Cover Story
Photo by Keith Wright

Scouts in the balance

Boy Scouts | Will the Boy Scouts of America survive a double-barreled attack from atheists and homosexual activists?

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

Every four years more than 40,000 Boy Scouts and their leaders hold a National Jamboree. This year they are scheduled to gather in July at the new Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia. They’ll pitch tents, hike, tie knots, trade patches, and raise their right hands to affirm: “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, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  

But the pastoral scene will belie a crisis in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), one related to that oath. What is “duty to God”? What does it mean to be “morally straight”? On April 19, the national BSA leadership announced a proposed change to its current policy of banning openly homosexual men and boys from participating in Scouting. The proposed policy would walk a tightrope by banning homosexual adult leaders but welcoming boys who identify as gay, while affirming that “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”

If BSA adopts and firmly adheres to that policy, the great number of 17-year-old boys who dream of having sex with girls in their class, and the lesser number with homosexual inclinations, will both know that their inclinations are inconsistent with “duty to God’ and being “morally straight.” The proposed policy emerged after an on-line BSA survey garnered more than 200,000 responses, with most supporting the current policy of excluding homosexuals from leadership, but most also wanting the program to admit boys who define themselves as gay. Fervent debate over the proposal, though, shows neither proponents nor opponents of homosexuality satisfied with it.

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The website of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) assesses the policies on gay members of five youth organizations: Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts of the USA, 4-H Club, Camp Fire USA, and Boy Scouts of America. GLAAD gives “badges of equality” to the first four, but a big “No” to BSA. The Boy Scouts may be the most iconic American secular institution to have held the line against pro-gay political, legal, and financial pressures, and groups on the homosexual side will not settle for anything less than a declaration that they are morally straight.

Meanwhile, many conservatives are jostling the BSA tightrope. John Stemberger, founder of the group OnMyHonor.Net, attacks the proposed policy as a “cleverly worded resolution [that] creates a myriad of problems for how to manage and ensure the safety and security of the boys in the program.” Andrew Walker of the Heritage Foundation says the BSA is displaying “willed naivete on this issue, a belief that this proposal de-politicizes the issue.” He argues that “incrementalism is a key strategy of activists seeking to promote new norms involving homosexuality.”

Steve Onxley, an adult leader of Troop 413 in Charlotte, N.C., is also an elder of Christ Covenant Church, which sponsors Troop 413. Christ Covenant requires Scout leaders to affirm the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. One of Onxley’s tasks is to approve potential leaders, and he says of the proposed rule change, “No way this will work.” One big reason: Troops have adult leaders but in practice are Scout-led organizations in which adult leaders “coach” older boys who are the real leaders of the troop.

Onxley agrees with the resolution’s affirmation that sexual conduct by Scouts, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is inappropriate, but he says the proposal makes homosexuality and heterosexuality morally equivalent for Scouts, and that’s wrong: “Homosexual behavior is wrong for both boys and men.” He also notes that the policy leaves key questions unanswered: How do Scouts deal with an adulterous Scout leader, or a teenage Scout who brags about having sex with his girlfriend? (In Onxley’s troop such violations of biblical norms are grounds for dismissal.)  

Scouting elicits such strong emotions from both sides in part because both sides see Scouting as a great American civic institution that trains national leaders. Alvin Townley, author of two books about Scouting, calls it “the only organization that has been able to bring together so many from so many different backgrounds over such a long period of time.” Townley, National Scouting Spokesperson for the United Methodist Church, says the “big tent” aspect of Scouting has been an important part of its influence, and that’s why he favors the new proposal.

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