, universal human dignity, and divine redemption. God has purchased our salvation, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (I Peter 1:18-19). Redeemed people draw from it the power and impetus to redeem their communities.

But if politicians do not believe in God, let them believe in the power of the Gospel for the very works' sake.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.