Reflections of an Eagle Scout
The Boy Scouts of America are considering a policy change that would end their blanket ban on gay leaders and members. As a former Cub Scout, former Boy Scout, Arrowman, and Eagle Scout, I would like to say, “and about time, too!”
I recognize that the BSA has the right to associate with whomever they choose, but the BSA’s policy has had the effect of defining with whom their member troops and packs associate. Nowhere is this more clear than the case of the BSA forcing a Maryland Cub Scout pack to remove an LGBT-friendly non-discrimination statement from their website.
To some extent, scouting is a quasi-religious movement. In their work to guide boys on their path to manhood, the Boy Scouts encourage patriotism (duty to country), service (help other people at all times), physical and mental fitness (physically strong, mentally awake), moral righteousness (morally straight), and religiosity (duty to God). The Scout Oath reads:
On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Similarly, the Scout Law is:
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
On the other hand, with the possible exception of its early days in England (where Scouting was probably fairly strongly associated with the Church of England), Scouting has never been affiliated with any single denomination or sect. In practice, my troop, though chartered by the local Christian Church, never had an adult Chaplain, and I (a Presbyterian at the time — regular readers will be aware of my current, unconventional religious beliefs from a previous post) sometimes acted as Chaplain Aide, leading our brief prayer services. There is no reason that a Unitarian, Congregational, or Episcopal Church chartering organization (for example) should be required to apply a Baptist, Catholic, or Latter-Day-Saint definition of ‘morally straight,’ no matter how strongly the Southern Baptist Convention might feel about it.
Scouting has changed in the 22 years since I received my Eagle. In fact, while certain fundamentals have remained constant since the Baden-Powell started the scouting movement, many aspects of Scouting have changed in the past century. (In fact, even the requirements for the Eagle rank — and even the name of the rank itself — have changed since the founding of the Boy Scouts of America.) Where Scout camp once may have focused on woodcraft, many have become, “merit badge camps,” as we called them. Where I asked the community member of my choosing to be my merit badge counselors (though my scoutmaster could refuse the application, if he determined that the counselor was not qualified), troops and councils now have lists of qualified, registered merit badge counselors (with background checks completed) for scouts to choose from (partly to meet the Scouts’ need for safety in ways they had previously failed). Where, in my day, much merit badge work was an independent endeavor, some councils and troops now conduct ‘merit badge days‘ to ensure that as many scouts as possible earn as many merit badges as possible, and are inspired to work through the ranks quickly. There are pluses and minuses to many of these changes, but the core of Scouting still stands.
One change that I feel has less clearly defined, but clearly a negative, has been that the Boy Scouts of America has become more focused on homosexuality in the past two decades (ironically, at a time when US society has become more accepting of gay men and women). I see three causes to this focus:
- Conservative chartering churches: I think that many chartering organizations want the Boy Scouts to reflect their views, and that the number of conservative churches that charter units (like the Southern Baptists, or the Latter Day Saints) have pressured the BSA to reflect their values.
- More focus on sex: I think that the BSA was truly shocked by the realization that they had allowed pedophiles into their ranks. Their response has been three-fold: First, they fight the legal fight to avoid liability. Second, they have implemented protective measures (such as background checks on merit badge counselors, and ‘two-deep’ leadership). Third, (influenced by chartering organizations who equate all forms of ‘sexual deviancy’) they have removed gay men and scouts from the organization. At the same time, the growing social acceptance of gay men and women in our society means that a gay or lesbian leader is more likely to be open about it and be brought to the attention of council or national leadership.
- The Texas headquarters: Geography matters, even if in a small way. When you want to fit in with your neighbors, you do as they do. Texas takes pride in its conservatism (outside of Austin), but that means that what is mainstream in Texas is usually right-of-center for the country as a whole (just as what is mainstream in New York is usually left-of-center), and that the leadership at the BSA’s national office is less likely to question the pressure they get from the conservative chartering organizations.
What are some of the effects of the current policy? Well off the top of my head:
- Boys lose out when organizations who oppose sexual-orientation discrimination are unable to charter a Scouting unit without violating their moral code.
- Boys who might otherwise join and benefit from Scouting miss out on the experience (whether because of their own or their parents’ orientation or opposition to sexual-orientation discrimination).
- Boys becoming aware that they are gay have to choose between being dishonest about it to others (and themselves) and leaving the organization.
- Gay scouts are deprived of role models they can identify with. (In fact, there is some speculation that Robert Baden-Powell, himself, would have been unwelcome in today’s Boy Scouts of America.)
- The nation loses young men whose talent has been developed through the ethics and leadership training that Scouting offers.
- Those who oppose sexual-orientation discrimination, but who recognize Scouting’s many benefits, are pushed into conflict with the organization.
Fortunately the BSA has been getting some political push-back, like the media coverage of the Maryland Cub Pack website story, or the coverage of Ryan Andresen’s troubled Eagle application, or Zach Wahls’ founding of Scouts for Equality, or the statement from Senators Sherrod Brown and Sen. Jeff Merkley (both Eagle Scouts) urging the BSA to adopt “inclusive membership and leadership policies that will allow for all Americans to participate in the Boy Scouts.” Not everyone is excited about the possible change. Some think that the proposed new policy does not go far enough, and that the Boy Scouts of America should denounce sexual-orientation discrimination. Some supporters of the current policy considerthe proposed change to be the worst possible move. One thing that is certain, is that if the change does come into effect, there will be a variety of questions that the movement will have to answer.
While I think it will be a wonderful day when all troops in the Boy Scouts of America are open to everyone. But the proposed policy change makes sense. The choice should be left to the chartering organization. While I said earlier “There is no reason that a Unitarian, Congregational, or Episcopal Church chartering organization (for example) should be required to apply a Baptist, Catholic, or Latter-Day-Saint definition of ‘morally straight,’” the opposite is also true, and there is no reason that this proposed policy change should lead to Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon churches withdrawing their support for Scouting.
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