Could religion's decline spell damnation for the U.S. economy?

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

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.

The study from Brian Grim – president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and an associate scholar at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs – and Melissa Grim, a research fellow at the Newseum Institute and Brian's daughter, estimates religion's socioeconomic contributions to the U.S. economy could be worth as much as $4.8 trillion annually, but are more likely valued closer to $1.2 trillion.

Click though images of Children practicing religion around the world:

Children practicing religion around the world
See Gallery
Children practicing religion around the world
Exiled Tibetan school children wearing traditional costumes sing at a gathering to celebrate their spiritual leader's 80th birthday in New Delhi, India, Monday, July 6, 2015. The Dalai Lama was born on July 6 according to the Gregorian calendar, in the eastern Tibetan region of Amdo in 1935. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)
A Lebanese Shiite child poses for a picture during activities marking the holy day of Ashoura, in southern Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. Ashoura is the annual Shiite Muslim commemoration marking the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq in the 7th century. Arabic writing on bandana reads, "Oh father of Abdullah al-Hussein," (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Pakistani Muslim girls attend a religious madrassa, or school, to learn the Quran, in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday, March 4, 2015. Religious schools in Pakistan, most of them in mosques are the only source of education for thousands of children. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)
A Nepalese man holds his child up high for a better view during the Bisket Jatra Festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal, Friday, April 10, 2015. During the festival, also regarded as Nepalese New Year, images of the Hindu God Bhairava and his female counterpart Bhadrakali are enshrined in two large chariots and pulled to an open square after which rituals and festivities are performed. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)
Indian Muslim children read the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, at a madrasa or a religious school, in Bangalore, India, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. A media tour of madrasa was organized to highlight the positives of Islamic religious schools. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Pope Francis caresses a child during an audience with Roma, Sinti and others itinerant group members, at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Pope Francis met Gipsy people from around the world on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI visit to a Pomezia gipsy camp in Italy. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
A young Malaysian Muslim child peeks while his father prays during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha at a mosque in Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Muslims in the country start celebrating Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which honors the prophet Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael on the order of God who was testing his faith. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)
A Nigerian Muslim child offer prayers in Lagos, Nigeria, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, during the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) which is celebrated throughout the Muslim world as a commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. The festival falls on the tenth day of Zulhijjah, the final month of the Muslim Calendar. Cows, camels, goats and sheep are traditionally slaughtered on the holiest day.(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
Palestinian children hold balloons during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, near the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Muslims will slaughter cattle and goats later, with the beef and meat distributed to the needy in the holiday which honors the prophet Abraham for preparing to sacrifice his son on the order of God, who was testing his faith. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
An Indian child eats snacks as she sits in front of idols of elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha displayed for sale ahead of Ganesha Chaturthi festival in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. The ten day long Ganesh festival begins on Sept. 17. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
Kenyan Muslim children read verses from Quran, Islam's holy book, on the 11th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a Madrassa (Religion School), in Nairobi, Kenya, Sunday, June 28 2015. Muslims throughout the world are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where observants fast from dawn till dusk. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)
A Muslim woman tends to her children as others perform an Eid al-Fitr prayer to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at Sunda Kelapa port in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, July 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Pope Francis blesses a child as he arrives for the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
An Indian woman carries a child dressed as Hindu god Krishna during Janmashtami festival celebrations in Ahmadabad, India, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015.The festival marks the birth of Lord Krishna. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
In this Friday, July 10, 2015 photo, children gather around Essam Sayed, a 45-year-old "mesaharati," or dawn caller, as he wakes people up for a meal before sunrise, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in the Arab Ghoneim district of Helwan on the southern outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. Each night, Sayed, sets out after midnight on his donkey "Aziza" banging his small drum, chanting traditional religious phrases and calling out on residents by name to wake them in time for the vital pre-dawn meal known as âsuhour.â (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A Palestinian child recites verses from the Quran, Islam's holy book, as he waits for the noon prayer at a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 9, 2015. Muslims throughout the world are marking the month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar during which devotees fast from dawn till dusk. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Exiled Tibetan school children wearing traditional costumes dance at a gathering to celebrate their spiritual leader's 80th birthday in Dharmsala, India, Monday, July 6, 2015. The Dalai Lama was born on July 6 according to the Gregorian calendar, in the eastern Tibetan region of Amdo in 1935. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
FILE - In this Friday, June 19, 2015 file photo, a Pakistani Muslim woman holds her child during Friday prayers at the Badshahi mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. Muslims around the globe are observing the holy fasting month of Ramadan where they refrain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary, File)
Kashmiri Hindu children, dressed as Hindu gods, participate in a procession on Ram Navami festival in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, March 28, 2015. Ram Navami marks the birth of Hindu God Rama. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
Indian Sikh children participate in a religious procession ahead of the birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh in Jammu, India, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. The birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, will be marked on Jan. 7 this year. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)
Afghan children learn to read the Quran, Islam's holy book, at a local Madrassa, or seminary, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. Islamic seminaries in Afghanistan are generally considered a source of education for poor families and children whose families could not afford expensive fees of formal schools. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
A boy whose Buddhist name is Chung A smiles as he touches his newly shaved head during a service to celebrate Buddha's upcoming birthday at Jogye Temple in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 11, 2015. Nine children entered the temple to have an experience of monks' life for two weeks. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Kashmiri Muslim children recite verses from the holy Quran at a Muslim religious school, during the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Thursday, July 2, 2015. Muslims across the world are observing the holy fasting month of Ramadan, where they refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to dusk.(AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

That slightly more conservative estimate, though, still clocks in ahead of the combined annual revenues collected by America's Top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Google and Amazon.

