Renowned for Christmastime bell-ringers with red kettles, thrift shops, skid row missions and efficient canteens that served 4.8 million meals after Hurricane Katrina, the Salvation Army enjoys a kind of respect accorded few American charities.
Yet the Army is not a charity.
Rather, it's a rather small, distinctly conservative Protestant denomination that sponsors a massive and expanding philanthropic empire even as its membership declines.
Last year, the organization spent $2.6 billion and aided 34.5 million people through every imaginable form of social service; about 11 percent of its income came from the government. In the future, the Army's impact will be enhanced by 30 or more community centers funded by America's biggest one-time charity gift - $1.5 billion from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald's founder.
While the fact that devout evangelicals are managing social services partly with government money has provoked protests from civil libertarians and gay activists, it apparently hasn't undercut public support. Last December's kettle proceeds set a record and contributions to Katrina relief, the Army's biggest disaster effort ever, were triple those after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Still, the Army faces internal trouble.
Its 62,000 employees and 3.5 million volunteers are led by a mere 3,684 "officers" (the equivalent of clergy) whose ranks have declined nearly a third the past five years. "Cadets" enrolled at the four U.S. officer training schools are down 18 percent since 1997, to 284, and membership is also sliding.
National Commander W. Todd Bassett of Alexandria, Va., said in a telephone interview that the Army has been hit with a cultural undertow that has hurt participation in other churches and that officer careers require an unusual degree of "dedicated devotion." That includes financial sacrifice. For example, 42-year veteran Bassett and his wife, Carol, (all officers' spouses must also be officers) together receive a $33,000 stipend plus housing, expenses and benefits.
"I'm a man of faith so I know we can turn it around," Bassett said, speaking about the drop in officers. "Our recruiting in the past has been within our own ranks. We're reaching beyond that" to present the vision of Army service to more non-Salvationist youths.
The Army originated in 19th century England with founder William Booth's mission to help the downtrodden. Its doctrines, defined in a 144-page handbook, are orthodox Christian with one oddity: baptism and communion are never celebrated.
In many ways a product of its time, the Army is saturated with Victorian traditions: brass bands, distinctive men's and women's uniforms, street meetings and numerous military metaphors.
Today, the Army is a closely knit international organization based in London with 1.4 million followers in 109 countries. The United States has the largest national contingent, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, but today's growth is found in Africa and India.
The 113,500 U.S. "soldiers," the core group among 427,000 members, have taken covenant vows, once known as the "Articles of War." They cover doctrine, loyalty to leaders, generosity, willingness to evangelize and help the needy, and clean living (no alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, pornography or profanity).
The Army's belief that "the full expression of sexual love" should be restricted to heterosexual marriage caused dustups in recent years with Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, which required charities receiving public funds to provide benefits to employees' unmarried domestic partners.
And an ongoing dispute involves l9 current and former employees, backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, who have accused the Army of religious discrimination in employment. In October, a federal judge ruled that the Army has the legal right to use religious criteria in hiring but allowed other allegations to proceed.
Executive Director Donna Lieberman said the civil liberties union will appeal on the hiring issue, saying that "when a religious entity is engaged in the provision of government-funded services it can't be involved in promoting religion." The Army's lawyer said the organization complies with federal, state and city employment rules under its social-service contracts and doesn't use public funding for religious activities.
Service contracts signed by the Army include its 1991 self-definition as an evangelical Christian body whose "mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination."
Bassett says that the Army doesn't discriminate in hiring but believes its social service employees should not "act or promote something contrary to what the Salvation Army is and stands for."
R. David Rightmire, a fifth generation Salvationist and faculty adviser to Army youths attending Kentucky's Asbury College, thinks "there will be only increasing problems like this" because the Army is seeking closer coordination between its religious and charitable operations and such ties are politically sensitive now.
Diane Winston, a University of Southern California professor and author of the Army history "Red-Hot and Righteous," says that despite the conflicts the Army's operations are "exemplary" when it comes to those who receive its services.
"They truly care about people, without regard to sexual orientation or religion or race," she says.
On the Net:
U.S. Salvation Army: http://www.salvationarmyusa.org