The company they keep

Guess who the Salvation Army chose to give a speech at their 2012 annual luncheon? Dinesh D’Souza, a homophobic conservative commentator who blames American liberals for causing the 9/11 attacks by angering Islamic terrorists.

For the 2012 annual luncheon Salvation Army leadership tapped renowned New York Times best-selling author and filmmaker (2016: Obama’s America) Dinesh D’Souza as guest speaker. He rewarded the audience of more than 500 with a talk on the influences that Christianity has had on religions and people worldwide. His talk at the Hilton Americas-Houston received a standing ovation.

Chaired by Penny and John Butler, the luncheon, hosted by the Salvation Army Advisory Board, honored Rob Mosbacher. Proceeds from the fundraiser topped $425,000, all for Salvation Army coffers.

In his 2007 book, The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, D’Souza wrote:

I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world. The Muslims who carried out the 9/11 attacks were the product of this visceral rage—some of it based on legitimate concerns, some of it based on wrongful prejudice—but all of it fueled and encouraged by the cultural left. Thus without the cultural left, 9/11 would not have happened.

In his book The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis rehearses what he calls the “standard litany of American offenses recited in the lands of Islam” and ends with this one: “Yet the most powerful accusation of all is the degeneracy and debauchery of the American way of life.” As these observations suggest, what angers religious Muslims is not the American Constitution but the scandalous sexual mores they see on American movies and television. What disgusts them are not free elections but the sights of hundreds of homosexuals kissing each other and taking marriage vows. The person that horrifies them the most is not John Locke but Hillary Clinton. …

Thus we have the first way in which the cultural left is responsible for 9/11. The left has produced a moral shift in American society that has resulted in a deluge of gross depravity and immorality.

The homophobia in D’Souza’s book is not an isolated occurrence:

– As editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review, he outed the officers of Dartmouth’s Gay-Straight Alliance. He then accused the GSA of using the university’s money for “gay parties, gay orgies, or whatever.”

– In 2003, he offered his opinion of gay men and lesbians:

Journalist Andrew Sullivan argues that it is social ostracism that encourages the reckless promiscuity and socially destructive behavior of male homosexuals. If gays are allowed to marry like everyone else, Sullivan is confident that this outrageous element of gay culture would diminish. Sullivan’s argument can be condensed to the slogan, “Marriage civilizes men.” But Sullivan is wrong. Marriage doesn’t civilize men, women do. This point is even evident in the gay community: it helps to explain why lesbians are generally much better than male homosexuals in sustaining long-term relationships.

– And in 2008, he had this to say about same-sex marriage:

Yet if it’s discriminatory to gays to require that marriage be between a man and a woman, why isn’t it discriminatory to Mormons and Muslims to require that it remain between two people? Isn’t incestuous marriage also between “consenting adults” who have a right to equal protection of the laws? And why doesn’t the Fourteenth Amendment protect the fellow who wants to walk down the aisle with his poodle on the grounds that “I love my dog and my dog loves me”?

This is the man the Salvation Army selected to speak at their $425,000+ fundraiser. They saw no problem choosing someone who would blame our own country’s values of equality and civil rights for provoking Islamic extremists into launching the most deadly terrorist attack in our history. They chose someone who considers gay people “socially destructive” and compares our commitments to poodle marriage. He’s their man.

If the Salvation Army wants to counter their public perception as a homophobic organization, this isn’t helping.

Common objections to boycotting the Salvation Army

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.

Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

The excuses for supporting the Salvation Army, rather than one of the many non-discriminatory charities out there, are becoming progressively more flimsy. But even after I’ve addressed a number of objections to a boycott of the Salvation Army, there are still a few arguments that are very persistent. And while some of them may not actually need to be refuted, I do hope to at least disfigure them beyond recognition.

