Salvation Army red kettle (copy)

A customer drops money into a Salvation Army red kettle.

Thanksgiving Day marks the traditional kickoff of the Salvation Army's "Red Kettle" giving campaign. Volunteers flood the nation's shopping malls and sidewalks, ringing their bells to ask for donations to help the nation's poor.

Activists have long called for a boycott of the giving campaign, pointing to the group's traditional Christian understanding of sexuality. This year, British singer Ellie Goulding briefly threatened to cancel her halftime-show gig at the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day game, the event that traditionally kicks off the Red Kettle campaign. (She changed her mind.) And then there's the case of Chick-fil-A, long under pressure from activists, which recently agreed to stop contributing money to the Salvation Army.

Others have argued over who's right and who's wrong. But I want to focus on a different problem: the effects on the volunteer sector of any boycott based on the teachings of a religion.

Religious groups, regardless of their theology, provide assistance to millions who are unable to help themselves. Without religiously motivated volunteers, we would have scarcely any volunteer sector at all.

When scholars use the word "volunteering" in this context, they have in mind not putting in time to elect a candidate or support an issue. Rather, they refer to socially valuable behaviors that usually involve contact with individuals who are suffering: ladling food at a soup kitchen, teaching a course in a prison, reading to homeless children.

In short, helping actual people.

The correlation between volunteerism of this kind and measured religiosity is well established in the literature. Volunteers are significantly more likely than non-volunteers to be religious; and the religious are significantly more likely than the non-religious to volunteer.

As religion declines, so does volunteering. If we put the religious volunteers out of business, a lot of people will suddenly be unhelped. We need all the volunteers we can get.

And we cannot reasonably expect to replace them with paid labor. According to the Urban Institute, the 8.7 billion hours volunteered in the U.S. in 2016 were worth about $187.4 billion. This works out to a value of about $21.50 per volunteered hour -- which some might argue is too low. Although it is not entirely clear how these figures are calculated, they appear to represent the opportunity cost of volunteering. The volunteers, in other words, could earn that amount of money by doing something else.

Why, then, do they donate their time? For some, the work doubtless helps fill their days. (Rates are high among the retired.) For others, volunteering might serve as a status symbol. Most important, the literature tells us that for religious and nonreligious volunteers alike, the time they put it in serves as an expression of compassionate love.

If the most important motivation for volunteering is love for others, and if the religious are more likely than the nonreligious to volunteer, then it's plausible that the religious are more likely than the nonreligious to act out of love for others.

In this sense, the rush to pronounce all-or-nothing anathemas misses the complexity of people's attitudes. For example, although black Americans, by a significant margin, are the racial group most likely to agree that there exists significant discrimination against gay, lesbian, and trans people, they are also, again by a significant margin, the racial group least likely to support same-sex marriage. Yet some studies suggest that church attendance is a stronger predictor of volunteering for black than for white Americans. Surely we don't want to stop this tide of good work in the community.

All of which is to say that we might judge volunteer organizations less by their beliefs and more by their actions. If it's really true, as the Salvation Army claims, that it's "the largest provider of poverty relief to the LGBTQ+ population" -- and given what is certainly true, that the group is among the largest providers of social services in the world -- maybe we should let its work be the touchstone of its value.

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