Reflections of an Eagle Scout


EagleScoutRockwell-219x300The 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


7 Responses to “Reflections of an Eagle Scout”

  1. Hey Ray,

    Thanks for posting this! As a fellow Eagle Scout I’ve been paying a lot of attention to what’s been going on. This was an excellent reflection.

    Hope all is well,


  2. As friends have pointed out in Facebook and LinkedIn comments on this link, Scouting is not an exclusively Christian movement. While I still think that there is a quasi-religious aspect to it, it also includes Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and people of many other faiths. And if Hindus can do their best to do their duty to ‘God’, while believing in many gods, then clearly many other traditions can be included in Scouting.

  3. For me, the other big change contributing to an increased focus on sex is applying this policy not just to leaders, but to boys, as in the case of Ryan Andresen. This policy contributes to making communities unsupportive compared to those with anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies. Boy Scouts does not live in isolation – as more and more schools adopt anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies, Scouting stands alone in those communities in being unsupportive.

    In addition to the permanent psychological damage done to boys kicked out of troops, it also teaches the straight boys in the troop completely the “wrong stuff” – that’s it’s okay to discriminate and put people down based on their sexual orientation.

    If that were not bad enough, teen suicides are 25% more likely in unsupportive communiities – not just among gay teens, but straight teeens too.

    This discriminatory leadership teaching of both gay and straight scouts would get the pupil fired in any business, government, or military leadership role.

    My son is concerned putting “Eagle Scout” on his college application will be a negative, associated with bigtory and close-mindedness — which has him questioning pursuing it.

    Who wants to teach our children to reject or promote people on factors other than merit?

  4. 4 Patrick Provart

    This subject actually came up in a 1992-93 college course in public policy in which I was enrolled. It was the autumn after Attorney General Reno had challenged the BSA and GSA to admit atheists and homosexuals. I ended up writing a paper on the issue and even then, 20 years ago, found a bit of perspective really shocked my classmates.

    The BSA never mentioned a ban on homosexuality until the 1988 revision to the program (which added two-deep leadership) — because they DIDN’T HAVE TO. Prior to 1972 in illinois and as late as 1986 in some states (Texas and Alabama if memory serves) there were statutes against homosexuality. Merely stating, as the BSA did, that a conviction for non-traffic offenses would disqualify a leader was enough. A homosexual man was guilty of a non-traffic crime . . . and that was that.

    Of course as the laws against homosexual conduct were dropped . . .the BSA had to make a decision.

    By the way, for those who don’t recall . . . the BSA in 1992 reaffirmed its ban on homosexual leaders, and the Girl Scouts did not. The GSA lost more than 30 percent of its members nationwide over an 18 month period. (More in some locations — for example the church which sponsored my BSA troop at the time, withdrew from Girl Scouting over the issue. Locally we went from about 25 girl scout troops to about 10)

  5. 5 Rich C

    I don’t believe that anyone (other than parents/guardians) over 18 and teaching, mentoring, guiding youth under 18 should ‘wear’ their political, religious, sexual beliefs/actions on their ‘sleeve’. Those ideals are the duty of the parents (who chose the religious teachers)

  6. 6 JerryAndrews

    Very well written and thoughtful. While I do not agree. Little by little we chip away at the things and moral foundation of our country. Anything goes. Next would bethe requirement of a belief in God. Why should we keep athiests out of the program. Scouting was a MOVEMENT, at one time. Those who believed in the principles of the movement joined. Those who did not, did not join. Now, we should change those principles? The LDS and Methodist Churches are the largist supporters of Scouting. What will happen when they remove their support? Many years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower was asked “If you wanted to overthrow our government, what would be the first thing you would do?” His answer was… “Get rid of the Boy Scouts of America.” Well, welcome to the new world order!

  7. 7 RH Greene

    I got my Eagle 35 years ago…my troop was sponsored by the local kiwanis club. We were well financed but had no influence other than the Scout Handbook. We were not overly religious. There were also a lot of homosexuals around. Quite a few of the Eagles from my troop are homosexual. There were also several Scoutmasters in our council that we all assumed were gay. It was kind of a don’t ask don’t tell atmosphere. I have mixed emotions on this issue. My Christian devotion tells me from the sodom side of things it is wrong and then my practical and religious side says Jesus wouldn’t hesitate to associate with anybody no matter their preferred area of the old sin nature… he seemed to despise the self righteous the most and was eager to hang out with the prostitutes and low lifes. The other issue is legal. I think that the National position being considered to allow local troops to determine their own policy may offer the national office some relief. But then again if I know lawyers and I know plenty of them, they will find away to continue to plunder the coffers of the national office. So perhaps they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Opening up that door is definitely going to increase incidents of molestation. From a scouts perspective though, we had homosexuals in our troop and it didn’t take away from my experience.

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