Boy Scouts

Yes, the decision by the Boy Scouts to open the doors to gay boys but not to gay men is an awkward compromise, but social progress often proceeds by awkward compromise. The fact is that it is now officially possible to be both openly gay and, in Scouting lingo, “morally…straight.” And that’s what’s got conservative religious leaders’ knickers in a twist.

How can their churches continue to sponsor troops? “Upholding traditional morality is vital for sustaining this partnership, for protecting Scout members, and for ensuring BSA has a strong future,” says a statement signed by 50 of them. “By introducing homosexual identification into Scouting, the Boy Scouts would effectively require church-sponsored Scouting units to endorse that which they consider incompatible with Scripture,” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention declared.

Sure, gays belong to their congregations. But it’s often by way of a wink and a nod, of don’t ask and don’t tell, and in any case with no threat to what strictures against homosexuality the ecclesiastical authorities have in place. The norms abide.

Take the Catholic Church…please. It has staked out a position that (sexually inactive) gays can be honorable members even of the clergy. Yet despite the Easter pledge of USCCB president Timothy Dolan’s Easter to do better by gays and lesbians, the bishops couldn’t bring themselves to take a position on the Scouts’ anti-discrimination proposal. If the reaction to yesterday’s vote from the National Catholic Committee on Scouting is any indication, decisions will be made diocese by diocese.

But then there is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite numbering less than two percent of the American population, its churches sponsor more Boy Scout troops than any religious body in the country. It is fair to say that Scouting is profoundly integrated into the Mormon way of life — a way of life that exceeds all other branches of the Judeo-Christian family tree, and perhaps all other religions known to man, in valorizing the heterosexual family.

And yet last month the LDS Church managed to gingerly climb aboard the Boy Scouts’ anti-discrimination bandwagon. (“We appreciate the positive things contained in this current proposal that will help build and strengthen the moral character and leadership skills of youth as we work together in the future.”) And it stuck to its guns after the vote. How could this be?

A cynic might say that, so far as Salt Lake is concerned, the Holy Spirit follows the election returns. What I’d say is that the Saints understand the world to be a spiritually evolving place, where truths that once seemed timeless can be revealed as partial or even mistaken. Plural marriage, the exclusion of black men from the priesthood — these have gone by the boards when the norms of society at large required. Who’s to say that approving the Boy Scouts’ anti-discrimination rule will not turn out to have been the right call too?

Categories: Institutions

Beliefs: , ,

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

10 Comments

  1. Let’s face it. Scouting has always been an outdoor version of religion. And what we have witnessed for many, many decades is the same warfare that has always tainted religion. The Scouts are now compromising their so-called principles to avoid great losses, especially with the young on whom they have always depended, for whom they have supposedly existed.

    As homosexuality is understood, respected, and accepted more and more, especially by the young who are having more real experience of the world than their elders, those older, less wise people who run the Scouts are being forced to think about their losses and what’s causing them.

    • Mary in Austin

      The irony is that Boy Scouting was founded by Lord Baden-Powell, a classic closet case if one takes even the most cursory look at his personal history.

  2. I don’t think anything changed as far as the LDS church is concerned.

    My understanding is that the LDS church never prohibited same-gender attraction or homosexual TENDENCIES, even in their scout troops.

    The prohibition against sexual relationships applies equally to heterosexual and homosexual scouts.

  3. Paul, you are correct. The LDS teaching is that there is nothing inherently sinful about same sex attraction, but rather sex of any kind outside of a marriage relationship. Since scouts are presumably unmarried, it is as possible for a gay scout to be morally straight as a straight scout, simply by remaining celibate.

  4. Paul and DougH,
    The Catholic position is no different from the Mormon one, as you describe it. Yet the Catholic authorities have not taken the same position. I have suggested reasons for the divergence. Your point, I presume, is that the LDS authorities would have taken the same position they do now a generation ago. I’m inclined to doubt it.

    • You’re probably right. The position is implicit in the doctrine we’ve held to all along, so far as I know – that sin lies in the deed – but we’re only human and it can take some time (read, generations or more) to work them out.

  5. Can the Church be associated with the Boy Scouts of America and remain faithful to the scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior and the Ten Commandments? Maybe, but they would need to make it clear that they love the sinner but hate the sin.

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