When I was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas -- certainly one of the most racially divided cities in America -- one of the primary forces for change was the Boy Scouts of America. My father was the pastor of an inner-city Southern Baptist congregation and working with children in the neighborhoods around our church was one of his priorities.
As you can imagine, some of the people in church pews in the late 1960s didn't share his perspectives on that issue. My father did what he could.
Thus, there was a simple reality: Look at a church's Boy Scouts troop and it told you quite a bit about the leadership of that church, as opposed to the policies of the Boy Scouts.
That's why I was interested, to say the least, in the following passage in the recent Washington Post story about the remarks by Boy Scouts of America President Robert M. Gates in which he urged the organization to reconsider its ban on openly gay Scout leaders.
... Steeped in tradition as they were, the Boy Scouts often struggled to handle change. Though the Girl Scouts formally banned segregation of its troops the 1950s -- prompting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to call the group “a force for desegregation” -- the last Boy Scout troop wasn’t integrated until 1974, according to NPR. ...
And unlike the Boy Scouts of America, from the beginning the Girl Scouts declared themselves to be “non-sectarian in practice as well as theory.” In 1993, when a prospective member protested the phrase “serve God” in the Girl Scout Promise, the organization ruled that members could substitute whatever phrase fit their beliefs. The Girl Scouts have never had a policy on homosexual members and have admitted transgender members since 2011.
The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have long been inextricably tied to tradition and religion. The Scout’s oath pledges boys to “do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” A 2011 study of messaging in the Girl Scout and Boy Scout handbooks found that the Boy Scouts handbook relied on “organizational scripts” rather than autonomy and critical thinking, promoting “an assertive heteronormative masculinity.” Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of all troops are chartered to faith-based organizations, most of them Christian.
It doesn't take a doctorate in gender studies to find good and evil in that paragraph. Just out of curiosity, what was the source of that 2011 study? The gender-studies department of a blue zip-code state university? That's fine, for one side of that debate. It would not have hurt to cite the source.
Now, what this story fails to mention is one of the most important passages in the Gates talk. I am referring to this (care of a Los Angeles Times transcript):
... If we wait for the courts to act, we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundational belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys.
Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes. Alternatively, we can move at some future date -- but sooner rather than later -- to seize control of our own future, set our own course and change our policy in order to allow charter partners -- unit sponsoring organizations -- to determine the standards for their scout leaders. Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70% of our scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith.
We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this.
Now, right there is the heart of the story that will unfold in the near future -- that 70 percent figure for the Scouting units based in religious congregations. Once again, we have a story that pivots on a religious liberty question (without scare quotes, please) and it is interesting that the Post story did not pursue that angle.
Yes, there are quotes from conservative church leaders saying they are disappointed in what Gates had to say. The whole thrust of the remarks, on both sides, is that this is essentially a national political story about gay rights, as opposed to another sign of tensions and changing times in pews and pulpits.
On the religious side of the debate, the Post team -- while omitting the earlier quote -- decided to stress the Gates statement that the current policy against gay Scout leaders clashes with changing doctrines in some churches.
“The country is changing and we are increasingly at odds with the legal landscape. And, as a movement, we find ourselves with a policy more than a few of our church sponsors reject -- thus placing Scouting between a boy and his church,” Gates said. ... “The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate. Quite the opposite is happening.”
Now, that's an important statement in this story and one that should have been pursued, especially in light of the 70 percent figure. However, that's an equation with two sides. How many churches are signalling a willingness to change doctrines on this issue, as opposed to those likely to hit exit doors?
Don't look to this Post story for information on that.
However, this Religion News Service story by veteran reporter Adelle Banks (I should note that Banks lectured once a semester in my Washington Journalism Center program) goes straight after the religion angle and maps some of the fault lines that already exist and some that will certainly deepen. She reports, for example, that Facebook page "likes" of the Trail Life USA -- an alternative friendly to doctrinal conservatives -- increased by 3,000 after the Gates remarks.
The RNS story notes:
... Leaders of faith groups, which sponsor 70 percent of Scouts’ units, had mixed reactions. Catholics and Mormons appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, Methodists plan to mull the next steps with BSA officials, and some progressive groups are welcoming the possible change but say it may take an actual revision before they see a significant boost in participation.
In a letter to “fellow Catholic Scouters” posted on Facebook, Edward P. Martin, national chairman of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, said his group supports the “viable form of youth ministry” it provides with the BSA.
“We will continue to pursue that mission until such time BSA rules conflict with Catholic teaching,” he wrote. “That hasn’t happened yet, nor do we expect it to happen.”
And also, concerning trends as this issue has flared into the headlines:
... A BSA report on trends in membership of faith-based chartered organizations shows that most listed groups saw a decline in youth membership from 2012 to 2013, ranging from 0.4 percent in the Episcopal Church’s affiliated groups to 14.2 percent among Baptist churches. The only exception to the decline was the Mormon church, which had an increase of 1.5 percent.
No surprise, but the overarching trend is that these decisions -- to stay or to go -- are following familiar paths of doctrine, based on centuries of teachings and concepts of biblical authority.
Note to Washington Post editors: You may want to follow some of the leads in the Religion News Service piece and talk to religious leaders on the doctrinal left and the right. That's where the story is. #DUH