Big Tent: Saving the Boy Scouts from its supporters
The New Republic, September 17, 2001
by Benjamin Soskis
Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia - On a Sunday morning in late July, as a heavy rain pounded
the tent flaps, 32,000 Boy Scouts assembled in prayer. In a large open field next to the parking lot, some 10,000 Roman Catholic scouts waded through mud puddles in front of a covered stage, where the Papal Nuncio presided over Communion. Across the "Merit Badge Midway," Methodist scouts gathered next to a massive rappelling course. There was a Buddhist ceremony, attended by hundreds of curious boys, as well as services for Christian Scientists, Quakers, Mormons, and Eastern
Orthodox. The day before, Jewish scouts had gathered to read the Book of Lamentations, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples.
The quadrennial National Jamboree, held at this 76,000-acre Army complex 40 miles north of Richmond, was the first major Boy Scouts of America (BSA) gathering since the Supreme Court last June upheld the organization's right to ban gay scoutmasters. After the decision, liberal groups blasted the organization as
exclusionary and narrow-minded. So it was not surprising that the scouts at the Jamboree took particular satisfaction in its demonstration of religious ecumenism. As Doug Marold, a 16-year-old from Dallas, explained, referring to one of the twelve virtues enshrined in Scout Law, "Every kid has to find his own way to reverence." Promotional material also emphasized scout inclusiveness, celebrating those assembled as "a world brotherhood of youth." And President Bush, in
videotaped remarks played later that day, underscored the point, declaring that "the values of Scouting . . . are the values of America."
At one time in our nation's history, Bush was probably right. Few other institutions – perhaps baseball, perhaps apple pie – have enjoyed as unchallenged a reputation for undiluted and unruffled Americanism. Every president since William Taft has served as the organization's honorary head, and in its
90-year history more than 100 million boys have donned its uniform. But Bush's claim is no longer true. For last June's Supreme Court decision ratified the Boy Scouts' status as a combatant on one side of the culture war. In June Senator Jesse Helms pushed an amendment through the Senate seeking to protect the BSA's anti-gay stance, provoking a counter-bill from Senator Barbara Boxer. Recently the New York Times op-ed page lambasted the organization's "message of
bigotry," while The Washington Times defended its "principles of rectitude" from "well-funded radical homosexuals."
With its decision, the Court validated the BSA's claim that it had always been a distinctively conservative group, "a private expressive association" with its "own moral code," one that "espouses family values" and considers its right to exclude certain members as important as its right to
include others. But, in so doing, it also supported a distortion of scouting history. For despite the BSA's conservative defenders' claim that they are upholding scouting tradition, the organization's real tradition bears no more resemblance to contemporary Christian-right ideology than it does to contemporary liberal ideology. In fact, from its earliest days, in an effort to create good citizens and good men from a diverse pool of boys, the Boy Scouts sidestepped precisely this
kind of partisan tug-of-war with a genuinely pluralistic ideal. In the past, when the group invoked "traditional American values," it meant an authentic national consensus, not a particular ideological predisposition. If conservatives now want the BSA to embody that ideological predisposition, they should be honest enough to admit what they are doing: not preserving scouting as it always was but recreating it as something new.
The Boy Scouts of America
was first incorporated in 1910, and in its early years tried to pitch as wide a tent as possible. To some extent, this inclusiveness stemmed from the need to expand its membership base in order to win exclusive rights to the Boy Scouts name (the Hearst newspaper chain was planning a rival organization at the same time). But financial imperatives dovetailed nicely with ideological ones: The BSA's founders were concerned by a perceived crisis of youth caused in part by a burgeoning
immigrant population, urban poverty, and the broader moral perils of modernity. One BSA elder complained that the nation was suffering from "City rot" and described American adolescents as "a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers, with shaky nerves and a doubtful vitality." Scouting would train these youths – in the words of the national charter granted to the BSA by Congress in 1916 – in the "patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues"
necessary for an enlightened citizenry. To become a truly national institution – as well as one dedicated to a nationalistic ideal – the BSA appreciated that it needed a representative membership.
In that vein, the organization emphasized uniformity, middle-class values, and diversified outreach. Foreign-language troops were discouraged; a Committee on Americanization edited Scout Law to remove references to class conflict inherited from its British
antecedent; and in 1919 the BSA's Fifth Avenue office hired a field director to establish troops in the under-represented South and West. And though in the 1920s the BSA leadership tilted rightward (in 1919 the BSA's executive secretary suggested that scout-training might prevent Bolshevism), headquarters forbade any explicit political involvement and settled for an aggressive, ethnically neutral American chauvinism.
