The Salvation Army: Declaring War on Church-State Separation?

Article excerpt

Mention the Salvation Army, and most people conjure up images of bell ringers who seek contributions outside of stores at Christmastime or large trucks that collect donations of used clothing and furniture for resale at second-hand shops.

But the Army isn't just a collection of charitable workers concerned about the plight of the poor. First and foremost, it is an evangelical Christian religious denomination. And, although it's not usually thought of as political, the Salvation Army has in the past employed Religious Right-style assaults on the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

Three years ago, the Salvation Army publication The War Cry ran a strident attack on church-state separation. The article, written by Sam Silligato, recycled the Religious Right's bogus history, contending that the United States was meant to be an officially "Christian nation."

The wall of separation, Silligato charged, "has caused oppression and aids the spread of crime, violence, immorality and false ideology, enslaving our society .... The wall is constructed of lies, false interpretation of laws and enforcement of laws contradictory to the intent of the Constitution."

Silligato noted that Thomas Jefferson had used the wall metaphor in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 (although Silligato got the facts wrong about why the Baptists wrote to Jefferson). But the writer dismissed Jefferson as unimportant since the distinguished Virginian was in France at the time the First Amendment was drafted.

Concluded Silligato, "When the Berlin Wall finally came down, thousands crossed the border to freedom and the opportunity for a prosperous life. So, too, as the mythical wall of separation is removed, thousands will be able to learn of America's true Christian heritage and the principles and morals that this heritage has bestowed."

It's ironic that the Salvation Army would drift toward the Religious Right camp, given its origins as a progressive organization concerned about the needs of the poor. The Army's beginnings go back to 1865, when William Booth, a Methodist minister, began preaching in the slums of London's gritty East End.

Booth soon learned there was a real need for his services. The East End at that time was a place of almost unimaginable squalor, and its denizens had been more or less left to their own devices. Under the auspices of his East London Christian Mission, Booth sought to provide relief.

The minister's operation grew rapidly and within a few years spread beyond London. …