Backpacker heads out into the woods and gives Trail Life USA a fair shot

There is the Boy Scouts of America story, which is complex and getting more so every minute -- especially among decision-makers for American Catholics and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalists are covering these stories, of course.

Then there is another story that could be covered, one that focuses on the people in religious flocks that are not interested in compromising on centuries of basic doctrines about marriage and family. There have been a few stories about these folks, but, so far, they have been rather thin and packed with stereotypes.

The former Boy Scout in me is interested in knowing what happens to the folks who have left. I'm interested -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- in some of these other options because I know that many members of Orthodox parishes are starting to look for ways out of the Boy Scouts. But do they want to join some kind of hyper-Evangelical Protestant alternative?

I'm happy to report that a freelancer linked to Backpacker Magazine -- a bible, of sorts, for people who wear out more than their share of hiking boots and rain slickers -- has turned out a serious story about Trail Life USA, one of the largest of the faith-friendly alternative camping-and-outdoors operations.

The key: This story focuses more on what boys are doing in these troops out in the woods, as opposed to what their lawyers are saying in courtrooms. There are sections of this piece that will make the palms of Unitarian Universalists or urbane Episcopalians sweat.

I also appreciated that reporter Patrick Doyle, who works out of Pittsburgh, didn't focus on a Trail Life unit in, let's say an evangelical megachurch in Bible Belt, Mississippi. He focused on a troop in a northern setting, based in a mainline Protestant flock. Here is the overture, focusing on the roots of this troop:

Boy Scout Troop 452 has been meeting at Concord United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as long as there’s been a troop, nearly 70 years.
But this isn’t the usual weekly gathering of the boys and their scoutmaster, Richard Greathouse. This meeting is just for their parents. It’s the fall of 2013 and Greathouse, a 37-year-old electrician with glasses and a goatee, moves toward the front of the room. He’s not a big talker, but the boys like him and the parents have trusted him for the 16 years he’s been leading the group. As he calls the room to order, the parents quiet around him. The other leaders of the group know what’s coming, but the parents have no idea why they’ve been summoned here tonight. Scouting in Beaver Falls, a small community 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, has gone more or less unchanged since a group of young men founded Troop 452 in the waning days of World War II. Generations of boys have grown up following the same path: They smile and march yearly in the town parade for the opening day of Little League, they serve pancakes at the Maple Syrup Festival, they camp and hike in the woods, work their way up to Eagle Scout, and then go forth to jobs, wives, and homes, and raise their sons in the same tradition. Some of 452’s members, in fact, are grandsons of the chartering members. The grandfather of Greathouse’s wife was an original member.

The purpose of the meeting, of course, was to discuss complaints about the direction BSA leaders have been veering in recent years. In the end, about one-third of the members joined a new Boy Scouts troop and the other two-thirds went with Greathouse into Trail Life USA troop 452.

I think it is crucial that Backpacker notes that there is much, much more to the current BSA crisis than sex and religion. Boy Scouts are an endangered species, in part, because WWW-era boys have other things to do. Thus, in addition to covering debates about politics and faith, Backpacker is interested in writing about anyone -- ANYONE -- who wants to encourage young males to head out into the woods and explore the great outdoors.

As an organization, the BSA’s main struggle has been getting members to join, not keeping them out. In 1972, 6.5 million boys were Scouts; today, that number is 2.4 million. From 2011 to 2014, youth membership dropped 15 percent. (The Boy Scouts declined an interview request, releasing a statement that said, “We believe every child deserves the opportunity to be a part of the Scouting experience, and we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting.”) But it’s not just the BSA membership that’s decreasing.
Today, only 6 percent of American 9- to 13-year-olds play outside on their own during a typical week, and kids spend half as much time outdoors as they did a generation ago.
There are a host of causes for the decline. TV, video games, and the Internet are easy to blame, but so are homework and longer school hours, and the push to specialize in a certain sport or activity. Or maybe kids just aren’t as interested anymore.
Seen in that context, it’s hard to argue with any organization with the stated mission to get more children involved in the outdoors. It’s an honorable goal -- every kid who learns to build a fire and pitch a tent is more likely to believe in preserving wilderness and our state and national park systems, and is also more likely to be healthy and active. Around half of Trail Life’s members never  belonged to the Boy Scouts, meaning the group is exposing a whole new population to the outdoors. But is it OK to exclude some kids if it means you’re opening a new door for others? And does it matter if these controversial policies provide a way for some families to stay in a scouting program rather than drop out?

So what is going on around these campfires? Well, it seems that Trail Life guys are learning bad jokes about bacon grease as well as a few Bible verses. They are also part of a group that let's them play paintball (banned in Scouting) as well as chase merit badges in science. However, when it comes time to study "what it means to be a hero" they are learning about men like St. Sebastian, who was martyred by the Romans for preaching, and Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis for, among other things, activities linked to spying and plotting against the government.

It is sad that Backpacker tends to hear the word Christian as "evangelical" Christianity, alone. Apparently, other Christians are not interested in the Bible and things like sin, heaven, hell and repentance. Only evangelicals believe, in line with centuries of Christian doctrine, that sex outside of marriage is sin. 

But it does report some typically evangelical lingo that, to outsiders, will be rather scary. Preach it:

I wanted to see how Troop 452 aligned with the larger mission of the national Trail Life organization, which sees itself as the cradle for the very future of Christianity in America. It wants to mold these boys into Christ-like vessels of virtue, temperance, and strength and establish them as outdoorsy, godly men of the 21st century. “My hope,” says David Servin, a Trail Life founder, “is that we will have a battalion of young men graduating from our program that will be highly talented and highly motivated and will have the skills -- the manly skills -- that are necessary to go and take back our culture.” ...

Want to hear some more? The religion side is presented with quite a bit of candor:

All adults are required to take a vow asserting their Christianity, but boys of all faiths (or none) are accepted. The non-Christian among them, though, ought to be prepared for evangelism. As Stuart Michelson, a Trail Life board member, puts it, “If a boy goes through our program and he doesn’t realize that he’s a sinner and that Christ is the Savior, we’ve failed.”

At the same time, I thought this little object lesson was rather fitting, in a circle of young males who frequent the mall.

By mid-morning, we’ve sat through a few chilly classes on knot-tying and orienteering, as well as one on how to incorporate Christianity into troop meetings. One example: Put a $10 bill on a rat trap and ask the boys if they’d like to attempt to grab it. The lesson: Satan will tempt you, but there are dangerous repercussions to sin.

Yes, there is something in this long, long feature to please Trail Life USA supporters and to feed the arguments of BSA supporters who are anxious to say, "See! I told you they were religious fanatics."

But the final thesis statement is hard to dodge. Is this a conservative statement or a liberal statement? 

If there’s one idea we can all agree on, it’s this: Americans get to disagree with each other on how they want to live and what they want to believe. It’s a fundamental tension that unfolds everywhere from schoolyards to the Supreme Court.

Read it all. 

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