Some people have cited the Salvation Army’s near-ubiquity in providing social services, the relative accessibility of donating to them, and really just the sheer scale of their operation. But none of these constitute a reason why the Salvation Army should be considered more preferable than other charities. Even if the Salvation Army is responsible for the largest portion of charitable activities, it doesn’t mean you get more bang for the buck, so to speak, from giving to them. Your money isn’t necessarily doing more good for the dollar when it goes to the Salvation Army instead of another charity.

Besides, it’s not like charities are competing in some kind of first-past-the-post election, where whichever one provides a plurality of all charity services should receive all of the funding that would have gone to other charities. They may be the largest, but that doesn’t mean we have to support them, and it doesn’t mean the rest should be ignored. They’re only the largest because we support them, and if we stop supporting them, eventually they may not be the largest anymore.

And even if a certain charity places people practically everywhere to collect donations, that’s still not a very good reason to give to them instead of another group. Really, would you give your money to just any people who go to the trouble of putting a collection plate in front of you? Convenience alone is hardly the most relevant factor in choosing which charity you should support. And the entire purpose of drawing attention to the Salvation Army’s anti-gay beliefs is to reach people who want to make an informed decision about where their money is going and what it’s being used for.

Others claimed that the Salvation Army wouldn’t be prepared for a significant drop in donations, and that a major reallocation of funding from the Salvation Army to other charities would incur a great deal of administrative overhead that would ultimately take away from the actual charity services that they provide. But it seems obvious that an organization the size of the Salvation Army already has to be prepared to absorb shortfalls in funding that can result from a declining economy or just periodic fluctuations. This is the kind of thing they’d have to deal with regardless of whether we boycott them. Likewise, it’s not as though other charities would be completely unprepared for more donations than usual. If anything, they would almost certainly welcome this. They’re not going to be totally clueless about what to do with it all. Do you think they’ll have no choice but to spend it on Ferraris for everyone?

Perhaps the most enduring argument against a boycott is the claim that poor and homeless people would freeze to death or suffer some similar fate, and that we’re responsible for this if we choose not to give to the Salvation Army. People really love to tell me this, over and over. It’s easier to understand this argument if we split it up into two separate parts. First, there’s the attempt to persuade us with a vivid example of people dying in the streets for lack of food and shelter if we don’t support the Salvation Army. The second part, which is usually left unsaid, is the implication that we should consider this a compelling reason to keep giving to the Salvation Army. It’s important to distinguish between these two points, because I can fully acknowledge that depriving them of our money could actually mean that more homeless people will die this winter. I just don’t see why I should care. And I’ll explain why.

While the problem of poverty and homelessness is definitely something that needs to be addressed, this just isn’t a good argument for why we should give to the Salvation Army and not other charities. It relies on the kind of dramatic emotional appeal that could be made in favor of practically any cause. If this is supposed to be a valid reason to support the Salvation Army, someone else could just as easily say, “If you don’t support this charity, children in Africa are going to starve to death, slowly.” Would we then be compelled to give to that charity instead? The argument being made here is identical. Of course, someone else could then respond with another striking example of families going hungry if we don’t give to the Salvation Army, and then we’d once again have to donate to them.

So, would this ever-escalating exchange of emotional appeals force us to keep bouncing back and forth between giving to one charity, or another, or another? That seems kind of absurd, and it’s easy to realize that this isn’t a sound basis for deciding which charities we should support. And once we understand that this isn’t so persuasive after all, it’s plain to see why this argument doesn’t work for the Salvation Army either. So when someone tells me, “Homeless people are going to freeze to death and it’s your fault!”, I can feel completely confident in saying, “So?” I have nothing against the homeless, of course – just like I don’t have anything against the myriad other causes that I haven’t donated to. But in this case, the Salvation Army simply isn’t special.

What’s interesting is that even once I’ve pointed this out, people are still reluctant to choose not to give to the Salvation Army. Even when they’ve been doing essentially the same thing all along by choosing not to give to other charities, they still insist that we should support the Salvation Army only. Somehow, supporting the Salvation Army at the expense of other charities is good, but supporting other charities at the expense of the Salvation Army is bad. But there’s really no reason why the Salvation Army should be considered exceptional here, any more so than any other charities. Many of them do just as much good, usually with equal or greater efficiency.

