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After the Boy Scouts of America decided to open their ranks to (openly) gay members last May, the American Conservatives noted blogger Rod Dreher confidently predicted a schism in scouting ranks of biblical — well, of Mainline Protestant — proportions.

I have nothing new to say about any of this, except to note the bloody obvious: that the symbolism of this event can hardly be overestimated. As traditionalist and conservative churches withdraw troop sponsorship, and parents pull their sons, this will split the Boy Scouts Of America just like the homosexuality issue has split mainline Protestant churches.

But, as one of his readers pointed out to him, this does not seem to have happened. Thus far, the BSA has lost a mere six percent of its membership, and some of that decline may well be due to other causes.

To his credit, Dreher admits that his prophecy missed the mark: “This really does surprise me. I was wrong, and have to own up to it.” So how could the Sage of St. Francisville gotten it so wrong?

Well, a lot of those traditionalist and conservative churches didn’t withdraw troop sponsorship. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors a disproportionately large number of troops, backed the decision as a reaffirmation of the BSA’s founding principles. And while the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, took a dim view, it left the decision to sponsor or not to sponsor up to individual congregations.

Why was there little withdrawal of sponsorship? Symbolism be damned, it’s not easy to deny membership in a church-based organization to kids who go to your church — or, to be precise in this case, to do so by switching over to a group like Trail Life USA. More than that, we have reached the point when the vast majority of Americans just don’t think it’s right to exclude gays and lesbians from organizations.

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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. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

16 Comments

  1. We have been a scouting family for years, and I am not surprised at all about what a “yawn” this turned out to be. Boy Scouts is not an organization that focuses on sex and sexual behavior. In reality, it has been “don’t ask, don’t tell” for years. There are, and have always been, scouts with same-sex-attraction. See my blog for more info.

    • The ban was costing them more in goodwill, access to public facilities and personal support than what they were getting from the conservative churches.

      What Rod Dreher won’t admit is the policy towards gays was doing more damage to the organization than lifting the ban ever could. It drove many adults who were former scouts (especially former Eagle Scouts) and parents from supporting the organization. There were many troops which openly defied the ban and actively protested it.

      Lifting the ban (on members but not Scout Leaders) was pure damage control. Even then it was a half-measure. Although gays could be Boy Scouts, grown ones still cannot participate. People admitted to the organization as youths are banned from being involved as adults.

      • I’m afraid you are wrong. What has actually happened is corporate donations are not increasing because BSA continues to bar both adult homosexuals and all atheists. Corporations won’t cough up again until BOTH restrictions have been removed.

        BSA biggest source of income is alumni giving. That has tanked since the change as alumni no longer feel it is the same character building organization they grew up with.

        There will be no further movement on this for at least 2 years as BSA is petrified they will cause the organization to be destroyed if they admit gay men.

  2. It’s the best thing for sexually confuse kids to be around positive role models so they understabn they are not defined by their attractions and that they don’t have to surrender to their sinful desires. That’s why gay adults should never be leaders.

    • Frank, you write as though gay adults can actually influence youth to be gay. There has NEVER been a proven case that this is so. No one “decides” to be gay or straight. When did you decide to be straight, by the way?
      The Bible also teaches the sun goes around the earth, slavery is OK, and women are inferior to men. It also teaches it was a good thing for the Israelites to engage in ethnic cleansing – in fact they were commanded to murder every man, woman, and child of the Canaanites.
      Since you have not been informed of the science concerning sexual orientation, you may want to investigate what science says about our solar system, slavery, equality of women, and a host of other anti-science positions the Bible “clearly teaches.” Oh? We’re supposed to interpret the Bible to accommodate what we know about the solar system? Of course! Likewise with sexual orientation.
      But I don’t expect you to believe me. “True believers” in the Bible have publically gone on record to say (and I quote the recent HBO documentary) “If the Bible said 2 + 2 = 5, I would believe it.” Really?

  3. Jonathan J. Turner

    Unfortunately, journalism and scholarship has little memory of the roots of the war on Boy Scouts, which was publicly launched in 1985 by William Schultz, then-president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) on behalf of–not gays, but atheists! Synchronous with their adoption of the “Welcoming” policy of 1992, the UUA also adopted an anti-BSA resolution, which text is interesting of itself as an example of the UUA’s “religious” process.

    After the Boy Scouts kicked the UUA out of their Duty to God program in 1999, and in the wake of the 2000 Dale decision, there were several alternate scouting schemes advanced by UU activists, none of which gained much traction, although the UUA continued to actively support the ACLU’s several anti-BSA lawsuits with amicus briefs, by invoking the UUA’s historic and privileged “religious” authority.

    Spurred by the Massachusetts court decision in 2003, the UUA’s enthusiasm shifted to the same-sex marriage campaign, but they still encouraged activists to threaten legal action on school boards, in order to limit BSA access to public schools for recruitment, meeting space, and unit sponsorship. Ironically, this strategy has driven units into the arms of–more church sponsors! None of this activity can be shown to have advance any of the UUA’s favored alternative scouting movements.

    Now, a decade later, the new BSA policy does not deny a youth membership for “only” being gay. But, in accordance with the overwhelming volunteer sentiment, the BSA maintains the court-tested prohibition on gay leaders. Moreover, the new BSA policy reaffirms and preserves the foundational Scouting principle of Reverence: thus, gays can no longer be used as human shields by the atheists, so Duty to God is unassailed.

