Asking the Boy Scout questions that matter the most

If you know anything about the politics of gay rights, you know that there is absolutely nothing that the Boy Scouts of American can do right now that will not lead to major divisions in their organization. The key force that will cause a future split is, of course, the deep divide among mainstream religious groups on the moral status of homosexual behavior. There is no safe ground for the Boy Scouts, none whatsoever.

It's very clear where American public opinion is headed, at the moment. Thus, there are few if any surprises in the media coverage of that new Washington Post-ABC News poll, which asks two questions related to the Boy Scouts debate. Let's walk through a short Post "On Faith" blog item on the results:

A wide majority of Americans support the Boy Scouts of America’s proposal to admit gay scouts for the first time, and most oppose the organization’s plans to continue to bar gay adults from serving as scout leaders, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The century-old group’s National Council will gather later in May to vote on the plan, unveiled last month, which would allow gay scouts but maintain a ban on gay scout masters. In splitting the decision, the group may be trying to modernize while continuing to appeal to a diversity of views on homosexuality -- seven in 10 scout groups are chartered by religious institutions.

So, with that seven-in-10 statistic, what are the most crucial follow-up questions that the authors of this poll needed to ask? It's clear what the real issue is here, but it does not appear that the poll team was interested in the hard facts (poll .pdf here) behind the news.

Opposition to banning gay scout leaders ranges by religious group and along well-worn political fault lines. A 56 percent majority of Catholics oppose the continued ban on gay scout masters, a number that rises to 75 percent among people who identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. By contrast, Protestants are closely divided, 49 percent supporting and 47 percent opposing the ban on gay scout leaders. While the new survey did not ask Protestants whether they identify as “born-again or evangelical Christians,” surveys have consistently shown evangelical Christians are more conservative than mainline protestants on issues of homosexuality.

Once again, it is absolutely useless to ask where American Catholics stand on just about anything without asking a detailed question about Mass attendance. It Boy Scout troops are hosted by Catholic parishes, that means that the key players in future decisions are almost certain to be people -- parents with children -- who not only attend, but help lead, those parishes.

How many sacramentally active, weekly Mass Catholics oppose the ban on gay Boy Scout leaders? If the goal of the poll is to investigate the future of the Boy Scouts, that's the crucial question on the Catholic side of the aisle. Frankly, I was stunned at that anti-ban 56 percent number -- stunned that it was not higher.

The key statistics that the poll did not investigate can be seen in a chart at the Boy Scouts website (the "On Faith" site does contain a link).

Where are most Boy Scout troops based? Total units linked to congregations in:

* 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.

I know, I know. Even some of these labels are all but meaningless -- but the realities on the ground point toward the real divisions that are out there.

What is a "Presbyterian Church"? Is that a liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church in Chicago or a conservative Nashville flock in the same denomination? Anyone who knows anything about United Methodism knows that churches in Georgia have little or nothing in common with those in California. Lutheran churches? Are we talking about Evangelical Lutheran Church parishes in Minneapolis or Missouri-Synod congregations in Texas?

The Washington Post-ABC poll, in other words, yields little or nothing in the way of information that is useful to Boy Scout leaders as they seek a way to keep their organization intact (or journalists who want to do accurate, balanced coverage of that story). Will the Boy Scouts collapse under the cultural/media opposition to their core beliefs?

The key is what is unfolding in Nashville, which I first spotted -- of course -- by reading Baptist Press the other day. Welcome to the future.

NASHVILLE (BP) -- The Middle Tennessee Council of the Boys Scouts of America has voted to affirm Scouting's current national membership policy as "a core value of the Scout Oath and Law."

Hugh Travis, the Scout executive for the 37-county council, said in a May 6 news release that its delegates "will not vote to approve the resolution" -- to allow openly homosexual youth as Scouts -- "but to retain the current membership policy."

Meanwhile, Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, has issued a statement underscoring his opposition to what the national Scouting organization has touted as a "compromise" by dropping its plan to allow openly gay Scout leaders.

Also, The Tennessean has a very helpful follow-up report that, among other specifics, points toward the polls that matter the most. That would be the internal polls Boy Scout leaders are conducting among parents, troop leaders and religious sponsors. These numbers, of course, lean toward traditional beliefs -- but also show signs of painful divisions.

A survey of parents, Boy Scout leaders, churches that sponsor troops, board members and donors guided the local decision, Travis said. Of about 3,000 surveyed, 66 percent said openly gay youths should not be allowed to participate in Scouting. About 15.7 percent said gay Scouts should be allowed. The rest were neutral. Seventy percent of survey respondents said it was inappropriate for a gay Scout and a straight Scout to share a tent.

Can the Boy Scouts survive? What groups might emerge from the wreckage?

That's the story, at this point. The Washington Post-ABC News poll offers little information that sheds light on those questions.

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