It seems that for some people, their perspective here isn’t derived from the actual outcome of giving to one charity and not another – which is roughly equivalent – but rather based on another factor entirely. I suspect that there may be some, to use the technical term, “weird stuff” going on in their heads. Obviously, feeding a starving child in India is in no way inferior or less valid than feeding a starving child in America. People are people, and people are equal. There’s no particular reason to prefer giving to the Salvation Army versus another charity, so there’s nothing wrong with choosing a group that doesn’t endorse openly homophobic religious views. So why do people still insist on supporting the Salvation Army, even to the point of claiming that anyone who gives to another charity is basically killing the homeless?

I’m inclined to think that they consider donating to the Salvation Army to be a sort of default state, almost like something that’s been chosen for them ahead of time, and they don’t seem to act like they have as much responsibility for that. But once we make the decision to give to another charity instead, it’s like we might as well have unleashed a pack of rabid wolves on families in poverty. What’s up with that? It seems like there’s something about actually thinking about this, and then making an intentional choice, that makes people more uncomfortable with the results of this, and causes them to feel more personally and directly responsible for the ultimate outcome. Even if that outcome is effectively identical.

This is actually a well-studied phenomenon in the field of ethics. There’s a certain thought experiment known as the trolley problem which helps illuminate the differing attitudes toward making choices like this. For example, just hypothetically, would you prefer for one person to die, or five people to die? Most people would say that one person dying is preferable.

Now suppose that a train is speeding out of control, and there are five people on the track directly ahead of it who can’t get out of the way. However, there’s another track with only one person who can’t get out of the way. You have the opportunity to pull a switch that will divert the train onto the other track, killing one person but saving the other five. Should you pull the switch? In this situation, not as many people are willing to choose for one person to die rather than five, when they’re the one who’s actually pulling the switch.

For another scenario, suppose you’re standing on a bridge above an oncoming train that’s about to run into five people. There’s also a very large man next to you, large enough that if you push him off the bridge, his body will stop the train and save the other five people. Should you push him off the bridge? In this case, even more people refuse to do it, regardless of the fact that it would have the same result: one person dies instead of five.

Overall, the trolley problem isn’t really about figuring out what the right choice is, so much as it’s meant to demonstrate the interesting variations in people’s decisions under different circumstances. It seems that people aren’t as concerned about the actual results of their actions as they are with their perceived degree of personal involvement: from making an abstract choice, to pulling an actual switch to kill a person, to actively pushing someone in front of a train. Even when the outcome of taking action would be objectively better, many people still don’t want to have anything to do with this.

And something similar seems to be going on here. For some people, continuing to give to the Salvation Army like they always have is viewed as the equivalent of just not touching the switch. They see it as something that was already going to happen, and they don’t want to make an active choice to change this. But when we do consciously decide not to donate to the Salvation Army, they see us as becoming more personally involved, like throwing someone in front of an oncoming train. And that’s when they tell us that we’re effectively leaving homeless people out in the cold because we chose another charity instead. All of a sudden, we somehow become morally culpable in a way that they seem to think they aren’t.

What they’ve failed to realize is that they’re already just as involved as we are. They flipped that switch when they decided to let children around the world die for lack of food or clean water or medical care, so they could give to the Salvation Army instead. Yet this doesn’t seem to bother them. So how can they expect us to be persuaded by the same argument that they themselves don’t find convincing? They’ve made practically the same choice already. Why is it okay for them, but not for us?

Again, the Salvation Army is not special. There’s no reason to think that they’re the best charity out there or the only good option, and as I’ve explained, there are actually plenty of reasons not to give to them. And we don’t have to feel bad about supporting other charities instead. Someone’s probably going to die no matter what. But someone is going to be cared for, too. So don’t be afraid. Pull the switch.

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)