Campouts-Plus: Christianity Defines, Afflicts Boy Scouts

Campouts-Plus: Christianity Defines, Afflicts Boy Scouts May 9, 2018
boy scouts policy changes
Detail of religiously explicit bronze statue at the Boy Scout Memorial in Washington, D.C. A young scout is depicted next to an allegorical woman holding “the eternal flame of God’s Holy Spirit.” (Image by Ted Eytan, Flikr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I was a Boy Scout myself back in the day, and despite the incidental evocation of God in the “Scout Oath” — a “normal” reference to the divine is also present in the Pledge of Allegiance and on American money, after all — the organization always felt completely secular to me.

As far as I knew, it was all about wearing uniforms, going to fun meetings, earning merit badges to decorate your sash and lighting campfires in the wilderness. Except if we camped on Sunday, whereupon my troop was split by leaders into groups for impromptu worship observances (we scouts, sons of oil-company employees in a Saudi Arabian desert camp, represented various religious denominations) .

But we were American kids, and religion in the scouting context seemed simply an irrelevant distraction from the good stuff.

Yet, reading a news article today, I discovered that religion — specifically Christianity — is actually very much a part of the today’s scouting program, however generally unapparent.

Indeed, the bronze Boy Scout Memorial in Washington, D.C., is an explicitly religious depiction of a young scout and allegorical figures of a man and woman. The woman is holding “the eternal flame of God’s Holy Spirit,” according to the U.S. Park Service.

In the story, this fact jumped out at me: “about 70 percent of chartered Boy Scout troops are sponsored by faith-based organizations.”

I did not know that. I thought sponsors were like the Rotary Club or Kiwanis.

This fact was rendered more interesting by the article’s context: that at the end of 2019, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a., the Mormon Church) will sever its formal, century-old relationship with Boy Scouts. Ostensibly, the church wants to better prepare its scout-aged, 11- to 17-year-old boys for their evangelizing religious missions, but it’s really about two innovations in Boy Scouts that Mormons reject: acceptance of gay scouts and troop leaders, and girls.

Such biblically proscribed rejection of homosexuality and the fundamental equality between genders reveals the continuing effect of culturally reinforced religious beliefs on scouting. Indeed, Boy Scouts itself long wrestled with these issues before formally deciding to embrace gays and girls in troops; quickly changing America mores and eroding scout membership eventually won the argument. Mormons, though, apparently more reactionary than other Christian sects, declined to go along.

Of particular interest to this blog is how the previously relatively hidden, but significant influence of religion in scouting reflects yet another vein through which Christian doctrine and practice has long subliminally infused the body politic. It’s part of the nation’s by-now normal and broad religious insinuations throughout the culture. It insidiously embeds religious values in the minds of children, knowing it will permeate outward.

It’s encouraging that the Boy Scouts organization, which will formally morph into the more gender neutral Scouts BSA next year, is now looking at gender and sexual identity issues with a more secular, rational, empathetic eye. But, as we see with the Mormon Church, the culture still allows organizations to recoil inward and discriminate against Americans on religious grounds.

The Mormon resistance to inclusivity is not inconsequential. The church’s severing of ties with Boy Scouts (née Scouts USA) will affect hundreds of thousands of Mormon boys in 3,500 congregations worldwide. Indeed, until now, scouting has been an automatic mainstay for Mormon boys’, and the church has been Boy Scouts’ largest participant, providing nearly 20 percent of the organization’s 2.3 million youth members.

Ancient Christian teachings hold — irrationally, we now know — that homosexuality is an abomination “in the eyes of God” and that males, inherently far superior to unequal women, should rule them because of a story about a long-ago incident in a garden.

Ignorance and religion, it turns out, are as perpetual as hate.

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