Is Religion Good for Business? Apparently So.

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I saw a post recently that caught my attention. It said that…

  • Houses of worship (churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) add $418 billion to the US economy annually;
  • Religious institutions (faith-based colleges, seminaries, denominational and parachurch organizations, think tanks, etc.) add another $303 billion annually; and
  • Faith-based inspired businesses (faith-based media, halal and kosher food markets, etc.) add another $437 billion annually.

That’s $1.2 trillion added to the US economy every year by faith communities. To be fair, that’s not exactly the same as GDP, so don’t go screaming on Facebook that faith makes up 7 percent of the US GDP. It doesn’t. That would put faith in the same economic value range as healthcare. That’s insane.

Also, don’t trust the numbers at face value. Even after I looked at the data that originally came from Dr. Elijah Brown of the Wilberforce Initiative and Brian Grim of Georgetown University, there remains a serious lack of clarity as to what counts in each of these categories. Harvard University, for example, is technically a faith-based college, but I’m not sure that I (or the Religious Right) would count its net worth in these calculations, given that Harvard provides very few directly religious services. (Its seminary is legit, though.)

Similarly, many profitable hospital chains, such as Baptist Health Care and St. Thomas Hospitals are technically faith-based businesses (it’s literally in their names), but do we count these or not? They don’t provide a directly religious service the same way that the halal meat market does. Should they be counted in these figures?

It’s pretty clear that Brown and Grim did so, given the size of the number, but I couldn’t figure out from their data what their standards were when they counted.

But even taking those things out, the religion business in America is still pretty dang large. I mean, Lifeway Christian Resources alone pulls in over $500 million a year in revenue. And the average cost of building a church structure is over $2 million. Each. That’s not small potatoes. And those numbers are just from Christianity.

Why does this matter? Because money talks.

If you ever wondered why religious institutions, particularly Christian ones, have so much influence in American political discussion, this is a key reason why. It’s not just social; it’s financial. Building up religious fervor and getting people to go to church is apparently good for the economy.

It’s also good for business. I noted yesterday that controversies surrounding Christian-owned businesses have largely been good for those businesses. Chick-Fil-A saw record sales when its owner spoke against gay marriage. Hobby Lobby’s sales went up 8 percent after its controversy over contraceptive healthcare in 2014.

In addition to that, like I said above, Lifeway Christian Resources, one of several Christian literature juggernauts, pulls in half a billion per year. The more people who commit to their faith, the more books and materials about faith they’re likely to purchase.

The whole thing reminds me of 9/11. Do you remember how many people bought American flags and flag-paraphernalia (like T-shirts) after 9/11? Those guys made a boatload of cash off of that tragedy. I get that’s how America and free-market capitalism work, but there was still a part of it that just felt…icky.

And that’s exactly how I feel about knowing what I know about the Christian economy. I hear ads all the time on the radio and television that show businesses (the most common ones are mechanics) who advertise their Christian faith in their commercial, particularly on Christian radio. “Our faith drives our business practices,” and what not. And my head immediately goes nuts. I know–I know–they wouldn’t say those things just because they’re true. They say those things because they’re good for business. And while I accept that all advertisement is manipulation, manipulation about faith to make a buck just feels…icky to me.

I know Christians who go on and on about Chick-Fil-A as a Christian company and how good it is that they’re closed on Sundays. And beyond their excellent product, a lot of Christians say they eat there because of the company’s professed faith. That’s a thoroughly dumb reason to buy chicken, but it is an utterly fantastic way to sell chicken.

In the same way, selling your mechanic business on its merits would be best. But selling your mechanic business on its “Christian values” is a blatant ploy to make people trust you more since they don’t trust mechanics in general. You just abused my faith so that you can seem more trustworthy and sell more services. I don’t appreciate that. Is there a Satanist mechanic I can go to instead?

Or better yet, can we all buy and sell things based on their own merits instead of the faith of the owners and operators? Or are we really that influenced by this?

Here’s why this matters. If we’re going to be in this world on a mission to seek and save the lost, like Jesus was, then we can’t have our own separate culture. We can’t have our own special economy. We can’t go to Chick-Fil-A just because they’re Christian-owned and closed on Sundays and sometimes play Christian music. For that matter, we really shouldn’t even have Christian music stations.

We’ve got to be in the world we’re in. And that doesn’t mean creating a culture for ourselves; it means engaging the culture around us. It’s not the enemy we keep claiming it is. It’s the mission field Jesus calls us to.

All that being said, by all means, please enjoy some fantastic chicken today, wherever you get it from. I’m really hungry now, for some reason.


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