The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville is most widely known for his seminal work, Democracy in America, in which he penned some of the most significant and long lasting observations on political life in the United States of America. In those pages, he sought to understand how democratic people can safeguard their liberty and flourish as a nation.
“In order that society should exist, and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper,” he writes, “it is necessary that the minds of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot be the case unless each of them sometimes draws his opinions from the common source.”
For Tocqueville, the ideas, beliefs, and habits that are necessary to safeguard liberty are found primarily in the religion of the people.
Almost two centuries later, a different narrative about the role of religion and public life has emerged. The notion that religion is antiquated, declining, and at worst, oppressive, seems to dominate much of our public discourse.
But a major new study just released in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion evidences that the country has never been more dependent on the contributions of people of faith to society, particularly from a socio-economic perspective.
According to findings from Brian and Melissa Grim, “religion in the United States today contributes $1.2 trillion each year to our economy and society.”
Impressively, this figure is more than the top ten tech companies combined—including Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Or, put in another perspective, if that figure was measured in GDP, U.S. religion would be the 15th largest national economy in the world.
These contributions range from general philanthropy to educational services to healthcare—and all stem from one of the shared central tenet’s of all major faith traditions: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
And while religious affiliation has declined in recent years, the amount that religious organizations have contributed to social programs in the last fifteen years has more than tripled—now up to $9 billion dollars.
From Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in New York that feeds over 1,000 of Manhattan’s hungry and homeless on a daily basis to the Jewish Home which provides long-term elderly care and rehabilitation to people of all faiths and on to Catholic Charities USA that provides family related services to over one million individuals in the U.S. each year, the study confirms a beautiful and consistent human story of religion serving a vital force for social cohesion and improvement.
So, what’s the larger takeaway from this data?
For starters, it’s that faith counts—perhaps now more than ever and folks of all political and religious persuasions should welcome this fact.
For those on the left who have sought to diminish the space that religious institutions are allowed to operate—such as through lawsuits against hospitals that refuse to perform abortions—this new study should serve as a timely reminder that it’s also those same institutions and individuals that are providing daily HIV/AIDS testing and treatment and providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation to those who would otherwise be left without care.
For those on the right who are dismissive or critical of religiously motivated efforts to educate on climate change or immigration reform, don’t forget that it’s very often those same churches and congregations that are on the front lines providing employment opportunities and various forms of parental assistance when government agencies fail to do so.
And for those that are unconvinced that threats to religious liberty here at home are insignificant compared to those suffering the realities of genocide abroad, it’s incumbent to realize that draining the financial resources of domestic religious institutions hurts everyone and limits the ability that they can respond to and support those suffering persecution in other parts of the world.
As Tocqueville recognized, the goodness and virtue resulting from religious practice is in part due to the fact Americans are “willing to surrender a portion of his heart to the cares of the present.”
Such a commitment was not just critical to the American experiment—but has been a vital part of what has sustained the project two centuries and counting. Only by recognizing this—and carving out the necessary space for these institutions to operate and thrive—can we expect this great tradition to continue.