After 100 Years, Are The Boy Scouts Still Relevant? (GeekDad Wayback Machine)

Geek Culture


Any discussion of the Scouts’ relevance wouldn’t be complete without looking at the main criticisms people have against the program. The bulk of the criticism is centered on discrimination against atheists and agnostics and against homosexuals. Although these aren’t the only criticisms, they are the ones that make the most headlines.

istock_000000419180xsmallistock_000000419180xsmallThe final point of the Scout Law is the dedication to be reverent. Devotion to God is also found in various BSA oaths, from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, where boys pledge their allegiance and duty to God. Allegiance to, and agreement with, the oaths are checked often along the path of the program, with specific requirements to make sure that boys “live the Scout Oath … and Scout Law in their everday lives” before being granted certain advancement. Meetings, campouts and other occasions – depending on the local governing body – can include an element of prayer, typically in traditional Judeo-Christian fashion.

While the Scouting organization doesn’t define who God is and defers explanation of the relationship between boys and their deity to their families and religious leaders, it doesn’t allow much wiggle room for those who do not believe in one of the major religions or minor offshoots. So if you are a believer in Ja, Ra, Zeus, Quetzalcoatal, the flying spaghetti monster or a firm believer in using your Sunday morning for doing nothing more than sleeping in, the Boy Scouts do not have a place for you. (To be fair, Scouting recognizes a significant number of religions and they are inclusive of some non-traditional beliefs, including Wiccans.) The Girl Scouts, an organization with similar membership declines, has found an interesting method for approaching the situationally sticky problem of pledging an oath to God, with a far more nebulous approach, encouraging its participants to replace the word “God” with a term consistent with their personal spiritual beliefs.

Like any case of discrimination, there have been challenges to Scouting’s demand for reverence to their prescribed religions and some boys have been expelled from the program for maintaining their atheist or agnostic views. In several instances, the ACLU has taken the case for these boys and – seemingly more often than not – the BSA has allowed these non-believers to rejoin quietly.

Although it’s true that the values and stances on both religion and sexuality are based on bedrock principles that has been around since the beginning of the Scouting program, it’s thought that much of the current philosophy is based on how heavily the scouting organization relies on the nation’s churches for support and structure. From coast to coast, Scout meetings can be found in fellowship halls and recreation rooms of churches and synagogues. Catholics, Jews, Methodists and other faiths all support scouting, but nowhere is Scouting more prevalent than in the Mormon church.

Image by Flickr user Jessicamulley; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.  Image by Flickr user Jessicamulley; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Image by Flickr user Jessicamulley; used under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Penn & Teller make the case in season four of their television series, “Bullsh*t”, that the Mormon church made a power move in the late 80s to take over the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America. Although there isn’t any definitive proof that this is true, Mormons participate in Boy Scouts at a very high rate. While Mormons only make up 2% of the total US population, they account for nearly 20% of all Scouts. The Mormons even have their own specialized division of scouting, LDS Scouting and, until recently, a student could major in Scouting leadership (.pdf of coursework, here) at Mormon-based university, Brigham Young.

It seems the Mormons aren’t afraid of throwing their weight around on issues they are concerned with and are on record as saying if the Boy Scouts of America is forced to accept gays as scoutmasters, the LDS Church will withdraw from the organization and take more than 400,000 Scouts with it.

Which brings mention of the larger complaint of discrimination, that exclusion against both scouts and adult leaders who are homosexual. There has been significant debate in court challenges on this issue, which, for the Scouts, hinges on the phrase of the Scout Oath that obligates a Scout to be “morally straight”. While the Supreme Court has sided with the Boy Scouts, allowing that a private organization can include and exclude who it chooses, many feel that – as with marriage and other relationship privileges, the time has come for homosexuals to be accepted in scouting.

In terms of policy, although the BSA stated in 2000 that “Boy Scouting makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person” – essentially a variation on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – there continue to be dismissals and expulsions of people discovered to be homosexual.

Indeed, Scouting is merely part of a larger debate within our society about homosexuals and their entitlement to equal rights and protections. Still, push-back and demands for acceptance seem to be more present these days, as seen with groups like Scouting for All, an organization dedicated to accepting homosexual and atheist/agnostic scouts and leaders.

For now, the BSA has the right to exclude who it wants, as a private organization. But – and here’s the rub – they are a private organization that makes no bones about accepting public funds, using public lands at significant discounts (or no charge at all) and recruit within taxpayer funded schools. This presents a bit of a Pharisaical conundrum in the eyes of many. How can a private organization at odds with so much public opinion be given so many publicly funded benefits?

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