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:

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Holy Scouts! Southern Baptists didn’t do what we expected!

So, when push came to shove, what did the Southern Baptist Convention decide to do about the Boy Scouts of America?

To the surprise of the national press, the debate in the national convention ended up featuring a variety of voices making a variety of interesting and valid points about Scouting and its new approach to gay members. In the end, the nation’s largest Protestant flock elected to do something that was more Baptist and congregational than it was political — they left the ultimate decision about supporting or leaving the Boy Scouts of America up to local congregations.

Thus, some news organizations clearly didn’t know how to handle this.

Did The New York Times even do a story? I cannot find one on the site. The lesson? If the story doesn’t go the way you expected, then don’t cover it.

Or, you can take the approach used in The Los Angeles Times. Try to find the key fact — the fact that the SBC said churches should make their own decisions — at the top of this report:

HOUSTON – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention at their annual meeting Wednesday voted to support families who leave the Boy Scouts due to the group’s plans to accept gay Scouts, urged the removal of Boy Scout leaders who championed accepting gays and encouraged former Boy Scouts to join a Southern Baptist youth group instead.

“Homosexuality is directly opposed to everything that Scouting stands for. I am disappointed in Scouting,” said the Rev. Wes Taylor in speaking for the resolution endorsed by the convention. “They are moving away from the principles that it was founded upon. This is an attempt to open the door to broaden the acceptance of homosexuality in that organization. It is an environment that would prove just fertile for young boys to be exposed to something that is ungodly and unacceptable.”

The proposal was submitted by the Southern Baptist Committee on Resolutions.

All valid, but the story totally missed the point of the key debates on the convention floor. In fact, the story does not include a direct reference to the most important element of the decision — the defense of local-church autonomy. It is clear that thousands of SBC churches will continue to be critical (in multiple meanings of that word) participants in Scouting for some time to come.

You can tell that the newspaper’s scribe heard some of the debate. The following information is crucial and hints at the issue lurking in the background — the distinction the Boy Scouts (echoing language used by Catholics and Mormons, to cite two key groups) are drawing between sexual orientation and opposition to sexual activity, gay or straight, by Scouts.

Thus, the story notes:

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After the Boy Scouts? For a few, camping with doctrine

When considering the forces pulling at the Boy Scouts of America, one thing journalists really needed to consider was a simple statistical chart that can be found (.pdf) on the organization’s homepage. Here are the crucial numbers found at the top of this file:

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — 37,856.

United Methodist Church — 10,868.

Catholic Church — 8,397.

Presbyterian Church — 3,597.

Lutheran Church — 3,827.

Baptist churches — 3,981.

These are these numbers? That would be the number of Scouting units hosted by these particular religious groups.

I am well aware, as I have written in a previous post, that this chart doesn’t tell us everything in terms of Scouting’s internal divisions and tensions. Once again, that is this “Presbyterian Church”? How many of those are liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations, as opposed to congregations in the Presbyterian Church in America, or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or, for that matter, more doctrinally conservative PCUSA flocks in the Sunbelt or elsewhere in flyover country?

The same question can be applied to that “Lutheran Church” reference. Are these part of the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the conservative Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church? And those “Baptist churches,” are they Southern Baptist, American Baptist, independent Baptists, from one of the two National Baptist conventions or what?

But one thing is certain, given the realities shown in that chart. In keeping with trends in its own work, the Mormon leadership endorsed the policy of accepting openly gay Scouts, but no openly gay Scout leaders. The Mormon compromise was victorious.

Now, who comes next?

The United Methodists, that’s who. Outside the Sunbelt, there are few United Methodist congregations that will not accept, if not hail, this decision (unless they believe it does not go far enough).

Then how about your generic suburban American Catholic congregations?

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