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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.