Over the past few years, a number of LGBT groups have drawn attention to the anti-gay views and activities of the Salvation Army. Many people aren’t aware that in addition to its charity work, the Salvation Army is also a Christian church with a decidedly conservative doctrine. In their position statement on homosexuality, the Salvation Army claims that intimacy between members of the same sex is forbidden by scripture, and that celibacy is the only acceptable option for gay people.
The opposition to homosexuality has become a recurring theme in their charity efforts and their political activities. In 1986, the Salvation Army in New Zealand collected signatures against a law to decriminalize gay sex. In 2000, the Salvation Army in Scotland opposed the repeal of Section 28, which prohibited schools from any positive or affirming discussion of homosexuality. In 2001, the Salvation Army’s Western Corporation rescinded health benefits for same-sex domestic partners of employees after criticism from the religious right. And in 2004, the Salvation Army in New York City threatened to close all of its soup kitchens and shelters instead of complying with a law requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners.
Following calls for a boycott in protest of the church’s anti-gay beliefs, many people have claimed that this would be unjustified for a variety of reasons. The most common response is that regardless of their religious views, the Salvation Army does good things. And that’s undoubtedly true. But doing good things is not an excuse for doing bad things. There are many people and organizations that also do good things, but that doesn’t make them justified in holding prejudiced beliefs or fighting to keep gay people from being treated equally. And there are plenty of charity groups that are willing to do good for people without supporting needless intolerance. The Salvation Army is not alone in providing help to those in need. But it is set apart by its choice to endorse bigotry.
Others claim that the Salvation Army’s beliefs are irrelevant to its charity work, and that their homophobic views don’t matter when compared to the good they do. This tacit acceptance of anti-gay prejudice seems to reflect the transitional status of how gay people are currently viewed in society at large. If the KKK were a major provider of charity services, it’s likely that many people would indeed consider their white supremacist views an obstacle to supporting them. And if straight people were a disproportionate target of the Salvation Army’s efforts to mark them as legally inferior, it’s doubtful that this would be dismissed so readily. The church’s anti-gay beliefs are relevant because they are completely immaterial to the purpose of a charity. There is no reason that helping those in need must involve this kind of prejudice, and the pointless inclusion of homophobia only serves to create a totally unnecessary controversy that detracts from their goal of collecting donations and providing services.
Many have pointed out that the Salvation Army is sometimes the only charity offering critical services in a certain area, leaving them with no other alternatives to support. If so, it’s worth considering why this continues to be the case. If people keep giving to the Salvation Army, then they have no incentive to change their policies, and there’s no possibility that another provider could ever supplant them. Essentially, the reason you now have to keep supporting them is only because you’ve always chosen to keep supporting them. How about choosing not to for a change?
Finally, some people insist that withholding donations from the Salvation Army will only result in more people going hungry and homeless. Army Major George Hood has said, “If people refuse to give, it’s the poor and people in need that will suffer.” While that may be the case, this would still be an issue whether we support the Salvation Army or not. Donating to any charity comes with an opportunity cost attached, because every dollar given to a certain charity is a dollar that could have gone elsewhere, but did not. For instance, the Salvation Army’s red kettles occasionally receive gold coins valued at about $1,700. If the same amount of money was given to another charity that provides vaccines in Mozambique, it could have prevented the deaths of approximately three children. Instead, it went to the Salvation Army. If choosing to take our donations elsewhere means leaving the needy to flounder, then giving to the Salvation Army likewise means taking that money away from everyone else you could have helped. Demanding that we should only support the Salvation Army means assuming that they must do more good per dollar than literally any other charity. And that seems rather implausible.
If helping the poor is their chief concern, then they should consider the impact of their homophobic beliefs. There are many more charities that do just as much good, and they would be happy to have our support. More than that, they’re ready to treat all of us with respect.