Losing Their Religion?

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

During the dark days of the 1897 Depression, the Salvation Army opened a woman’ s shelter in New York City that welcomed anyone who needed a bed. A few months later, a men’ s shelter was set up nearby, and Army leaders announced plans for housing the needy nationwide. The Army required a minimal fee or a few hours work from those who had no money; and they encouraged “guests” to attend the nightly worship service.

More than 100 years later, the Army still believes in the “faith factor,” that ineffable and indeterminate aspect of providing services that rehabilitates lives from the inside out. So does the federal government, which in recent years has supplied 15%-more than $250 million-of the Army’ s annual budget, despite the fact that the Army is already the biggest charitable fundraiser in the U.S.

Yet the different ways in which Salvationists run social service programs, depending on whether or not they receive government funds, suggests just how elusive the faith factor can be. That’ s why a quick review of the Salvationist odyssey from ragtag evangelical mission to respectable social service provider is useful in light of the newly launched White House office of faith-based and community initiatives. What may be gained, what might be lost, and will the faith factor remain as mysterious as ever?

In 1865, The Christian Mission began an evangelical outreach in the London slums. Thirteen years later, William Booth, the group’ s founder, changed its name to the Salvation Army, adopting both martial language and a military structure. Members were called soldiers, clergy were officers, and churches became corps. A religious crusade to save the unchurched, the Army drew on popular culture to attract the masses, using sensational tactics-including brass bands, women preachers, and raucous parades-as bait. In 1880, Booth sent his first official missionaries to the New World. Disembarking at Castle Garden, the immigrant absorption center in lower Manhattan, the eight-member landing party dropped to the ground and claimed America for God.

The Army was as controversial in America as it was in Great Britain. Its rigorous faith and commitment to service attracted young people hungry for meaning. Officers worked full-time, starting corps, leading revivals, and seeking out sinners. While the Army was, first and foremost, an evangelical mission, its leaders soon realized the difficulty of reaching people whose desperate physical needs prevented them from hearing a spiritual message. In his 1890 opus, In Darkest England and the Way Out, William Booth proposed a scheme for “social salvation” to complement religious outreach. American Salvationists, already moving in this direction, set up a national network of shelters, soup kitchens, and “rescue homes” for fallen women.

The Army’s social program had detractors both inside and outside the movement. Some Salvationists felt it distracted from their evangelical task, others argued it was a tacit admission that their soul saving had failed. Outsiders said the Army lacked expertise in service delivery and charged leaders with re-directing fundsraised for social work into evangelism. Not surprisingly, Salvationists were conscious of the need to appear “religious” as opposed to “evangelical” when soliciting from donors who might not share their faith commitments. Nevertheless, many Americans still saw them as a rough-and-tumble missionary band that raised money by banging tambourines on busy street corners.

World War I changed all that. Salvationist “Sallies” sent to war-ravaged France provided American soldiers with a taste of home by baking, sewing and “mothering” the troops. While they also they led worship, the women’s greatest ministry was day-to-day service. As one correspondent wrote, “They let the work of their hands do most of the preaching.” When the war ended, the Sallies’ widespread popularity translated into full coffers for Salvation Army programs. Pressed into service by community leaders, Salvationist officials did not see their newfound status as a threat to mission. Rather, as the movement’ s social service journal noted, anyone “who would understand the Salvation Army must first realize that its uncompromising aim is the salvation of souls.”

But how uncompromising were the Army’s programs? When Salvationists set up a “non-sectarian” breakfast program for New York school children, what did that mean to missionaries in the early years of the 20th century? How much religion went into service delivery was, most likely, a matter of balance and efficacy: the context shaped by community mores. The community was key because, until the latter part of the Depression, almost all Army funds were raised privately — from individual contributors and local Community Chest drives.

When the federal government began providing relief during the 1930s, it frequently joined forces with the Army (which cared for 20% of the homeless and transient population during the Depression). And, during the postwar boom, private funders — grateful for the Army’s help in the Depression and its work with the USO — gave even more generously. Social programs that languished during the lean years of World War II were re-established and new ones started up. The increase in funds, combined with a growing sense of professionalization, had a profound impact on the Army. As programs expanded so did the numbers of lay staff-between 1951 and 1961 the number of non-Salvationist clerical and social workers doubled.

For a movement based on the inextricable linkage between belief and action, this new development troubled some. Others were concerned by the expansion of government funds for social welfare, a trend that started in the 1960s and ballooned in the 1970s. Historically, the Army took funds from anyone; William Booth believed tainted money was washed clean in God’ s service. Yet, accepting public money entailed special liabilities: Federal agencies wanted to control the programs they financed, while Salvationists were accustomed to overseeing their own mix of religion and social service. Moreover, since the First Amendment was interpreted as prohibiting any federal funds for religious activity, Salvationists were asked to separate the religious from the social aspects of their programs. This meant calculating how much office space, utilities, and manpower went into each — a tedious task that also undermined the integrity of Salvationist theology.

Over the years, ongoing partnerships have smoothed rough corners. Salvationists have come to understand just how far they can push the spiritual character of their programs, while government regulators appreciate that Salvationists can never truly separate their faith from their activities. Moreover, since 85 percent of its $1.7 billion budget comes from sources besides the government, the Army is able to run many of its services exactly as it chooses. The privately funded Adult Rehabilitation Centers, for example, put religion at the heart of their program for substance abusers.

Still, Salvationists question what’s been gained and what lost-not just by accepting government monies, but by seeking private funds at the cost of downplaying their religious mission. (Several new campaigns focus on the Army’s primary identity as a church.) Looming even larger is a longstanding debate about how religion should be integrated in social welfare. Both sides agree that the faith factor is central to their work. But while some Salvationists want to ground all their programs in an explicitly Christ-centered message, others say that modeling Christian behavior is more compelling-and more practical given the religious diversity of their clientele.

Somewhat surprisingly, membership in the church that is the nation’s largest charitable fundraiser is quite small. There are only 125,000 Salvationists in the United States (and one million worldwide). If the group were truly successful at commingling service and salvation, would its numbers be larger? Or does its modest size underscore the compromises made in message for the sake of mission? The Army’s experience, as well as its internal debates, indicate even the most militant believers don’t have all the answers. Perhaps the rest of us should find that reassuring.

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media.