Published on November 28th, 2012 | by Daniel Siksay0
Holiday homophobia: charting the Salvation Army’s history of anti-LGBTQ politics
Friendly greeters toting festive red buckets are a common, almost integral part of the holiday shopping experience. Outside of the grocery and liquor store, outside of department stores at the mall, these cheerful individuals ask for small donations for about two months surrounding the holiday season. They’re from the Salvation Army (instantly recognizable by the red bucket and shield-like logo), and Christmas is the biggest time of the year for donations.
It’s all too easy, in the rush of holiday panic and excitement, to drop a dollar or two into the bucket and feel good about having supported a cause greater than the cheer of giving gifts to family and friends. And to be sure, the Salvation Army has a lot going for it; they’re behind soup kitchens, outreach programs, anti-violence and anti-drug programs, community shelters and awareness projects in over 150 countries worldwide. They are, by most standards, a very good charity.
The international charity has a dark side, though, one pock-marked by the bite of discriminatory policies and political reactivity — it consists in the organization’s officially-stated and religiously-motivated discrimination against LGBTQ-identified individuals. Here’s a brief timeline of some of the controversies the Salvation Army has cooked up for itself over the past few years:
- In 2001, the Bush administration was implicated in a small scandal, after an internal memo revealed that it was being pressured by the Salvation Army to deny funding to state and municipal governments if they imposed restrictions on religious organizations. Specifically, states and municipalities would not receive money from the $24 billion “faith-based initiative” fund if they prevented churches from discriminating against LGBTQ-identified individuals. Matt Coles, LGBTQ-rights representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, stated about the political pressure, “what this is really about is the Salvation Army trying to get a license to discriminate using public money.”
- After notable public backlash, the White House press secretary at the time issued a statement, stating that “the White House will not pursue the [Office of Management and Budget] regulation proposed by the Salvation Army.” The Salvation Army’s pressure was widely reported as “federal regulation sought by the church to protect the right of taxpayer-funded religious organizations to discriminate against homosexuals.”
- Later in 2001, it looked like progress might be on the horizon, when a division of the Salvation Army in the USA approved a plan to offer domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples, extending the same benefits opposite-sex couples already enjoyed. But after pressure from other (and conservative) religious organizations like Focus on the Family, and the American Family Association, the national legislative body of the church rescinded the decision, and declared once again that same-sex domestic partnership would not receive benefits akin to their opposite-sex co-workers.
- In 2004, when New York City threatened to enforce new ordinance declaring that charitable organizations must provide benefits to LGBTQ-identified employees’ partners, the Salvation Army threatened to pull out of the city entirely. Mayor Bloomberg conveniently ignored the ordinance (which, to be fair, he had also opposed) to appease the charity, and Salvation Army operations continued in NYC.
- Over the years, several LGBTQ-identified individuals have written about their experiences being denied access to Salvation Army-run shelters on the basis of their sexual orientation. One of these individuals is Bil Browning, who wrote in late 2011 about his experiences with the Salvation Army in an opinion piece featured by the New York Times.
- In mid 2012, a media relations officer in the Australian branch of the church was interviewed by a local LGBTQ-friendly radio station. During the interview, the representative was asked to clarify the church’s position on LGBTQ-identified individuals. He claimed that such individuals “deserve to die… we have an alignment to the Scriptures, but that’s our belief.”
- In response to the scandal generated by the incident, the Salvation Army issued an apology, and articulated a stance that promised to help members of the LGBTQ community.
In many ways, the Salvation Army as an organization appears to be at odds with itself, as conservative and more politically-reactive parts of the charity have held back genuinely helpful reforms in favour of prejudice and discrimination. Unfortunately, the church’s official policies on issues like LGBTQ sexuality and marriage equality have remained on the discriminatory side of things.
Though many of the Salvation Army’s official policies were pulled from online materials after the Australian radio incident, The New York Times reports that their website hosted the following statement about LGBTQ sexuality: “The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself. Homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, requires individual responsibility and must be guided by the light of scriptural teaching. Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life.”
Currently, for example, the Salvation Army India’s web section on homosexuality states that merely that it is “under review.” Other statements about LGBTQ-related issues have received similar treatments, or have been removed entirely. While not necessarily promising, at least this trend isn’t explicitly discriminatory. On the other hand, most Salvation Army websites still take a strong anti-marriage-equality stand, stating that marriage is defined by the church as “the voluntary and loving union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.”
Some position statements from some areas are better than others. The Salvation Army in Canada has dropped much of the derogatory language, but still asserts that “living fully in accordance with biblical standards calls for chastity outside of heterosexual marriage and faithfulness within it.” While not as explicit, that’s still a pretty loaded statement. All the same, it beats “scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex.”
In 2012, when asked to clarify the church’s stance on LGBTQ sexuality and the possibility of membership in the church, Australian Salvation Army spokesperson Bruce Harmon replied with text from the organization’s position statement on the issue. The statement says that “homosexual practice… is, in the light of Scripture, clearly unacceptable. Such activity is chosen behaviour and is thus a matter of the will. It is therefore able to be directed or restrained in the same way heterosexual urges are controlled. Homosexual practice would render any person ineligible for full membership (soldiership) in the Army.”
Clearly, these are some backwards and reactive views on LGBTQ sexuality. While the church has recently seemed to be pulling back and/or “softening” many of their previous negative statements about LGBTQ-identified individuals, lack of comment and political niceties are not enough in the face of their obviously troubled and discriminatory history. Until the church explicitly reverses its positions and comes out in support of LGBTQ individuals internationally, the charity will be unable to fulfil its mission of “meet[ing] human needs in [God's] name without discrimination.” For my part, I won’t be tossing any spare change into those red buckets any time soon. My money will be going to charities and organizations whose claims to anti-marginalization and anti-oppression I can take seriously.
Sources and further reading: Wikipedia entry for The Salvation Army | Gay News Network Australia on the Salvation Army’s clarification of LGBTQ policies | ABC News article on the White House / Salvation Army funding scandal | Huffington Post article on LGBTQ activists’ critiques of Salvation Army holiday campaigns | The Week’s timeline of discriminatory events in the church’s history | Salvation Army India’s positional statements page | Bil Browning’s opinion piece in The New York Times | Salvation Army UK’s (much improved, but still lacking) statement on LGBTQ issues | A PDF file of Salvation Army Canada’s position statements, including their statement on LGBTQ issues
Image courtesy of ckaiserca.