"The faith sector is undoubtedly a significant component of the overall American economy, impacting and involving the lives of the majority of the U.S. population," states the report, which was published Wednesday afternoon.

The Grims say more than 150 million Americans are involved in more than 344,000 religious congregations from 236 different religions and denominations across the country, and the study reports Americans collectively give these congregations more than $74 billion each year.

In breaking down religion's economic contributions to society, the pair considered the revenues of religiously affiliated businesses like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby; direct spending and educational services provided by congregations; and money collected through faith-based higher education outfits and charities.

Businesses with religious connections – the largest of them being Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and Tom's of Maine – contribute $422.7 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the report, while faith-based health care networks like the Adventist Health System chip in $161 billion.

Overall, the report says 135,000 faith-based organizations across the country are dedicated specifically to parenting assistance, while another 130,000 focus on alcohol and drug abuse recovery. Roughly 125,000 work on improving marriages, while 121,000 help the unemployed. These outfits collectively support millions of jobs.

However, religious activity has declined in the U.S. amid a rise in non-adherents, which could throw these jobs and contributions into question in the years ahead.

A comprehensive study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that the "percentages [of U.S. adults] who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years."

RELATED: The least religious countries

10 countries perceived as least religious (US News)
See Gallery
10 countries perceived as least religious (US News)

10. Austria

Best countries overall rank: 12

(Photo by George Pachantouris via Getty)

9. France

Best countries overall rank: 8

(Photo by Sergey Borisov via Getty)

8. Canada

Best countries overall rank: 2

(Photo via Shutterstock)

7. Denmark

Best countries overall rank: 10

(Photo by Kateryna Negoda via Getty)

6. Luxembourg

Best countries overall rank: 14

(Photo via Getty)

5. New Zealand

Best countries overall rank: 11

(Photo via Getty)

4. Netherlands

Best countries overall rank: 9

(Photo via Getty)

3. Germany

Best countries overall rank: 1

(Photo by Sean Pavone Photo via Getty)

2. Sweden

Best countries overall rank: 5

(Photo via Getty)

1. Australia

Best countries overall rank: 6

(Photo via Getty)


A follow-up report released Wednesday underscored that religious practices are down in part due to the preferences of younger Americans. Nearly 80 percent of millennials, or those born after 1980, did not consider themselves to be religiously affiliated in 2014, compared with only 54 percent of those born before 1946. Pew also found that only 50 percent of younger millennials, or those born between 1990 and 1996, said they believe in God with "absolute certainty," compared with 71 percent of those in the silent generation predating baby boomers.

"As older cohorts of adults (comprised mainly of self-identified Christians) pass away, they are being replaced by a new cohort of young adults who display far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents' and grandparents' generations did when they were the same age," Pew's 2015 report said. "[T]he United States is growing less religious (in percentage terms) not because there are fewer highly religious people but rather because, as the overall U.S. population has grown, there are now many more non-religious people than was the case just a few years ago."

The societal impacts of this trend should not be understated. With $1.2 trillion of economic contributions on the line – or roughly $5 trillion per the Grims' more extreme estimate – waning religion could imperil jobs, company revenues and aid provided to those in need over the next few decades.

In fact, a study published last year in the Journal of the Urban Affairs found that declines in an area's "social and economic viability" appeared connected to "the closure of geographically based congregations" and churches.

It's also worth noting that, per Pew, 45 percent of "highly religious" individuals indicated they had volunteered in the past week, while 65 percent said they'd recently donated money, time or goods to the poor. That's compared with 28 percent and 41 percent, respectively, for those "not highly religious."

The Independent Sector – a coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs – estimated last year that an hour of volunteer work was worth $23.56 for the national economy. And the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy estimated Americans' charitable giving in 2015 soared to a record $373.25 billion. Should charitable giving and volunteer work decline, American tax dollars could potentially be on the line to fill in the gaps of support to those in need.

The Grims' study was limited in scope, noting that it "does not take into account the value of financial or physical assets of religious groups." In other words, antiques, plots of land and physical structures owned by faith-based organizations could send their values skyrocketing. Should those assets be sold or auctioned off to raise funds, such organizations could wield even greater economic influence.

It also doesn't fully take into account the negative impacts religious organizations can have on communities, including "such things as the abuse of children by some clergy, cases of fraud and the possibility of being recruitment sites for violent extremism."

These activities would "detract from the positive contributions made by religious institutions," the report says, though it still suggests religion is a net positive for the U.S. economy, and that its decline doesn't bode well for domestic prosperity.

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners