Salvation Army bell ringers, the folks you see jingling bells by red kettles at Christmastime, will be carrying a new prop this year: A card explaining the Christian church and charity’s approach to LGBTQ people.
Designed to help bell ringers answer questions from passersby, the cards include a link to online testimonials from LGBTQ people helped by the Salvation Army’s array of social services, from homeless shelters to rehab clinics and food pantries.
“For years, Facebook posts, forwarded emails and rumors have been leading some people to believe the Salvation Army does not serve members of the LGBTQ community,” the cards read. “These accusations are simply not true.”
To many Americans, the Army’s social services may be far more familiar than its politics or theology. Ranked number two in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of “America’s Favorite Charities,” it raised $1.5 billion in donations last year. The Red Kettle campaign began 129 years ago, when a Salvationist put out a pot for the needy on Market Street in San Francisco.
But to some in the LGBTQ community, the Salvation Army has another reputation. For decades, they’ve accused Salvationsts of denying some services to same-sex couples, advocating against gay rights and adhering to a traditional theology that considers gay sex sinful. At times, LGBTQ activists have dropped fake dollar bills or vouchers protesting the Salvation Army in the red kettles.
“The Salvation Army has been advertising that it will help LGBTQ people in need, which is a good step, but it can’t be the only step,” said Ross Murray a director of education and training at GLAAD.
“The Salvation Army’s anti-LGBTQ history was multi-faceted. And its path to LGBTQ acceptance is also going to have to be multi-faceted.”
In the past, Salvation Army leaders have sought exemptions from federal and state anti-discrimination laws designed to protect LGBTQ people. They have also joined other conservative religious groups in opposing same-sex marriage.
Criticism of the army among LGBTQ supporters peaked in 2012 when a church leader told an Australia radio program that gay people should be put to death. (The organization apologized and said the leader had not accurately conveyed its views on homosexuality.)
But Salvation Army leaders say the group no longer lobbies or signs public letters pushing for specific policies, with the exception of tax laws. Some are frustrated their anti-gay reputation still sticks.
“It’s the conversation that never seems to go away,” Commissioner David Hudson, the Salvation Army’s National Commander in the United States, told CNN in an interview.
“My frustration is that someone picks something out of a Twitter feed or reads an old article and doesn’t take the time to visit us.”
Last month, British singer Ellie Goulding threatened to cancel a gig at a Red Kettle Campaign event in Texas because she believed the Salvation Army to be anti-LGBTQ. Goulding later changed her mind and performed. Earlier this month Out magazine knocked Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, for participating in Salvation Army events as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Chick-fil-A pulls its support
Attacks from gay rights groups are one thing. But many conservative Christians, and the Salvation Army itself seemed perplexed when the Christian-owned fast food franchise Chick-fil-A announced it would stop donating to the Salvation Army and another Christian organization.
In a statement, Chick-fil-A didn’t explain the change but said it would focus on donating to charities involved in education, hunger and homelessness. Critics of Chick-fil-A’s move noted the Salvation Army has focused on hunger and homelessness for more than 150 years.
A Chick-fil-A spokeswoman declined to answer questions from CNN.
Conservative Christians, who had lauded Chick-fil-A’s founder for vocally supporting traditional Christian values even as it became the country’s third-largest fast food franchise, turned on the company.
Some treated its jilting of the Salvation Army as a surrender in the culture wars – or worse, a betrayal.
“For a lot of us, Chick-fil-A’s quiet, cheerful resistance was a model of how to hold on to your Christian values, in spite of progressive spite, and still succeed,” wrote Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor for the American Conservative.
Other conservative Christians were more circumspect, noting that Chick-fil-A never explained why it was no longer donating to the Salvation Army.
In the battle over same-sex marriage, some pro-LGBTQ activists have said Christians would be more appreciated if they foreswore politics and focused on helping the poor.
But that doesn’t seem to be true in the Salvation Army’s case, said Ed Stetzer, Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois.
“The Salvation Army is in fact more known for helping the poor than for being a church,” he said. “And these are the bad guys? Who are they going to go after next, Mother Teresa?”
Some want a truce. Others are wary
Still, there some indications that relations are thawing between the Salvation Army and some LGBTQ leaders.
Nine years ago, the Bay Area Reporter, the “newspaper of record” for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, published an editorial urging readers not to drop a dime into the Salvation Army’s red kettles.
This year, the newspaper published a largely positive piece about the Army’s work, including quotes from LGBTQ people who said the Christian charity had “saved my life.”
“I do not, as a gay man, love its positions on same-sex marriage,” San Francisco District Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the Bay Area Reporter, “but the reality is the Salvation Army is one of the most important providers of substance use treatment and shelter to homeless folks in San Francisco. Many, many queer people have turned their lives around with the help of the Salvation Army.”
Like a lot of Christian organizations, the Salvation Army’s policies and positions on homosexuality are multi-layered. Salvationists’ 3,480 ordained clergy – known in the church’s quasi-military structure as “officers” – are expected to be married to a member of the opposite sex or remain celibate.
But the rest of the Salvation Army’s nearly 60,000 employees, members and volunteers do not have to abide by that prohibition. Hudson said he knows a number of Salvation Army employees who are in same-sex marriages.
“When I hear people say that we need to change this or that, I think: We are who we are,” said Hudson. “We will always serve anyone and everyone. If they agree or disagree with us, we still serve them.”
Some LGBTQ Christians have urged gay-rights activists to declare a truce with the Salvation Army.
“The gay left hates and wants to persecute orthodox Christians, however much good they do,” the conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan tweeted after Out magazine slammed Buttigieg for working with the Salvation Army. “And they’ve taken over the movement.”
But others insist they remain leery of the Salvation Army. As recently as 2017, some noted, New York’s Commission on Human Rights charged a Salvation Army drug rehab center with gender identity discrimination for “refusing to accept transgender patients and for discriminatory housing policies.”
“I think LGBTQ people are still wary,” said Murray of GLAAD. “And they realize there are other charity organizations that meet the same need (and) which can also use their donations.”
In other words, the Salvation Army bell ringers may need more than a card to turn public opinion around.