Theocracy Watch VII: Season's Warning

With the Democratic victories in the recent midterm elections, I am hopeful that I will have to write considerably fewer Theocracy Watch posts in the near future. This is not to say that the Democrats do not also pander to religion, which they do, but only that they usually show less interest than Republicans in integrating it materially into our government. However, this does not mean that unconstitutional establishments of religion are no longer continuing, and this post will examine one of the more blatant examples.

As December and the holiday season arrive, there are some familiar sights and sounds of the season that become more and more common: the twinkling strands of light hung from the windows of homes and stores; the familiar music of Christmas carols in the air; and, I dare say, the Salvation Army volunteers on the sidewalk, ringing their bells and soliciting charitable donations for their red kettles.

Founded in England in 1865 by Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine, the Salvation Army is today the world’s largest private charitable enterprise, with an annual budget of over $3 billion and operations in dozens of countries. But familiarity can blind us to the obvious, and it is important to recognize that the Salvation Army is not a secular charity. As their name itself shows, they are first and foremost a religious organization. In their mission statement, they identify themselves as “an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church”, and state that their primary purpose – even before aiding the needy – is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Before going further, I should stress that despite their religious affiliation, the Salvation Army has done much good to help the poor and the destitute around the world. I am not objecting to that. What I do object to is the explicit religious discrimination they practice, and more, the government help they receive in doing so.

Each year, the Salvation Army receives tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, allocated by the government, to assist them in carrying out their social programs. Until recently, they used that money in a fair and secular way, without regard to religious orientation. However, that no longer appears to be the case. Several years ago, the Salvation Army suddenly began requiring its employees to fill out forms in which they list which church they are currently attending and which churches they have attended during the past ten years (“not applicable” was apparently not provided as an option), authorize their religious leaders to reveal private communications to the Salvation Army, and pledge to uphold the evangelical Christian mission of the group. Also, in 2003, the Salvation Army rescinded a policy statement which had previously guaranteed equal employment without regard to religious beliefs. Numerous employees of long standing have alleged that, because they objected to these new requirements, they were either fired or harassed until they quit.

In 2004, the ACLU filed a complaint, which has been working its way through the courts (see also here). In October 2005, a disappointing and badly reasoned decision held that the Salvation Army, despite receiving public funds, was exempt from civil rights laws that bar religious discrimination (although other aspects of the lawsuit remain in contention). I remain hopeful that this clearly erroneous decision will be appealed, though I have heard no further news as of yet. The rule is, or at least should be, simple and clear: If any private group accepts government funding, they should be required to abide by all non-discrimination and neutrality laws that pertain to government employees. Anything less is government favoritism of religion in violation of the Constitution.

There are other strikes against the Salvation Army’s hiring policy as well, such as a 2001 sub rosa agreement in which the Bush administration promised to help exempt the Salvation Army from state and local laws preventing discrimination against homosexuals, if the Army would agree to promote the Bush administration’s “faith-based” initiative in return (source). The internal Salvation Army document discussing this agreement, as reported by the Washington Post, said that the Army’s role in this deal would probably come as “a surprise” to many and urged its employees to keep the deal secret from the media.

Due to these disturbing reports, I believe that atheists should cease any and all support they may be giving to the Salvation Army. Their primary goal is not to provide assistance to the needy, but to advance a certain specific set of religious aims, and we should respond accordingly. Despite record-setting donations last year, the Army is apparently having trouble with staffing and is seeing declining membership. The possibility of a connection with its newly discriminatory hiring policies is hard to ignore.

Other posts in this series:

The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
The Rebirth of Nullification in Alabama
What’s Behind the Appeal of ISIS?
Constitutional Crisis in Alabama?
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Chris

    I’m disappointed but not surprised. Dishonesty in the service of god is apparently no more odious to some Christians than violence in the service of god – never mind those commandments, Jesus will forgive you.

    But then, I never trusted religious charities to start with. Too much religion and not enough charity is the rule, not the exception.

  • valhar2000

    There is a clear precedent to the idea of “lying for Jesus”, going all the way back to Martin Luther, and that’s just for protestantism. Lying to the faithful “for their own good” has been done ever since the first self-stiled priest realised how much power that religious mumbo-jumbo gave him over his tribe, and figured that he had a good thing going on there.

  • Infophile

    It’s not hard to predict what the Salvation Army will be doing next: Providing charity only to those who swear faith to Jesus Christ. It’s already being done by missionaries all over the world, and it’s only too likely to happen here.

  • Doug

    Bleh, I had no idea. And to think I gave them my hard earned 0.75 the other day!

    Just kidding actually, I am almost certain that that 0.75 will actually help some hungry person. Also its quite likely that had that kettle ringer not been there, that 0.75 would still be in my pocket and not helping to feed someone.

    So a dilemma: as a student I do not regularily donate much to charity, the extent being small donations such as the one I gave. Do I stop dropping money in those kettles? Do I find some local secular charity, donate $10 and be done with it (while feeling guilty everytime I walk into the grocery store?) Or should I just continue, hoping that all of my donation to that kettle actually equates food?

    In the end, I don’t imagine that I’ll stop dropping change into the kettles, though I certainly will think twice about it.

