Is American religion really worth $1.16 trillion?

collection-plateA new study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion says that’s the case, but this Relevant article says no. From the Relevant article:

Their $1.16 trillion estimate is a staggering amount of money—something like 7% of the United States’ GDP. It’s also, on reflection, a somewhat silly figure. How do you possibly estimate the economic value of something as gigantic and amorphous as American religion? And even if you do pin down a number, what does it tell you? That religious organizations should list themselves on Nasdaq? That the Methodists really need to step it up in FY 2017? That religious groups handle a lot of cash?

Whatever the figure, this does raise some interesting questions, yes? Such as: If we taxed religious groups, might that help the economy? Well, that’s the question it raises for me…

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  1. Schulson’s criticism doesn’t make sense to me.
    Religion™ is too “gigantic and amorphous” for effective valuation?
    (Amorphous? Really?)

    How can more data and more study not provide “a better-balanced understanding of the impact of religion on American society today”? How is that “disingenuous”? (Maybe if I went to church more often I’d know?)

    Then, after essentially classifying the Grims’ exercise as futile and useless, as any critique of anything capitalist must always be, he ends up telling the reader to “follow the money” when it comes to religion.


  2. When you ask about taxing religious groups, are you suggesting a church should be taxed on offerings received from the congregation? In our church’s case, it would be a net loss to the community/the world. The dollars pay for facility & church employee salaries, of course, providing space and structure for good works & connection. Beyond that, it enables us to give to other charities, directly supply needed community services, and support families (such as a refugee family). If the offerings were taxed, for example, IRIS probably would not have co-sponsor groups (mostly religious groups) available to assist in refugee resettlement as it is a significant expense to a co-sponsor group. So, where would the line be drawn in taxing churches/religious groups, do you think?

    1. You know, I’m just shooting from the hip without a single idea of what I’m asking for. I understand that churches (and faith groups in general) fill a huge void. I think I’m trying to target the slackers, but who am I to say who that would be? So thank you for the mild and loving spanking. I do have a difficult time squaring a tax-free organization that is also politically active, but that, too, is a difficult thing to measure. I’ll shut up now.

      1. No, please don’t stop talking about this. There are religious groups who take advantage of this (such as private jets for pastors). There should be a line, though I don’t know where. I’m not a fan of all or nothing in this case. Maybe a hybrid version makes sense.

        1. Of course, those are the ones I’d rein in, but how do you do that while allowing the Good Ones to continue their Good Work?

          1. Do away with the automatic exemption, for starters. Require churches to keep the same records as every other business or nonprofit and report that data to the IRS every year in order to sustain a tex exempt status.

    2. Taxes for churches, in a reform environment, would likely depend on IRS classification, (501 status), revenues generated, (from any source), and capital disbursements. Just like most nonprofits. The only thing that should change significantly for churches, in the beginning, would be their automatic exemption. Churches should be required to submit tax exempt claims yearly. Like everybody else. That would keep everybody honest in addition to aggregating the data necessary to make valuation of Religion™, the commodity, less of a guessing game.

      I don’t think much would change for most churches other than doing a little more record keeping and some additional filing with the IRS every year. Your monolithic megaliths, however, might have more adjustments to make. The Catholic Church, just in America, is estimated to bring in $850 million dollars every week just from contributions alone, and has estimated annual capital disbursements in the range of $180 billion dollars. I stress estimated because nobody really knows. The Catholic Church is Big Business. We all have the right to know, and our government has the duty to find out, just exactly what the hell is going on with all that money.

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