Pseudo-Charity

Alon Levy's picture

Excuse the unbloglike citing of a 5-year-old article, but I think nobody should forget that the Salvation Army worked in tandem with the Bush administration to discriminate against gays. It appears that to Salvation Army, just like to many other religious charities, it's not first of all about helping the poor, but about turning society into a theocratic one in which the poor have no options but religious charity.

The Salvation Army, a Christian social services organization with an extensive network of facilities to feed, clothe and shelter the poor, would not be affected much in the short term by the president's proposal on faith-based services. It already receives nearly $300 million a year in government money. But the report indicates the administration is eager to use the Salvation Army's clout to pass the legislation, offering the charity something it wants in return.

The Salvation Army projects spending $88,000 to $110,000 a month in its endeavor to boost Bush's charitable choice effort. It has hired lobbying and strategy concerns to help.

Of course, despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying, the Salvation Army kept its tax-exempt status. Liberal organizations need to keep their funds in two separate, nonfungible accounts - one for outreach and education purposes, and one for lobbying; religious ones that use charity as a hammer to hit gays with have no such restriction.

In the grand conservative scheme of things, it makes a lot of sense. Despite popular liberal belief, conservatives have no interest in keeping poor people in wretched poverty and despair. People in wretched poverty and despair tend to rebel, or spontaneously unionize, or demand bread. Charity is a good way to deflect that: it keeps the poor content, doesn't require the upper classes to pay taxes, and, in its religious form, helps shove religion down the lower classes' throats.

Ultimately, religious charities are like drugs. First the dealers dispense free samples, like food and clothes. Then they ensure the users are addicted to something that they can't get without paying the dealers; in this case, they tend to require that homeless people say a prayer before being allowed to stay at the shelters, or run charity schools that teach nothing but religion and obedience. Now the government lets religious groups turn charity from an act of helping the poor into an act of spiritually drugging them.

Economic conservatives love to hammer about how welfare is tyrannical because it makes the poor dependent on the state. In fact, the opposite is true: charity makes the poor dependent on the organization's goodwill, whereas government help frees them from such control, and often helps them help themselves by finding them jobs.

Religious charity comes off as being an instrument of control masquerading as goodwill; if the Salvation Army had helping the poor as its first priority, it certainly wouldn't threaten to stop operating soup kitchens and shelters activities in New York state if it required it to stop discriminating against gays (see link).

Religion has no monopoly on morality, on helping the poor, or on charity. Religious charities are more ubiquitous than nonreligious ones largely because religious people like to flaunt their compassion rather than because they're inherently more compassionate. The thing religion does have a monopoly on is using charity as a cultural hatchet and the poor as hostages to favorable social policy.

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Chris's picture

Coercive religious charities

Thank you Alon for your reply to my comment. Grumpy Gourmet's comment provides an interesting counterpoint to Brent's follow-up post. These represent instances but is there a public repository of documented cases of this happening?

I ask not because I doubt that this occurs - I'm sure it does. My concern is from the standpoint of someone who may want to write a letter to the editor or to a congresscritter regarding public funding of faith-based charities. Relating personal anecdotes, especially ones as dramatic as Brent's can serve to illustrate a problem. But a formal study documenting wide-spread coersion by religious charities would make a much stronger argument. Are such data available? Is there at least a collection of anecdotes to which one could refer? Such information would go a long way to counter claims by the religious that faith-based charities don't routinely prostelytize.

Grumpy Gourmet's picture

Liberal who Volunteers for the Salvation Army

I am more than uncomfortable with the statement about 'prayer before help'. I am an agnostic, who doesn't practice any religion, who has a firm background in neo-marxist ideology and who recognizes that charity is a bad alternative to real social change. I'll work for that social change, but in the meantime, I'd prefer not to abandon the poor who need help now. I've worked with the Army for almost a decade in my local community - I've run the food pantry, worked in the community kitchen, helped in the after school program and staffed the holiday food and gift effort. I can assure you that we don't require prayer or that clients join the local Army church. I don't know and don't care what the religious affiliation is of people who come to the pantry for groceries, nor is it part of the application process. Most of the families that are helped at the holidays are newly arrived immigrants from Central America who attend the Catholic churches in town. It's always tempting to make assumptions about what is happening inside an organization that you are observing from the outside - but if you are going to rant, please make sure that your rants are justified.
As to your second issue of lobbying, this came up originally about three years ago and forced me to tell the local captains that I would have to stop my support if the Army continued to lobby for the right to exclude gays and lesbians from being hired by the church. After a week or so of very bad publicity, the Army stopped that effort. I've heard nothing about it since. I will pursue it and re-post as soon as I know what the status is.
All this being said - if I could find a secular group that provided services to the poor as efficiently and effectively as this religious organization does, I would sign up in a heartbeat. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be an alternative...

Alon Levy's picture

Two things

First, there are plenty of secular charities. They don't advertise themselves as secular for the same reason they don't advertise themselves as non-communist, but it doesn't mean they're nonexistent. For example, there are Goodwill, the Red Cross, and Oxfam.

Second, Salvation Army did apparently continue to lobby, as evidenced by the two unrelated events of threatening to close shop in New York and lobbying the Bush administration to let them discriminate against gays.

chris's picture

Drug-pusher analogy

Then they ensure the users are addicted to something that they can't get without paying the dealers; in this case, they tend to require that homeless people say a prayer before being allowed to stay at the shelters,...

While I agree with most of the post, and the general analogy of religion as a harmful addiction, this passage concerns me. Is there any evidence that any church-sponsered shelters "require" prayer from their clients? Or do they merely gather people around the table and say "let us pray" and their clients just go along with it? It seems to me that just providing food and shelter is sufficient to encourage a down-and-out person to pray even if that person were otherwise not inclined to do so, much the way Hammas and Hezbolah maintain their revenue streams and popularity despite being a collection of insane, monstrous thugs.

Alon Levy's picture

I don't have a link...

...but yes, there are cases of American religious charities requiring homeless people to say a prayer before they give them a meal or let them stay overnight.

However, even sitting people around a table and saying "Let us pray" causes an immense amount of groupthink. Often religious pseudo-charities don't need to force people to be religious; the effect of being in a milieu where everyone else is overtly religious is enough. Anecdotally I know how Israel's ultra-orthodox schools work: they focus more on obedience and discipline and let groupthink and ignorance get semi-religious kids, who attend because the schools are cheap and tout themselves as violence-free, to become ultra-orthodox.

The reasons I didn't mention the charity works of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad are mostly lack of space and a slightly different pattern of behavior. In particular, Islamist welfare is a lot more overtly fundamentalist than Western Dominionist welfare (but less than third-world Christian missionary welfare); in addition, whereas in the West there are tons of secular charities plus welfare, in the Islamic world there aren't.

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