For more than a decade, Brian Grim has gathered and analyzed data about where religion is practiced and suppressed around the world.
His research shows a world where 84 percent of the population says it is religious, but where restrictions and hostilities against the freedom to practice one's faith are rising. In 2012, the percentage of people living in countries where social hostilities and government restrictions against religion that are considered extreme climbed to 76 percent — a six-year high.
But Grim also noticed a correlation between religious freedom and economic growth — where the freedom to worship is suppressed so are jobs and business opportunities and vice versa. That connection sparked the idea that commerce could play a part in reversing the trend of increasing hostilities toward religious minorities.
Now, the 54-year-old leading expert on the global religious landscape is acting on that idea. Last week, Grim left his job as a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and became president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. The new venture will enlist business leaders and trade groups from around the world in an ambitious effort to enhance religious freedom through economic opportunity.
"I’ve come to see that this is on of the most promising new ways to address the rising tide that I have been documenting and measuring," he said. "What I am doing is the result of looking at data and trends and I tried to see what might make a difference. And I think this might make a big difference."
Grim is not alone in recognizing the tie between religious freedom and economic growth. Academics at Harvard and Boston universities have drawn the same conclusions. Diplomats and human rights advocates have also joined the chorus that society in general benefits when people are allowed to observe their faith.
In the international business community more than 10,000 corporate participants and stakeholders in more than 130 countries have signed onto the the United Nations Global Compact, which proclaims a corporate responsibility to uphold human rights, including the "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and religious accommodation of employees.
"But when businesses are approached with the idea there are two responses: 'How much is this going to cost me?' and 'I don’t really understand how religion and business relate,'" Grim said.
For many executives religion is a red flag that signals bad publicity and conflicts better resolved by government, explained Paul Godfrey, the William and Roceil Low professor of business strategy at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management.
"Most businesses see their role as avoiding controversial issues and religion is seen to be a polarizing force in many societies. Businesses tend to stay away from that because they don't want to alienate anybody," Godfrey said.
But whether managers recognize it or not, religion impacts the employee and customer base of their business, Godfrey said, and it is in an executive's interest to be aware of that and have the tools to manage it.
That doesn't mean advocating a certain belief over others, he said, but accommodating religious freedom and diversity within the company and in the marketplace.
"There are many things that people in business monitor, but they never thought of this, which is often right in their face, as something that can be analyzed or understood," said Grim. "And perhaps their own actions could make a difference to solve issues that are also good for their bottom line."
Making the connection
Like the numerous statistical trends Grim rattles off from memory, he recalls story after story of conversations in just the past year with business, trade and government leaders that made them believers in commerce as an avenue to religious freedom.
In a meeting last week with the head of a Turkish trade organization, Grim explained how religious strife in Egypt contributed to a Canadian telecommunications firm losing an Egyptian investor. Grim also talked about business owners in Pakistan accusing each other of blasphemy, which carries a death penalty, as a tactic to eliminate competition.
"Then immediately this Turkish trader’s mind started clicking," Grim recalled.
They discussed how a ban on head scarves in public places in Turkey has stigmatized qualified Muslim women who apply for jobs but are rarely hired. Having business leaders weigh in on the issue could open the job market to a huge segment of female workers as well as loosen restrictions on wearing religious clothing in public, Grim said.
Businesses that employ religious minorities can play a key role in helping those workers enjoy a full complement of human rights in places where they may be oppressed, said William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace, a global network religious leaders that advances cooperation for peace.
"Businesses are where religious minorities are located and when the interests of the two communities align there is really a possibility to do something that helps" both the community and the business, he said.
Grim said China is a prime example of where loosening restrictions on religious practice corresponded with a rise in economic growth. During the country's Cultural Revolution religion was effectively banned from the public sphere for two decades. In the late 1970s the government recognized freedom of religion with restrictions.
"You fast forward to today and according to our research at Pew half a billion people in China say they have a religion," Grim said, and gross domestic product has increased from $61.4 billion in 1960 to $8.2 trillion in 2012.
A business executive who did grasp the economic benefits of religious freedom before meeting Grim was Greg Clark, an international attorney and vice president of the foundation.
While working for Occidental Petroleum Corp. in Qatar in the 1990s, Clark was also a lay leader for his church working with representatives of five other non-Muslim faiths for legal recognition by the government. It took nine years of lobbying before Qatar granted recognition.
But Clark is convinced it would have happened years earlier had he involved the general managers of Occidental and other major companies investing billions of dollars in the local economy.
"Not trying to rock the boat or disrupt the society at large but just saying, 'how can you help us out here, we are just trying to take care of our (employees),'" he said.
Clark, who now coordinates legal activities in Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that experience is part of his motivation for joining Grim to help create the foundation.
"Part of the role of this foundation is to educate the business community on how religious freedom can benefit their bottom line," he said. "It can change things on a macro level in their community and on a micro level within their business" with loyal more productive employees.
Another role would be providing businesses with ongoing research and data on global religious issues and connecting businesses with opportunities for growth that could also resolve issues of religious freedom.
It's an ambitious agenda for Grim, who is the foundation's sole full-time employee. A Catholic who traveled the world as an educator before he settled down as a researcher for the past decade, Grim is back to globe trotting with a full schedule of conferences, expos and trade conferences in the near future.
He and Clark also have a boards of directors and advisors to appoint along with the ongoing task of raising funds.
"We are keeping a clear focus on the things that are planned and work toward the other projects," he said before he boarded a flight late Friday to Brazil where he and Clark are speaking at an international business symposium on religious liberty.
In addition to Grim and Clark, who is serving on a volunteer basis, Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, is a director, and Christina Roach, an attorney in Utah, is treasurer of the foundation.
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