Acton Commentary

Soup, Soap, and Salvation: 125 Years of The Salvation Army in the U.S.


Tomorrow, March 10, 2005, marks the 125th anniversary of the Salvation Army's foray into work in the United States. Given the Army's key historical role in relieving poverty and suffering, current litigation against the Army's New York post raises questions about the nature of 21st century American charity.

Founded by William Booth in London in 1865 and exported by Commissioner George Scott Railton and his seven “Hallelujah Lassies” to the U.S. this week in 1880, The Salvation Army has been called “the most effective charity in the United States.” In the opinion of famed management guru Peter Drucker, “No one even comes close to it with the respect to clarity of mission, ability to innovate, measurable results, dedication and putting money to maximum use.”

A recent Army press release reports that under the command of Captains Billy and Annalise Francis, today's New York Temple Corps is a thriving center of religious and social service and part of The Salvation Army's Great New York Division.

Despite such accolades, the Army's significant business relationship with public agencies and their ability to do social service independent of religious foundation is the challenge of a current New York religious rights lawsuit. Brought by veteran Army social workers whose personal faith--or lack thereof--has been a non-issue for twenty -odd years, the complaint focuses on new Army policies requiring compatible religious beliefs among its employees.

Although the religious hiring rights issue is an important one, it will be ably addressed by conservative legal experts, accustomed to battling in the justice system on such counts.

However, for the millions of Salvation Army “kettle contributors,” there is a more important debate. Has a stalwart American symbol of compassionate care for the poor become merely another social service vendor? Have the millions in public contracts so distorted the founding mission of “soup, soap, and salvation” that even the 84% flow through to services is more a statement about good management practices than a manifestation of passion to see peoples' lives changed?

There is no disputing the value of services that meet people's physical needs. But recognition of the dignity of the person requires that moral and spiritual needs also be addressed. In fact, long-term solutions to material deprivation will most effectively be found through approaches that recognize and foster non-material qualities such as responsibility and creativity. A religious organization such as the Salvation Army can serve a dimension of human need that other organizations cannot. It would be a shame if such an integral part of its historical mission were neglected.

But that is the danger that arrangements such as one pending in Hawaii highlight. Building on a $1.5 billion gift to The Salvation Army from the late Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's Corporation founder Ray Kroc, the stakeholders in the project include state government administrators, legislators, the mayor as well as the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), working with Kamehameha Schools and other Hawaiian agencies and Leeward Coast communities.

Components of the East Kapolei Kroc Center include a social service center (food pantry, rent and utility assistance, life skills training, extensive referral program and case management), separate affordable children's day care and senior day facilities, a creative learning center (computer labs, tutoring classes, charter school facilities and virtual library), outdoor recreation, a family enhancement center, indoor recreation (gymnasium, aquatic center, fitness center, ropes course and multipurpose area), and a performing arts center for theatre, dance and music.

The list of planned services is extensive, but attention to spiritual needs is not among them.

The Salvation Army's Hawaiian & Pacific Islands Division grant application offers the stakeholders a lot. But should this Army post be concerned that public partners, by definition, are concerned about soup and soap, but not with the third dimension of the Army's founding mission?

Why public agencies want to partner with The Salvation Army is obvious. Their efficiency and reputation are stellar, and they bring the possibility of significant private funding.

The New York and Hawaii cases show that the Army is pulled in various directions. The New York conflict is a sign that it remains serious about its religious mission; the Hawaii project evinces a focus on secular social services.

The Salvation Army's anniversary celebration should reinforce its founding ideals. It should be about 125 years of needy people seen as created in the image of God, deserving of both immediate care and the holistic charity that characterized William Booth's vision. Booth branded his charity work The Salvation Army because that was what made his charity work.