  • Bechamel

    Doug – One idea would be to set aside whatever change you’d have dropped into the kettle each time, then after noise pollution—er, bell ringing—season ends, take the money, add a little bit more (another handful of change or round up to the next dollar or five), and give it to a real charity. That way, the money will definitely be going to a good cause, and you’ll be donating more. No guilt required.

  • The Ridger

    My local grocery store runs a food for the hungry program – you just add $1, 2 or 5 to your total at the checkout, pick up a coupon, they scan it in, and voila. I’ve taken to dropping that coupon in the SA kettle to avoid disturbing the bell-ringers, who probably don’t have much to do with the Army… Heck, several years ago my mother rang for them, and she’s not in the Army at all.

    Anyway, there are usually other places to take that 75 cents, though I expect it will go to feed people. I wouldn’t feel too bad about dropping change in the kettle, though I haven’t done it since 2001; but don’t make any big donations to them. There are plenty of organizations that can make better use of your money.

  • Kate

    Thanks for this post- it’s difficult sometimes to find charities which are truly charitable and with a benign agenda. Or atleast an agenda that I’m behind.

    The Check Out Hunger program is a great one, though! Food Not Bombs is nice despite the ir sometimes-obnoxious members. And hey, if you can’t find a charity, go into a shop, buy a sandwich and hand it to the first homeless person you see.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’ve also heard good things about Second Harvest, which helps feed the hungry with surplus food from grocery stores and restaurants that’s perfectly good but would otherwise have been thrown out and wasted. In any case, there are plenty of secular alternatives to explicitly religious groups like the Salvation Army, so we atheists can know we’ve done a good deed without inadvertently advancing a religious aim we don’t support.

    For Doug, I second Bechamel’s suggestion: why not keep a jar in your house and toss your change into it each day, and at the end of the month donate that amount to charity?

  • bassmanpete

    Why not donate to an animal charity? My favourite is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Their ship, the Farley Mowat, is leaving Melbourne this week heading for Antarctica in an attempt to stop the Japanese whalers.

    Distressing as human suffering and deaths may be, on a global scale they are relatively unimportant, but when a species goes extinct, that’s it. Too many humans treat the world as if it was made just for them and that they’re somehow separate from the rest of nature. They’re not, and one day, if they don’t take more care, they’ll drive one species too many to extinction and all of us will follow. By donating to human charities you’re just compounding the problem.

    Example, the Boxing Day tsunami. Many fishing fleets were destroyed but, on the positive side, here was a chance for fish stocks in the area to recover. But what did the aid agencies do? Not only did they donate new fishing boats but they were bigger and better than the destroyed ones plus they were fitted with fish-finding equipment. They think they’re being compassionate & humane but, by putting humans ahead of every other consideration, they’re just digging a grave for all of us.

  • Jeromy

    I looked on the SA web site and found one employment opportunity. It is pasted below. There is no mention of religious requirements. I am going to stop at the Salvation Army on the way home and ask them for an application. I am going to fill it out and request part time employment.

    If one wishes to become a SOLDIER of the SA, one must be of faith. Adherents and Officers are members of the church, and one would assume that any desire to do that would involve the irrational faith.

    On the other hand, if one wishes EMPLOYMENT, faith is not mentioned (so far as I have seen.)

    An employment ad from the SA:

    Acts as the official driver to the National Commander; performs various janitorial and light maintenance duties related to the operation of the building and special events/groups; serves as the primary daily relief for the switchboard and as otherwise needed; serves as backup for the Mailroom Services Operator; assists in room setup for conferences/groups/chapel; maintains the cleanliness of various areas in the building; makes area errand runs as needed; delivers packages to the appropriate locations; responds to alarm/building intrusions after operating hours when security back up is unavailable; unloads and stores deliveries; assists kitchen staff with major clean ups; assists in providing local job-related transportation as needed; maintains outside sidewalks/entrance ways, garage, and grounds area as requested. Minimum Requirements:High school diploma or G.E.D. equivalency & up to 6 months experience preferred, a valid driver’s license with evidence of a good driving record. Must be able to satisfactorily pass the DMV clearance system.

    I will post again tomorrow or the next day and let you all know the results of my application for employment with the SA. I will make no mention of religious beliefs, or lack thereof, in my application.


  • stillwaters

    Also for Doug:
    I reiterate what others have said. I used to give to any charity, figuring it went to a good cause, regardless of religious affiliation. But I have since changed my giving habits. I absolutely refuse to give to any religious organization. I have had enough of them. If they want money, they can get it from theists, not atheists. Why should I support them when they don’t support me? I haven’t given to those red kettles for several years now, and I don’t feel a bit of guilt about it. I give only to secular charities anymore.

    There are plenty of other, secular, charities that you can give to. Ebonmuse mentioned Second Harvest. We have a member of Second Harvest here in KC, called Harvesters which is a secular food bank charity. They collect where I work, either canned goods or money. I always give them something when they are collecting – it makes me feel good, both for helping others as well as for not supporting a religious organization.

    Also, check out the Red Cross. From what I understand, they are secular as well.

  • andrea

    Oxfam is also another good and I belive, secular organization. They at least teach people how to live as well as giving them food. I give to them and to my local humane society type organizations.

  • Lynne Schultz

    I found this rather late, but in case anyone’s still paying attention…

    How about an atheist-run charity? Earthward is currently helping a family who fled their home to avoid the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. See

    Disclaimer: Yes, this is a charity I run and co-founded so I’m biased – but check us out.