If you grew up male in the 1950s and ‘60s — especially in the American heartland and the Bible Belt — the odds were good that you knew the following by memory: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
If you grew up as a Texas Baptist, as I did, then Scouting was another one of those church things, but it wasn’t totally a church thing.
You knew that the Boy Scout oath mentioned “God,” but not “Jesus,” and you knew that this meant Scouting was interfaith. You knew that when you went to big Scouting events you would meet boys from other flocks — Methodist, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, Catholic, etc. This was one of the first settings in which you met guys active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Scouting was an “American” thing, a perfect example of what scholars would call “civil religion,” with a lowest-common-denominator creed that united as many people as possible. That was back when you could say “morally straight” without people flinching.
So Scouting was a religious thing — but not too religious. That’s the paradox at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which grew out of my recent post: “Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?).” Here’s a key chunk of that post, focusing on basic Scouting math, religious groups and the movement’s attempts to survive the Sexual Revolution:
So, 71 percent of all Scout units were, at that time, linked to faith-based groups, with the LDS ranked No. 1 and the United Methodists No. 2. And what about the Baptists? As of two years ago — when the Boy Scouts decided to accept girls who identify as boys — the Association of Baptists for Scouting (ABS) reported that it had nearly 2.3 million members. At that time, about 60 percent of the association’s members were Southern Baptists.
It would appear that it is hard to ponder Scouting’s future without considering the impact of the movement’s policies on sex and gender and its standing among religious groups — especially the United Methodists and various kinds of Baptists. And the believers formerly known as Mormons?
Right now, the big news in Scouting centers on waves of sexual-abuse lawsuits and the very real chance that the organization previously known as the BOY Scouts could go bankrupt. That is a big story — no doubt about it.
But there is another big story on the horizon, a story that reporters have long known was coming. But now it is here.
Remember these three facts: The Southern Baptists have been bailing out of Scouting for years now. The United Methodists are, well, at war with each other over the same kinds of moral issues that are tearing up the Scouts. And now the Latter-day Saints are opening the exit door and moving on.
Here is the top of a humor piece by columnist Robert Kirby of The Salt Lake Tribune. The headline: “Adios, LDS Scouting. Hola, Children and Youth.”
Next Sunday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will announce a new youth program replacing Boy Scouts effective Jan. 1. It’s a bitter blow to Scouters.
The second hour during worship services will feature a video of President Russell M. Nelson and other church leaders explaining how helpful Scouting was but that it’s time for something new.
“It will take some effort on your part,” Nelson warns.
The new program will be called the “Children Youth Association,” or CYA. I guess the hope is that … wait, I meant “Children and Youth.” Sorry. These new acronyms and references are so confusing.
What will these new activities look like, for young males in the flock previously known as the Mormons?
The activity will be outdoors like Scout camp but, unlike Scout camp, it will be designed to undo all the damage previously caused by Scouts — planting trees, reseeding charred areas, picking up trash and such.
Where it gets tricky is the removal of all graffiti from trees, benches, cabins and Forest Service signs that reference “Mormon” or “LDS.”
This is, in my opinion, a big news story with at least two crucial angles.
First of all, for 100 years Scouting was a crucial part of Latter-day Saint efforts to enter the heart of American life and religion, to break down some of the fear factor that hindered the church’s work.
The goal was for Mormons to enter the American mainstream. Of course, the assumption was that the American mainstream agreed on the meaning of terms like “God” and “morally straight.” Oh, and the assumption was that the vast majority of Americans knew what the word “boy” meant, as well as “male.” Times change.
In other words, this story offers a window into Latter-day Saints discussions of life in modern America.
The second point is a matter of basic math. In the old days, the vast majority of Scouting units were based in conservative or centrist religious flocks.
What now? Will liberal Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Unitarians step up? But how many young children are there, in America’s aging, shrinking flocks of oldline Protestants? At the very least, journalists need to dig into the status of Scouting units in the divided and warring camps of United Methodists. Have they been caught in the crossfire?
Oh, and then there is this: That whole concept of an American mainstream? What now?