Covering Religion As More Than Fringe

New York, New York, USA - February 20, 2016: A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.
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The Washington Post recently reported on an academic study that provocatively concludes that “religion contributes more to the U.S. economy than Facebook, Google and Apple combined.”

Co-authors Brian and Melissa Grim, a father-daughter team, surveyed all the ways that religiously motivated and funded institutions figure in the U.S. economy, and came up with the staggering total of $374 billion (USD).

Their article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion notes that hospitals and health-care systems constitute the largest chunk of that total, with Catholic organizations furnishing 1 out of 6 hospital beds in America. Congregations and denominations take in almost $75 billion, and charities are huge too, of course, with Lutheran Services of America perhaps surprisingly constituting the biggest player at $21 billion, three times larger than the YMCA.

The vast majority of the institutions making up this massive bloc of spending in the U.S. are Christian, although other religions’ organizations were included. But what was not included is also telling: “the revenues of faith-linked businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, the box office profits of religious blockbuster movies such as ‘Heaven Is for Real,’ [and] the household income of millions of Americans who run their financial lives guided by their faiths.” Nor did the vast total of Christmas-prompted expenditures make it into their accounting.

These huge numbers, then, help to explain why American mainstream media, as is true up here in Canada as well, are constantly reporting on religion. Not just the occasional violent episode—whether fanatics with guns and bombs, or protesters with slurs and slanders—but the steady work of religiously motivated people and organizations reshaping our social landscape in education, insurance, art, charity, business, and more.

That is why major sections of daily newspapers and segments of every TV news show are devoted to religion, featuring ace reporters trained in religious and theological studies, the way others have expertise in economics or technology or sports. These dedicated journalists help us understand the complexities of religious controversies and shine a light on the successes and failures, innovations and traditions of religious bodies—just as other reporters constantly talk about social media giants, fashion houses, popular musicians, film studios, and tech startups.

That is why you find yourself constantly engaged in fascinating conversations at work, or at home, or on Facebook (!) about the latest trends in worship services, the most influential preachers and religious authors, the hottest Christian musicians, and the most impressive leaders in charitable work—all because the mainstream media give religion so much attention.

None of that is true, you say? If you didn’t watch “Context” and read Christian news sources you would have no clue about these things, you say? Now you’re wondering why in the world religious news doesn’t get the treatment it deserves, you say?

Well, I agree with you. At least the Washington Post covered this story. Perhaps $374 billion—which is equivalent to a full 25% of our nation’s entire GDP—would be enough to warrant a few changes in editorial priorities even at the CBC or the Globe and Mail….

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).