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Return of the Salvation Army

by Christopher Hitchens


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 1.


Every now and then, one sees a bedraggled member of the Salvation Army banging a drum or tooting a bugle, dressed in ill-fitting paramilitary uniform. I believe that the "Army" newspaper The War Cry is still printed if not exactly in circulation. Most people, if asked, might remember the regulars of the Army as a bunch of easily lampooned soul-savers from Guys and Dolls or recall the question asked by their brass-band-loving founder, "General" William Booth: "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" (A question to which no answer can exist, despite the strenuous anti-satanic efforts of Tipper Gore.)

There was a time, though, when the Salvation Army was an international mass movement. It emerged ostensibly as a moral reply to the evils of late nineteenth-century poverty, unemployment, drunkenness and prostitution but actually was a crusade that blamed the sufferers and sought to "redeem" them one by one. The method was fairly simple; parade around the stricken quarters of town with band and handbills, invite the destitute for soup and sandwiches, and make them sit through a sermon before dishing out the requisite grub. One of the most memorable songs of the old "Wobbly" syndicalist movement, written by Joe Hill himself, referred sarcastically to "The Starvation Army" and popularized the memorable refrain "Pie In The Sky-(When You Die)."

In the early years of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt was induced to receive a delegation led by H. Rider Haggard-friend of Rudyard Kipling and author of King Solomon's Mines-who had fallen under the spell of General Booth's charisma. Why not, Haggard urged, turn over the poor of America to the Salvation Army? Subcontract them to the uniformed Party of God and-to the strains of "Onward Christian Soldiers"—Satan would be banished from the slums.

Roosevelt agreed to consider the idea, and I have to confess that I don't know why he didn't follow it up. Perhaps he suspected that poverty and misery might need more systematic attention than that, or perhaps he felt it might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids the government to favor any one practice, or any specific version, of religion.

Now see how splendidly we progress. In the election just past, one major party proposed that care of the poor and the homeless be subcontracted to "faith-based organizations." As it happens, that was the Republican Party. But the idea-of piety and charity replacing the obligations of society and government—had been sedulously nurtured by the supporters of President Clinton's "welfare reform." And the deputy on the Democratic ticket in 2000 had loudly and repeatedly misread the Constitution so as to make a false distinction between "freedom of" religion (good) and "freedom from" (bad). I don't need to weary the readers of this journal with Joseph Lieberman's sinister illiteracy on this point. But I am astonished at how few people have noticed the outright negation of the Constitution that is contained in the latest welfare proposals.

These plans vary from state to state, but they involve an abdication by government and an emphasis on - sounds good-"voluntary" efforts. (The "faith-based" is sometimes down-played but never absent.) If sufficiently organized, these efforts will receive some version of subsidy, or matching funds, or other official patronage. Couched as so often in the soft language of pluralism and multiculturalism-"in every community, every church and every synagogue and every mosque"; you've heard it - the plain intention of this strategy is to put the maintenance of the "safety net" into the hands of the faithful. If this is not an "establishment of religion," it is only because it is an establishment of all religions, and on the public dime.

You notice, possibly, what this has in common with prayer in schools. For some reason, which I believe I can guess, the churches want control of people when or while they are most vulnerable or suggestible. If they can't get them in school, then they can get them when they are hungry, or frightened, or ill, or homeless, or unemployed. Same difference. Here's your gruel, and here's a tract. Yes, we can help you with the form-filling. But did we see your sister in the congregation last week? Already, in several Southern states, there have been complaints of hell-fire sermonizing and godly coercion down at the old biscuit-and-blanket center.

The Salvation Army could be laughed off by working people with any dignity or intelligence, and has already gone the way of many evangelical buffooneries. The difference this time is that we are all going to pay, not just to insult and humiliate the poor, but to promote the primitive propaganda of religious racketeers and (I suspect, and insofar as there is a difference) many cult groups, too. "I don't want your charity!" That used to be a slogan of self-respect and independence, and became a powerful subtext to social reform. Now, though, the insinuating proselytizers can re-work one of their texts, slyly reminding the poor that they are always with them, and eagerly claiming the "charitable" deduction for their selfless labors.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His most recent book is Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere.


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