If today the BSA seems mired in a
controversy over religious principle, in its earlier years the organization avoided any such denominational strife. Scouting in France, where Catholics, Protestants, and secularists had split into their own programs, was a sound warning of the alternative. And so, though the BSA was initially linked closely to the Protestant YMCA, it espoused a strict ecumenism based on a vaguely articulated but potent American deism. The BSA's commitment to religious pluralism was clearly spelled out in
its 1917 "Declaration of Religious Principle": "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God . . . The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of a boy, but it is absolutely non-sectarian in its attitude toward that training."
In fact, at first the BSA's efforts to transcend religious and ethnic particularism
scared off some conservative denominations, such as Lutherans, Catholics, and Mormons, according David Macleod's Building Character in the American Boy: The Boys Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners. But assimilationist pressures soon won these groups over, and by 1921 Catholics boasted the third-most troops of any denomination. For the Mormons, participation in the Boy Scouts became a way to convince suspicious mainline denominations of their Americanism. (By 1913 Scouting had become the
official youth program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) The BSA, writes Macleod, favored a "civil religion, not as a prophetic faith standing in judgment upon actual American practices but as a celebration of the American way of life." With its good works on the home front during both world wars (during World War I, scouts sold more than $350 million in war bonds and distributed some 20 million government flyers), the Boy Scouts became one of the chief symbols of
American patriotism; by 1955 the group could claim nearly 4.2 million members. And if the nation's living rooms had continued to look like those on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, membership probably would have climbed steadily and with little contest.
That was not to be. The Boy Scouts as we currently know it, as an actively conservative body, emerged from the 1960s, a decade that challenged its institutional essence: its code of discipline, proud
conformity, and devotion to country. Suddenly, it was no longer hip to wear the khaki uniform. In desperation, the Cub Scouts removed the pledge "To be Square" from its Promise, while the Boy Scouts wondered aloud, in the words of a 1968 survey it commissioned, "Is Scouting In Tune with the Times?" Concerned that the answer might be no, in 1972 the BSA revised its official Handbook. Sections on canoeing and rope-lashing were replaced with passages on urban hiking, drug
abuse, and public speaking, and the organization made a concerted effort to recruit more minorities. But these efforts at relevance did little to correct stagnating membership, which declined for the first time in 1969 and plummeted in the early '70s; the Boy Scouts lost nearly one-third of its participants between 1973 and 1980. So the national leadership reverted to the old formula, issuing another Handbook revision in 1979 that returned the emphasis to camping skills and outdoor
But as the organization rededicated itself to whittling and knot-tying, it also began to orient itself in the contemporary political landscape and to assert itself as a combatant in the culture war. Previously, the Boy Scouts had maintained a decorous silence about sexuality; according to the 1972 Scoutmaster's Handbook, Scoutmasters should "not undertake to instruct Scouts, in any formalized manner, in the subject of sex and family life....
[I]t is not construed to be Scouting's proper area." Some of this was the residual prudishness of the organization's Edwardian founders. But the Boy Scouts also did not want to isolate the more conservative religious denominations that sponsored troops, who (ironically, given their current insistence that the BSA explicitly endorse certain sexual norms) worried that any official BSA position on sexuality would impinge on their own efforts at moral education. So, as with religion
and politics, except for a few perfunctory references, the BSA was happy to leave the topic of sex to a boy's parents or clergyman.
To be sure, this official silence frequently cloaked unofficial discrimination. As the BSA pointed out almost giddily in its Supreme Court brief, until 1979 homosexual sodomy was a criminal offense in New Jersey, the state whose 1991 anti-discrimination laws formed the basis for gay Assistant Scoutmaster James Dale's Supreme
Court challenge. Moreover, since its founding, the BSA was plagued by fears that scout leaders might molest their young charges, and avowed homosexuals were considered the most likely to do so. As James Tarr, the chief scout executive in the late '70s, recently recounted to Rolling Stone, "If you had a person you knew was a homosexual, you would confront them, and they would resign quietly."
