The Salvation Army

Dr Spo posted some reflections on spring cleaning and in the comments the topic of the Salvation Army came up. That got me (re-)reading about the Salvation Army’s history of anti-LBGTQ political actions and subsequent attempts the Sally Ann has made to clean up its image (example 1, example 2, example 3). Based upon this we are supposed to believe that the Salvation Army is not homophobic; internal documents indicate that the Salvation Army will comply with same-sex marriage rules while continuing to oppose homosexual behaviour among its ministers.

There is lots more on the Internet. You can find it better than I can. But whenever these issues come up so do a jumble of contradictory thoughts.

Firstly: The Salvation Army is changing its tune for two reasons. The social context around homosexuality has changed, and their image took a beating. Economic actions against the Salvation Army likely got it to change its actions sooner than it otherwise would have. I do not know for certain, but I strongly believe this criticism worked. If it had not, then the Salvation Army would not have bothered to respond.

Secondly: Claims that boycotting the Salvation Army hurts poor people are spurious. The Salvation Army is not the only organization that ministers to the poor. Refraining from donating money to any charity because you do not give to the Salvation Army might harm the poor. Refraining from giving to the Salvation Army in favour of a competitor is likely to do more good than harm, because it establishes a minimum standard that the Salvation Army and its competitors must all meet.

Thirdly: My relationship to such organizations is very ambivalent. My former employer was such an organization (which was not explicitly religious, although it comes from religious roots and received much of its early funding from churches). On the one hand such organizations serve the poor; on the other they are parasites upon the poor. There is always a blurry line between the two. Nobody gets it right. It is plausible that the Salvation Army gets it more right than other organizations, but it is by no means guaranteed.

Fourthly: The Salvation Army’s rebuttals of its discriminatory practices from examples 1 and 2 are infuriating. They are whitewash. They make it sound as if the Army has always been welcoming of homosexuals, which is decidedly not true (eg read the comments from this Pinknews article or this Dan Savage column ).

Nowhere in their rebuttals is any acknowledgement that the organization participated in discriminatory, hurtful behaviour, or that they apologise for doing so. They are pretending that there was never any problem.

There is a good argument to be made that those who repent should be forgiven. None of us are pure. Individually and organizationally, we all believe heinous things and act in hurtful ways. But I do not see one hint of remorse in the Salvation Army’s about-face. All I see is marketing.

Fifthly: Although there have been many documented cases of discrimination and hurtful behaviour by both the organization and its members, condemning every action the Salvation Army makes is a grevious mistake. People are complicated. People who are deeply religious are often moved by spirits of charity and gratitude such that they do good things in bad circumstances. There is no doubt in my mind that members of the Salvation Army ministered to poor homosexuals the same way they ministered to other poor indigents, regardless of their personal beliefs concerning LBGTQ issues. Many times this goodwill is a recruitment strategy, but not always.

Furthermore there are many nonreligious people who are moved by the same spirits of charity and gratitude. As a duck-typed atheist I am supposed to condemn every church and every actions churches take (bless your heart, Christopher Hitchens). I will not do so. I hang out with Christians a lot, and there are a lot of Christians I know and respect. I may not approve of their lifestyles, and I reserve the right to condemn those lifestyles when they hurt others, but there are many ways to live in the world, and I know for a fact that my lifestyle choices are neither universally applicable nor optimal even in my life.

Sixthly: Many people within the Salvation Army continue to be homophobic (and not just about gay marriage), and the organization has an obligation to cowtow to its members even as it respects the law of the land. Unlike Queerty, I do not feel that the leaked internal documents are that surprising or that scandalous. I am not happy with all the positions this church takes (surprise, surprise) but I am also not the target audience.

Seventhly: I worry about the leaked internal memo. It specifies a baseline behaviour that the church expects its membership to take. The context is important. If the memo reflects consensus within the organization then I am more relieved than if this memo is disciplinary and faces deep resistance within the organization.

Eighthly: Nonreligious people bear some burdens too. In principle there should be lots of secular competition for the work that religious organizations do. In practice this is thin on the ground, as far as I can tell. Alternatives such as the effective altruism movement are gaining ground, but many of these movements are also horrifying. (Fund AI risk research if you want, but don’t pretend that it is either effective or altruism.) Time and time again I see antireligious people proclaim lofty solutions for poverty while being unwilling to get their hands dirty, and I see religious people doing work on the ground.

Ninthly: I firmly believe that good-willed social mixing is one of the most powerful tools we have to achieve peace, and thus that segregating ourselves based on beliefs is a net negative. Poor people should interact with middle class and upper class people as equals. Nonreligious people and religious people should work together on shared goals. One of the few positive things I will say about capitalism is that markets provide mechanisms so that people of very different political and ethical views can work together and interact with each other; money is a lowest-common-denominator force that gets us to work with each other. Currently there is a trend to ostracise others with whom we disagree. That is horrifying to me.

Tenthly: There is a big difference between giving money to the Salvation Army and getting on with your day vs getting involved with their volunteer activities. The latter is much more important. Giving money is easy and easy for the organization to abuse. Outsiders need to participate in order to determine the extent to which the organization lives up to its marketing of not being homophobic/transphobic in practice even if they insist on being so in principle.