Rules Are for Schmucks: A Trillion Dollar God Industry?

The scene: late at night, a Georgetown University professor’s office. Highly trained social scientists are racking their brains over a knotty problem. They’ve spent weeks massaging data about the economic impacts of religion, and their public relations team is beating them up to reach a conclusion that it’s over a trillion dollars. That makes a far catchier headline! But they just can’t get there—the furthest they can stretch is $880 billion.

Then someone pipes up: “Wait—I’ve got it. Walmart! Let’s just decide that Walmart’s $279 billion of revenues count as ‘religious.’ Then we can all go home.”

And so it was done. And the headlines duly rolled in: “Faith contributes $1.2T annually to US economy”…“What’s US religion worth? $1.2 trillion, says one demographer”… “Don’t Underestimate Religion’s Economic Gifts”

Did this scene actually occur? Not in so many words—I’m taking dramatic license. But the intellectual dishonesty of throwing together Walmart and lots of other big-ticket items to justify an absurd result did happen. How many of those headline writers do you think actually took the time to read the study and question for half a second how it’s conclusion was derived?

What justification is given for including Walmart’s enormous revenues in the study? Well, the authors simply quote another academic, who says that “less well-known are Walmart’s connections to the distinct religious world of northwest Arkansas and rural America…[and its] corporate culture and how specific executives incorporated religious culture into their managerial philosophy.” Perhaps the reason these connections are “less well-known” is that Walmart itself thinks they are too unimportant and irrelevant to bother mentioning on its own website, even in the section that describes the history of the company. Or the section that talks about their corporate values. Wouldn’t a “religious” company display at least a modicum of pride in its religiosity—as, for example, Hobby Lobby does? Love it or hate it, Walmart is about as secular and data-driven as you can get.

Here are a few other corporations on the study’s list of “Religion-based companies,” whose revenues add up to a staggering $422.7 billion, well over one-third of the $1.2 trillion headline: Tyson Foods, Jet Blue, Alaska Airlines, Forever 21, and Mary Kay cosmetics. Pretty devout group, huh?

The deeper you dig into the study, the more preposterous it gets. For example, it counts about $74 billion of revenue for “faith-based schools.” I attended Catholic grade school, high school, and law school, so I have an inside scoop on just how “religious” these institutions are. Grade school and high school—OK, pretty religious and fair to include in the total. But law school? If I didn’t have independent knowledge that the school I attended was affiliated with the Catholic Church, I never would have deduced it from spending three years there. It was as nonreligious a place as you can imagine. In fact, one of the favorite whipping boys of the Christian right press is that “religious” colleges aren’t nearly religious enough. And yet, of the $74 billion, nearly two-thirds derives from higher education fees.

Another huge chunk comes from hospitals. I’ve spent much more time than I ever wanted to visiting a patient in an Adventist-affiliated hospital. And if it hadn’t been for that word “Adventist” in the name, I would not even have known I was in a religious institution. I think it probably had a chapel somewhere, like many airports do, but I never stumbled across it. Nonetheless, the study’s authors boldly include the entire $161 billion of revenues of “faith-based healthcare systems” in their report. (Note to future study authors: next time, don’t forget the airports themselves! All the ones that have chapels should count as “religious” by your standards. Maybe you could hit two trillion that way.)

Then we have the humongous “Individual Impact” economic effect of religious congregations. What’s this, you ask? Well, a couple of years ago, some other social scientist did a “study” of the economic effects of clergy in three cities. The study consisted not of measuring mundane things like income or expense data but simply of asking the ministers themselves to guesstimate how economically valuable the services they provide are, e.g. by promoting “health and wellbeing,” and mitigating “negative costs such as legal troubles or lost productivity.” Amazingly enough, these preachers bragged that their efforts were worth…a lot! How much? Well, when you take the results for the three cities and extrapolate them to the entire country, as the current study does, you get a whopping $159 billion. Who knew?

I could keep going, but you get the gist of it. The $1.2 trillion figure is a joke. Yes, the God industry participates in the economy but at nowhere near this level. What makes the joke less funny, though, is that the “finding” is already being used to justify special privileges for religion. One editorial gravely proclaims that “At a time when the relevance of faith is being questioned by media elites and the government, and when believers—Christians, above all—are being ridiculed and pushed out of the public square, there is now tangible evidence of the practical value that the mere presence of faith offers to America.” (The “public square,” of course, is the euphemism for government promotion of religion via means such as crosses on public land, prayers at government meetings, religious advertising in our Pledge of Allegiance and national motto, and gobs of tax money being diverted to religious schools.)

The editorial goes on argue that “the ability of the Church and her members to be such a powerful and positive contributor to the common good of America requires the freedom and the space to do so”—e.g., the RFRA right to prevent corporate healthcare plans from covering contraception or the right to fire people for being transgender or gay. Another pundit uses the result to justify resistance to “threats to religious liberty,” because “draining the financial resources of domestic religious institutions hurts everyone.” I guess that means we need to keep the parsonage exemption. Expect plenty more logical leaps of this type in the months ahead.

Finally, flawed as it may be, the study should remind us of one thing. Assume that it’s too high by a factor of 10,000 to 1, which it’s not. That would still put the economic power of the God industry way, way higher than that of the American Humanist Association, plus all the other organizations similar to AHA that also do good work, all rolled together. When we step on the God industry’s toes, as we do whenever we call for even-handed treatment of religion and non-religion, we’re not even close to being in a fair fight. The wonder is not that we don’t win more often—it’s that we ever win at all.