    Progressives will NOT rush into scouting, traditional or otherwise, out of their own indifference or misapprehension of Scouting, boys and/or men, nor by their hostility to patriarchy in general. The current conservative alternative may persist, but many Baptists may see that the traditional values of Scouting are still very much intact and congruent with their faith principles.

    • Nice attempt at spin control, but it is a work of fiction. The same religious conservative infestation within the BSA national leadership which attacked atheists in scouting also attacked gays.

      Scouting was never meant to be tied to any given church. It was nationalistic in nature. One recognized their duty as a citizen before recognizing religious belief. This is why religious awards in Scouting are voluntary but citizenship ones are required.

      Much of the resistance to the current policy comes from within the organization. Your “volunteer sentiment” is nothing more than a fancy term for self-serving bigotry. The lift on gay scouts makes it so that a scout who has gone through the organization as a child is banned from participating as an adult. The end effects are a half-baked policy for the sake of appearances.

      Your characterization of “progressives” and scouting is nothing more than an unfounded personal bias having nothing to do with reality. What is truly offensive is the blatantly sectarian appropriation of the BSA as an extension of your church. The Boy Scouts was founded as not only a non-sectarian organization but one where religious affiliation was an anathema to the organization. Recognizing one had a religious belief was one thing, but it was never, ever meant to support religious interests as an organization.

      • Jonathan J. Turner

        Larry -

        Thanks for your reply, but unfortunately my letter is neither fiction nor spin, but rather it is based on my true experience both as a Unitarian Universalist active in worship (music) and church school from 1990-2008 (after which we sojourned back to the Quakers), and as a Scouting volunteer since 1999 (den leader through commissioner). Also, I have served with the Unitarian Universalist Scouters Organization (UUSO) on their 2005 and 2010 Jamboree staff, and am acquainted with many of the national leaders of various faiths. My son earned Eagle Scout in 2009 and my daughter is currently working on her Girl Scout Gold award. I continue to volunteer working with inner-city Scout packs and troops; recently I taught knots and lashings at our city’s Klondike (multi-troop winter campout).

        How about you?

        • Eagle Scout since 1988 and active member of the National Eagle Scout Association since 1990. Assistant Scoutmaster for a local troop from 1994-2001. [My father is still active as the troop liaison with its veteran group sponsor] I still assist with prepping prospective Eagle Scouts for their council interviews.

          I am speaking from personal experience both as a former scout and volunteer. There are the 3G’s that we have had to do a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation for [Gays, Girls, God]. The councils are less interested in the Scout’s honest opinion on such things as much as they are expecting to see them “toe the line”.

          The resistance to the ban on gays as members and leaders is not just some outside agitation but comes from within the organization itself. Your characterization of that was based on your own limited experiences. I have been seeing the religious infestation of the BSA going on for over a generation now. Its driving away corporate support and that of a good deal of former boy scouts (especially former Eagle Scouts). Michael Bloomberg, former Eagle Scout, former mayor of New York City, still addresses the NESA about working to lift the ban entirely.

      • There are hundreds of troops, and have been since before World War 2, where most, if not all, of the boys in that troop are drawn from the church (or at least the church’s “parent” denomination); the Scouts have functioned as the official Latter Day Saint organization for their boys since just after World War One; do you have a problem with it now that the Mormons are three times the size of the Episcopalians?
        It’s not ideal to have only Jewish/Greek Orthodox/Armenian Orthodox etc. kids in a troop but to say that you can’t mix religion and scouting is crazy; they’ve been doing it virtually since it began. Whether or not they should be doing it is another issue. People will debate about that for hours at a time. But “sectarian appropriation”? No. Not after so many years and so many kids in so many religious groups.

  4. The percentage of all “mainline” churches under 35 is barely 9%; these organizations make up, at most, 16% of the US population. So you have a small, albeit privileged and strategically situated, segment of the US population, and one that continues to shrink.
    The Mainline and Scouting have a lot in common; both have grew into the same spaces in US life from 1910 through the 70s. As the country’s demographics change, both are increasingly seen as all-White, middle class clubs: this is even truer for the Mainline Churches (still barely 5% non-White, non-middle class) than for the Scouts (about 13% non-White).
    The idea that the Unitarians, barely half a million people, were the key to the Scouts’ membership issues is a joke; even if every single Unitarian boy joined, this is a group that not only has a birthrate below replacement level but has a low (and shrinking) percentage of its membership below the age of 30; most Unitarians are adult converts-and their rate of retaining the children they do have is low. A 4th generation Jew or Catholic or Greek Orthodox? Yawn. But rare as hen’s teeth among the Unitarians.
    It’s doubtful that the Unitarians would’ve attracted so much attention-except for, ironically for a group that claims to want to stand with the poor, its very high percentage of upper middle class members.

  5. I’m afraid that you are jumping the gun with the “everything is fine” rhetoric.

    6% decline is more than TRIPLE the decline of the previous year. Gift giving and Friends of Scouting (the charity to pay local Scout executives’ salaries) giving has fallen significantly. Trail Life has been created and sits waiting for the day that BSA goes over the cliff and allows homosexual men to take young men into the woods for two weeks. That’s when the trickle of leavers becomes a stream.

    Robert Gates, a proponent of gays in Scouting and the new BSA President, is backpedaling furiously on this issue and has vowed he will fight against opening it up for the 2 years of his term. In his words, admitting adult gays would cause the demise of the BSA. Think perhaps he’s been told exactly how damaging the change for youths has been?

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