Brian Grim, at the World Economic Forum in Davos
Image from White House homepage links to Jan. 16, 2018 Presidential Declaration
Davos is not a particularly friendly place for Pres. Donald Trump and his mission ‘to make America great again.’ The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum attracts a fair number of people who see Trump’s vision as nationalistic and counterproductive to the type of global cooperation espoused here – working together to solve the world’s problems. This is the very type of cooperation Pope Francis called for in his address (read by Cardinal Turkson). Significantly, Pope Francis’s comments were the first to be made at this year’s meeting.
It is commendable that Pres. Trump is willing to come face a crowd this Friday that is not likely to cheer his vision. To be clear, this is a risky gamble that could backfire. Yet, it might be a forum where the ‘businessman side’ of the President connects with the massive gathering of CEOs and world leaders.
This gathering affords Pres. Trump the opportunity to tout America’s economic vibrancy as well as the civic virtues that have made the U.S. a model for many in the world. One such civic virtue is religious freedom and how it is a pillar of America’s economic vibrancy.
Religious freedom in the United States sets religious organizations and people free to annually contribute nearly $1.2 trillion of socio-economic value to the U.S. economy, according to a September 2016 first-of-its-kind study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion (see wide global press coverage of the study).
So – you might say – that represents a lot of spiritually inspired fuel being pumped into the U.S. economy.
Religion does play a unique role in the socio-economic behaviors of Americans. For example, adults who are highly religious are significantly more likely than those who are less religious to report they did volunteer work and made donations to the poor in the past week, according to the Pew Research Center.
The contributions of religion to American society fall into three general categories:
All these figures come from a careful analysis of survey and financial data from a wide range of national sources detailed in the research article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, including:
Each year congregations spend $84 billion on their operations ranging from paying hundreds of thousands of personnel, to paying for goods and service as diverse as flowers, sounds systems, maintenance, and utilities. Almost all being spent right in the local community.
Schools attached to congregations employ 420,000 full time teachers and train 4.5 million students each year. By comparison this is the same number as the total population of Ireland or New Zealand.
Congregations are like magnets attracting economic activity ranging from weddings, as I’ve already mentioned and can give personal detail on, to lectures, congresses, and even tourism. For instance, 120,000 congregations report that people visit them to view their art and architecture.
And most importantly, it’s what congregations do in their communities that makes the biggest socio-economic contribution. These programs impact individuals and families in a variety of important ways. For example:
Some of this work runs counter to stereotypes some may have about religious groups. For instance,
One story among thousands of how a congregational school impacts individuals who then impact the community for good comes from inner city Newark, NJ. St. Benedict’s Prep readies 530 mostly poor, mostly minority boys for college and beyond. In an area where public schools are working hard just to keep young men from ending up in gangs, in jail or dead, St. Benedict’s sends 95% of its graduates to college, including a sizable number to Ivy League schools.
And graduates, such as Uriel Burwell, return to make an impact. Upon graduating from Drew University, Uriel returned to his childhood neighborhood to build 50 new affordable houses, rehabilitate more than 30 homes and attracted more than $3 million funding to build additional affordable homes and apartments in the area.
Religious Institutions: If we extend our view beyond what happens at local congregations and schools, we can find tens of thousands of other religiously-affiliated charities, health care facilities, and institutions of higher learning also doing these sorts of good works every day. These add another $303 billion of socio-economic impact to the US economy each year. These includes:
Businesses: Religion related business add another $438 billion to the US economy each year. These include faith-based businesses, ranging from the Halal and Kosher food industries to religious media such as EWTN and the Christian Broadcast Network.
The largest group within this sector are not religious companies, per se, but are faith-inspired or religion-friendly companies. Tyson’s Foods, for example, employs a large force of chaplains for their multi-religious workforce.
Across the country there are associations of CEOs who seek to put the moral and ethical teachings of their faith to practice in their business. One such association is C12 with over 2,500 members, some of whom have business worth billions of dollars.
Let me conclude with example showing how one American CEO, motivated by his faith, has started a company in Mozambique that not only stocks the shelves of America’s major food stores – from Giant and Wegmans to Whole Foods and H.E.B. – but empowers tens of thousands of people. His innovative business model is based on what he calls a “reverse tithe” – where 90% of profits go back into the local community. That means many American consumers are participating in a faith endeavor, perhaps unaware.
As President Trump comes, I for one hope it warms global relations by his sharing about some of America’s tremendous civic virtues, like freedom of religion or belief for all.