A man cannot serve two masters according to the bible. This is largely true – there will always come a time when the two come into conflict. In the case of Christian charity there are normally two goals, with one of them being to evangelise and win converts. In cases such as CAFOD (and its parent organisation Caritas International) charity very firmly wins to the point that the head of Caritas called the Vatican a ‘particular brand’ of being Catholic. Which means that despite both being an atheist and having a particular dislike for the Roman Catholic Church I would (and indeed have) given money to CAFOD. It is a charity that has the primary goal of helping people and just happens to be organised by the Roman Catholic Church (and not always as closely as they would like).
How does the Salvation Army fit into this? They do a lot of work that looks charitable including charity shops and providing food. But are they genuinely charitable, or do they provide food and shelter because it is a good way of getting people through the door so they can evangelise?
We can look at the historical record. In 1903 Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss – a first hand account of the experiences of the poor in London, and Chapter 11 deals with the Salvation Army. In chapter 11, Jack and others go to the Salvation Army for shelter and a meal. In exchange for this they literally get locked in and preached at for the entire morning, making it impossible for the poor who accept the help of the Salvation Army to find work for that day – making poverty impossible to escape. Following in his footsteps thirty years later, George Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London and came to visit the Salvation Army himself and Chapter 29 has the details. He wasn’t quite as scathing as Jack London but was certainly unimpressed.
So the historical record for the Salvation Army is not good. Especially not in Jack London’s account where they clearly and definitively forced people to listen to their sermons thus making it impossible for them to look for work. (In Orwell’s they just charged the poor for things donated to the Salvation Army…)
What about the present day? Are they a charity before they are a church? Because they are definitely a Church, right down to some fundamentalist Articles of Faith. There’s a simple way of testing. Do they put judgement first or do they always try to help regardless of who is requesting the help. Jack London was clear, but a lot has moved on in the last hundred and ten years.
So how do the Salvation Army treat people they dislike who turn up asking for help? The main group of people they dislike for who they are rather than what they do (the Salvation Army is both tea total and anti-gambling) are gay people and transsexuals.
Do they insist gay couples break up before offering help? Do they throw transsexuals out onto the street to die? Do they threaten to stop operating in cities because of equal rights legislation? Do they launch political campaigns in multiple countries to oppose equal rights legislation? Has a spokesman recently said gay people deserve death?
The answer to all the above is yes (as if the collection of links wasn’t a clue) – and the last point is a great place for charitable donations to end up.
The bottom line is that the Salvation Army is a Church and not a Charity. Give to the Salvation Army in the way you would to any other mission of a church you do not belong to.
I personally won’t give to the Salvation Army because of homophobia and transphobia as documented above, and do give money to Shelter. That said, other than on matters of sexuality the Salvation Army is generally a good thing, and I wish that other Conservative churches were as keen on helping the poor as they are.