But precisely because such homophobia was informal, other
troops were free to interpret the Scouts' principles as consistent with a progressive world-view. Looking back on his days as a scout in New Jersey in the '40s and as a professional district executive for the BSA in Long Island in the '50s, David Napp, a retired Connecticut book salesman, acknowledges that some of his co-workers were probably gay. But "the issue never really came up in all the years I was in scouting as a boy or as a leader." In 1993, after the Boy
Scouts discovered that Napp himself was homosexual – he claims he was not yet publicly out of the closet – he was dismissed from the organization. Napp now views his early years in scouting nostalgically: "[E]ven in the '30s, [the BSA] was really open to all boys . . . We had boys who were fat, boys who were clods, boys who were nerds, we had black kids." Mike Montalvo, a scout in the late '60s in Dallas, concurs, recalling that in his troop it was generally
known that one of his scoutmasters' sons, also in the troop, was gay. "It was something that was known, but it wasn't talked about."
But amid the cultural conflict of the '70s, such silence became untenable. The gay rights movement began to demand a response to the discrimination that the Boy Scouts tacitly allowed, and several high-profile cases of child abuse by scout leaders inflamed the national leadership's homophobia. (Especially
devastating was the 1977 trial of a group of New Orleans scout leaders who formed a troop to serve as a pedophiliac sex ring.) And so, in 1978, the national organization offered its first official, if barely publicized, disavowal of homosexuality: The president and chief Scout executive notified the organization's executive committee that the BSA does "not believe that homosexuality and leadership in Scouting are appropriate." The following year, for the first time, the BSA
insinuated sexual politics into the 1979 Handbook. Whereas the Handbook had previously associated "morally straight" (a phrase from the Scout Oath) with respect for others, it now invoked heterosexuality: "When you live up to the trust of fatherhood your sex life will fit into God's wonderful plan of creation."
That same year brought another symbolic affirmation of this realignment: After a quarter-century in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the
BSA moved its headquarters to Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Ostensibly, the BSA moved for lower rents and the convenient location near a major airport, but many saw it as part of a larger demographic and cultural redefinition. During the group's membership skid in the '70s – which was most pronounced in the Northeast – enrollment remained steady only in the Rocky Mountain region, where numbers were buoyed by the steady participation of 250,000 Mormons, whose
percentage in the organization quadrupled from 1920 to 1980, to nearly 20 percent.
It was as if the BSA had decided that the terrain it had previously staked out – that broad national consensus – was suddenly uninhabitable and chose to decamp to the narrower territory of the traditionalists instead. So, even in 1986, when the Boy Scouts, citing a study of convicted child molesters, admitted that avowed homosexuals were no more dangerous than
heterosexuals, they still rejected gays, pointing to the threat they posed to the traditional family. By 1991 the BSA had retreated so far from its big-tent roots that, when a California appellate court struck down the complaint of a gay Berkeley Eagle Scout who was rejected as a scoutmaster, Scouting officials could explain, "We are a private organization aimed at traditional families." A few months later, the BSA's national spokesman elaborated: "We're not saying that
Scouting values are for every person in society to live by." That same year those traditional values were further clarified when, with a bit of exegetical legerdemain, the BSA declared that homosexuality not only conflicted with the Scout Oath's injunction to be "morally straight" but also with the ideal of "cleanliness" featured in the Scout Law.
These explicit policies have made the Boy Scouts a safe haven for the conservative,
centralized denominations that were once wary of it. The Church of Latter-day Saints now sponsors more troops than any other single institution. In fact, religious bodies now sponsor 65 percent of all troops, compared with just over 40 percent 15 years ago. And, according to some observers of the BSA's bureaucracy, the real clout within the organization now lies not with the national executive board, made up mostly of corporate executives, but with the relationships committee, which
comprises representatives from all the major sponsoring institutions and which is dominated by religious groups. As Chuck Wolfe, a former member of the national executive board, told The Advocate magazine last year, "The real driving force is the relationships committee.... That's where the money comes from."
And, indeed, a significant part of that money comes from the Mormons. This grants the Church of Latter-day Saints substantial leverage with the
national leadership. As one scout leader told Newsweek this year, "There is an unadulterated fear that [the Mormons are] going to bail out, that they're going to start their own program." The Mormons have invoked their power in the current controversy, threatening to withdraw their 412,000 boys if gay scout leaders are allowed to participate. "[T]he Scouting Movement as now constituted will cease to exist," Von G. Keetch, attorney for the Church of Latter-day Saints,
threatened in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court last year, suggesting that other conservative religious denominations might follow the Mormons' lead.
