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

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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.

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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."

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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

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