The Salvation Army and “the most good”

In the brief time since I proposed a boycott of the Salvation Army for their anti-gay policies, I’ve received quite a wide variety of responses. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who weren’t aware of this, and many of them have decided not to give to the Salvation Army for this reason. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for – and I hope even more people will learn about this, too. At the same time, there are a significant number of people who defended the Salvation Army, and for one reason or another, don’t see this as a sufficient cause to boycott them.

In particular, it was striking to see how many people are willing to ignore their policy of official homophobia, and don’t consider this a dealbreaker in terms of giving them money. And I have to wonder if people would be so forgiving of an openly racist or anti-semitic organization. If they knew that a certain group had an official position stating that the white race is inherently superior, or Jews are just “imperfect Christians”, would they still go right ahead and keep supporting them? Would that not make them stop and think that maybe they shouldn’t involve themselves with such a group? It’s interesting that they’re apparently much more tolerant of discrimination against gay people – like this just doesn’t matter to them. It really does seem to be one of the last acceptable prejudices.

Of course, some people have tried to turn this around and claim that we must be discriminating against the Salvation Army, and that not supporting them because of their anti-gay beliefs is somehow a kind of bigotry all its own. It’s rather amusing that anyone would even attempt such a ridiculous argument. It’s quite obvious that standing against bigotry, and taking action to discourage it, is not itself bigotry at all. Indeed, this stands in direct opposition to bigotry. It’s kind of like saying that if you oppose racism, you must be “bigoted against racists”. (Or racist against bigots.) The real bigotry at work here is the passive bigotry of those who would allow such discriminatory attitudes to proliferate unchecked, without ever lifting a finger to stop them. Arguably, choosing to let bigotry proceed without interference can mean being complicit in it yourself. But actively opposing it is most certainly not just another kind of bigotry.

Other people have attempted to minimize this issue by saying that the Salvation Army doesn’t have a problem with gay people, only with the act of gay sex. But I don’t see how that’s supposed to be any better. There’s still no legitimate reason to be against gay sex, just like there’s no reason to object to being gay in and of itself, either. Besides, who do they think is having all the gay sex, anyway? Even if this is what they believe, it doesn’t make their anti-gay policies any more acceptable. Really, is it supposed to be a good thing that they expect people to never have a loving, intimate relationship with another person, for no good reason at all? I don’t see how. A position like that is still just as deserving of a boycott.

Meanwhile, some people have accused us of depriving the poor and the homeless of food and shelter by not giving to the Salvation Army. Obviously, this is not our intention whatsoever. If people do withhold their support from the Salvation Army, I certainly hope they’ll give to another charity instead. We don’t want to undermine services for those in need. But we also don’t want to fund a group like the Salvation Army. And if not giving to the Salvation Army means we’re letting the poor go hungry, you could just as well say that supporting the Salvation Army means letting children in Haiti die of cholera.

I would have to ask why people aren’t willing to hold the Salvation Army itself accountable for attaching completely irrelevant homophobic policies to an otherwise very helpful operation. Where is their responsibility for driving people away from a worthwhile cause with needless bigotry? It’s rather unreasonable to demand that people support your openly anti-gay organization under the implied threat that you’ll have to throw poor people out on the street. That’s just repulsive, and it really amounts to a kind of blackmail. In boycotting them, we’re simply refusing to take the bait. So yes, we do want to make an impact on the Salvation Army itself. By making our support for them contingent upon whether they withdraw their anti-gay policies, they now have an incentive to do so. If we gave them our money regardless of what their policies were, they would never have any reason to change. And that’s kind of the point of a boycott.

Others have said that the Salvation Army are the only ones providing vital services in some areas, and so there is no option but to support them. But clearly, there is another option, and this is really a self-reinforcing argument whose validity relies upon its own application. Of course there won’t be any other groups providing these services, if everyone always donates to the Salvation Army. That’s never going to change if you keep giving them your money – nobody else could ever get off the ground! If this is the reason you have to keep giving to the Salvation Army, it’s only a reason because you keep giving to the Salvation Army.

Most significantly, nearly all of the objections to a boycott shared one common thread: that regardless of their anti-gay policies, the Salvation Army does a lot of good. The implication seems to be that this makes their homophobia more acceptable – as if that somehow makes up for it. It’s surprising how many people think that this is what charity is about.

Certainly we’re all familiar with the concept of penance, even in a secular context: when we’ve done something wrong, we try to make up for it. But what happens if you reverse this? Can you do something good in advance, so as to earn a certain amount of “moral currency” you can spend to permit yourself to do something bad? Not really. The entire point of making up for something bad is that you recognize that you were wrong to do it, you try to make things right, and hopefully you’ll avoid doing that again. But there is no recognition of this wrongdoing, or intention of avoiding it in the future, when you continually use your good deeds to grant yourself a perpetual license to do harm. This seems rather inconsistent with the purpose of a charity.

Even the Salvation Army’s own motto is: “Doing the most good.” And that’s a goal I would completely agree with. But many people, perhaps even the Salvation Army themselves, apparently have a concept of what “doing good” means that is completely at odds with this. Quite simply, they don’t seem to actually care about doing the most good – emphasis on the “most”. Instead, they’re only concerned with maintaining a moral surplus of sorts, and staying out of the red. As long as they do enough good to break even and stay in the black, then they can squander as much of that goodwill as they want on doing bad things.

But this is obviously self-defeating. Why go to the trouble of doing so much good if you’re just going to detract from it by doing harm? That’s not “doing the most good” – it’s only “doing mostly good”. You aren’t maximizing the good you do, you’re just staying out of debt. That’s not what a charity is for. If they truly want to do the most good, then they can do more good by doing less harm. And really, if this is supposed to be an excuse, then just how much does it excuse? How much harm would you allow them to do before you would no longer support them? And, once they’ve reached that point, how much more good would they have to do before you would support them again? This is certainly worth considering when your idea of morality is nothing but a balanced budget.

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who watched the video and decided to join the cause. I hope you’ll share it with people so more of them will know about this, and we might just make a difference here.

(crossposted from YouTube)