Liberal groups within the Boy Scouts have countered the BSA's increasing identification with the religious right by invoking the organization's ecumenical past. As University of California at Davis Professor Jay Mechling writes in the soon-to-be-published On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of
American Youth, "To maintain the position that homosexuality is immoral amounts to preferring some religions over others on this matter." The BSA "is acting like a church and is departing from the founders' principles." In fact, in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court, a number of more liberal denominations (including the United Methodist Church, Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark) pointed out that they – along with governmental
sponsors – represent nearly 60 percent of all troops. "Contrary to [the BSA's] assertions ... our boys and young men do not participate in the Boy Scouts for the purpose of expressing the view that gay boys and men are immoral," they wrote. "It is our boys and young men that the BSA seeks to exclude from our Scout troops." This January the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – Reform Judaism's governing body – called on its congregants to
withdraw their children from Boy Scout troops, stating that the BSA's position is "incompatible with our consistent belief that every individual – regardless of his or her sexual orientation – is created in the image of God."
But perhaps no religious group has challenged the Boy Scouts' fundamentalism as vigorously as the Unitarian Universalists, a progressive Protestant denomination with some 217,000 members in North America. In 1992,
in protest over the BSA's position on homosexuality, the Unitarians withdrew as an official sponsor, though individual churches still maintained troops. Then, in 1998, the BSA refused to rubber-stamp the "Religion in Life Award," the Unitarians' version of the decoration given to scouts by their sponsoring church based on the fulfillment of certain religious obligations. Historically the Boy Scouts have deferred to the religious institutions in the creation and conferring of
the award. But, in this case, they objected to the inclusion, in the award's instruction manual, of material spelling out the Unitarians' "ongoing concern regarding the homophobic and discriminatory attitudes of the [BSA's] national leadership." A BSA spokesman claimed that the language "was just not consistent with Scouting's values, particularly regarding the commitment to duty to God and traditional family values." The president of the Unitarian
Universalist Association, the Reverend John Buehrens (who was himself a "Life Scout"), disagrees. He believes the BSA simply "knuckled under to political pressure by those who pay the bills." Many Unitarian leaders, however, believing that scouting was worth saving, handed out the award anyway, without authorization.
Which begs the question: Is scouting worth the fight? The answer is yes. For, even in its tarnished state, the Boy Scouts does
bring together boys from diverse economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, providing, in Robert Putnam's terms, "bridging social capital." Just witness the Jamboree, where scouts from Massachusetts and scouts from Utah fished, traded badges, and worked and prayed together.
Until society, and the Boy Scouts with it, comes to a consensus about the equality of gays and lesbians, liberals should work to decentralize the BSA – allowing different
troops to define their own moral and sexual rules, as they effectively did for most of the organization's history. As Jay Mechling writes, "[T]he Boys Scouts of America â€" that is, the legal corporation and the bureaucrats working in the office buildings of the national office and the council offices "is not the 'real' Boy Scouts in the sense that a boy experiences Scouting through a concrete folk group of men and boys." Conservatives might be hard-pressed to oppose this
sort of local-control argument. Certainly, it made its appearance at the Jamboree, where several scouts expressed displeasure that headquarters was intruding on their troops' territory. "People think we're homophobic, but we have no power over that. It's all the head council," explained 14-year-old Joe Paul, a red-haired, freckled scout from Travis City, Michigan.
And decentralization is catching on among some scouting officials as well. This
June representatives from nine of the largest metropolitan Boy Scout councils – Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Orange County – proposed leaving membership policies to the local sponsoring institutions. Says Mike Harrison, former chairman of the Orange County Council, "To me, one of the strengths of the organization is that it has always been able to accommodate differing viewpoints, and the present
position is totally inconsistent with that. We want to get the tribe back on track."
Of course, remaining in the Boy Scouts would require liberals to tolerate a degree of moral discomfort. It would also require faith in the nation's moral progress: that the BSA will, over time, come to see nondiscrimination as the principle that best honors scoring's heritage. And it would require a belief that the Boy Scouts, by joining together children of different
backgrounds in "a brotherhood of youth," can help achieve that progress. Should that time come, liberals, by refusing to abandon the organization even when it seems to have abandoned them, will – in the best tradition of the Scouts – be prepared.