Scouts pledge ‘duty to God;’ reporter draws a blank

The highly contentious issue of the Boy Scouts of America and gay scouts became a religion story because so many Scout troops and Cub Scout packs are sponsored by churches, synagogues and other houses of worship (click here for previous GetReligion links). Indeed, members of the Religion Newswriters Association voted it the ninth-most important religion story of 2013.

So it is just as understandable that within the realm of religion there would be those who are none too happy with the BSA decision, and who have or soon will “opt out” of the Scouting movement. But to where shall these congregations go? Yes, various denominations — Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventist Church — have highly similar programs, but where does that leave other groups?

The Dallas Morning News team has an answer, but in providing it the editors glide past a major element. If “Trail Life,” a new alternative group “modeled on” the BSA, wants to emphasize moral values different from the BSA’s position, then what are the specifics of those values? Why are they doing what they are doing?

Sadly, you won’t find out much here. Read on:

Trail Life USA, a new alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, is starting to take off in Texas and across the nation.

The question is whether Trail Life will become a viable alternative to the venerable Boy Scouts, a 103-year-old organization with $1 billion in assets and 2.6 million members.

Trail Life was born last summer after BSA’s leaders voted to allow openly gay boys to participate in Scouting, a reversal of a long-standing policy. Many conservative Christians objected, saying the historic vote represented a rejection of biblical teachings on sexuality. Some within Scouting voted with their feet, leaving to create Trail Life USA.

In many ways, Trail Life is modeled on the Boy Scouts. The two groups part ways, though, on the question of admitting openly gay members. Trail Life bans gay members — the same ban that the BSA lifted last year.

“Trail Life is very much what families want,” said Rob Green, a former BSA executive who is CEO of the new group.

“They just don’t know it yet.”

As it turns out, Trail Life’s leaders are happy to explain their religious viewpoints, though not in exacting detail:

While Trail Life’s program is openly Christian, leaders insist that members of other faith groups are welcome. But boys who openly admit being gay cannot join.

“This is not a hater deal,” said Scott Scarborough, a landscape architect and Trail Life leader in Lubbock. “We want to return to timeless values.”

Scarborough, a former BSA assistant scoutmaster, is responsible for organizing new Trail Life troops in the Texas Panhandle. As of last week, he said, six troops were ready to come online in his area.

“I’ve got 20 men where who are BSA-trained heavy hitters,” he said. “My email is getting busier each day with parents getting ready to come over to us.”

Ron Orr, a Fort Worth-based business consultant, is southwest regional director for Trail Life, representing Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. He and his son — both are Eagle Scouts — are leaving BSA for a fledgling Trail Life troop chartered through the Northeast Tarrant County Association of Christian Home Schoolers.

Trail Life has developed 25 “pre-chartered troops” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Orr said, with commitments for an additional 30 troops elsewhere in Texas. Leaders are in place in all major metropolitan areas, he said.

“I don’t know if we will grow 10 percent, 20 percent or 50 percent next year,” Orr said. “But we will grow.”

More than 70 percent of BSA troops and Cub Scout packs are chartered through churches, which consider Scouting a part of their ministry.

Less visible — because the group wouldn’t comment — is how much of a loss the BSA anticipates in either members, troops or leaders. Also unclear, what exactly the BSA means when they say this:

Perhaps to blunt conservative criticisms stemming from the change of policy on gay members, BSA is focusing renewed attention on its longstanding declarations of allegiance to God. Avowed atheists can be kicked out of the Boy Scouts. A national committee is exploring ways to place more emphasis on “duty to God” as a basic tenet.

“There will be a raised awareness of duty to God as a core principle that is non-negotiable,” said Chip Turner, national chairman of BSA’s office for religious relationships. “A Scout must have some grasp of what ‘duty to God’ means.”

What exactly is that duty?

If the News asked the question, it’s not noted, nor is there any answer reported. Those disappointed with the BSA gay scout move might say “duty to God” includes supporting marriage as they believe the Bible defines it — but that’s not in the story, and thus the article is lacking a crucial element.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Bethany Persons

    If I had to guess, I’d say it’s one of two things. Either it’s code for promoting traditional Christian sexual morals (which would preclude homosexual behavior while admitting same sex attraction), or it’s a renewed emphasis on Christian virtue – self-sacrifice, integrity, honor, the fruit of the Spirit. But I’m just guessing based on my experience as an Evangelical. I know almost nothing about BSA culture, despite dating two Eagle Scouts (didn’t marry either of them).

    On the other hand, it could just be empty talk, which I imagine is how those who disagree with BSA’s recent policy change would interpret that statement.

    It would also be interesting to see how the newly welcomed openly-gay boy scouts and their families feel about this renewed emphasis to duty to God. I imagine they have reservations of their own.

    So yes, clarity would be helpful.

  • Darren Blair

    Ten seconds on Bing found this PDF from the BSA: http://www.scouting.org/filestore/pdf/512-879_WB.pdf

    Depending upon the denomination of the Scout in question, they can potentially earn a scouting award for meeting certain requirements relating to exemplifying their denomination.

    To quote the document:

    What are the religious emblems programs?

    The religious emblems programs are programs created by the various religious groups to encourage youth to grow stronger in their faith. The religious groups — not the Boy Scouts of America — have created the religious emblems programs themselves.

    The Boy Scouts of America has approved of these programs and allows the recognition to be worn on the official uniform, but each religious organization develops and administers its own program

    I actually earned a “Faith In God” award as a Cub Scout, and that was about 20 years ago (give or take), which should say something about how long this has been going on.

  • Brian Westley

    As someone who has been involved in arguing for decades what the BSA means by “duty to god”, it really is meaningless. A scout can be a deist who has absolutely NO duties to his completely-uninvolved god, and that is acceptable.

    Also see this from a 1991 statement on their official policy
    (see http://www.bsa-discrimination.org/html/bsa-god_policy.html )

    Q. Some people maintain that God is a tree, a rock or a stream. Would a person believing such be eligible to be a member of Scouting?

    The BSA does not seek to interpret God or religion. The Scout Oath states a requirement for a Scout to observe a duty to God, and the Scout Law requires a Scout to be reverent. Again, interpretation is the responsibility of the Scout, his parents and religious leaders.

    Apparently a tree, rock, or stream qualifies.


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