So the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will be facing several negative consequences for their decision to change membership standards, allowing for openly avowed gay youth. Last post, I wondered how the BSA leadership reached such a nadir in moral courage. There are no easy answers, but I think the current Scouting culture and society-at-large can offer at least the hint of an explanation.
First, as actual participants in the Scouting program know, the BSA is a very ecumenical organization. Nonsectarian membership standards (requiring only a belief in God) have been a longtime tradition for BSA because chivalry itself is nonsectarian. The first Boy Scout handbook referenced medieval knights as models of courage, helpfulness, purity, and ability. In short, knights, at least in their imaginative signification, embodied an excellence of life, i.e. virtue. Hearkening back to Middle Age ideals reminded young boys of such characters as the Christian King Richard I or the Muslim Sultan Saladin. To the atheist’s ire, the BSA still believes that true virtue flows from a Higher Power. Nevertheless, pagan and Christian alike have achieved moral, philosophical, artistic, and even heroic goodness. Scouting provided an opportunity for boys to participate in that venerable tradition and to watch the good life carried out by leaders.
Because of this heritage and a nonpartisan political affiliation, the Boy Scout leadership has always striven to assure everyone got along—or, rather, that no one’s sensibilities got offended. To avoid organizational fractiousness (not too hard for an organization based on outdoorsmanship, patriotism, and practical know-how), leaders had to assume a philosophical agnosticism. Scouting’s official principles had to be universally acceptable to everyone who was or might be involved with the program, though varying perspectives were always welcomed to the table. Politeness was not just expected from the boys; leaders (including those on the National Council) had to practice a mannerly irenic spirit. In other words, the habits formed the character of the organization.
This was a relatively easy enough task during the Edwardian period of the Boy Scouts’ founding, as well as for most of the twentieth century in Hometown, America. Any age that recognizes and admires true chivalry would make moral sensibilities easy to acquire and expect from others. But what happens when social mores change? Can civic institutions stand alone against shifts or, if you’re of an older school, decay? Virtuous masculinity does not find a welcome home in a world under the iron boot of moral relativism, feminism, self-realization, and individualism. As this fascinating contrast indicates, the Boy Scouts have tried to evolve with the times; nevertheless, there was always an assumption that the nebulous moral core would remain the same. A few Eagles I talked to ruefully admitted, “It was only a matter of time, I guess. I just didn’t think it would be today.”
The ecumenical setup of the Boy Scouts worked fine as long as the ethical environment in society-at-large remained healthy. Sooner or later, the moral formation of the day (or lack thereof) would bring change to those going into and later leading the program. In this particular case, absolute tolerance and sexual liberation have become the new golden rules. After all, being “nice” and tolerant is all we are taught to do as moral beings. As Bruce Frohnen points out, we live in a society that’s now fearful of permanent things. In fact, ours is a nation that seems to fear civilizations (past or present) that believed and loved the ordered and permanent, a vestige of which resides in the Scout Law, properly understood and applied.
When the Alphabet Mafia finds a handful of disconcerted activists among the ranks, why should the organization suddenly come down hard on a fractious issue? Outside forces (and now forces within the BSA) seek to offer a new, authoritative interpretation of the Scout Oath and Law. Nothing is wrong with identity politics, right? Those supporters of ours—who provide the actual facilities, funds, and manpower for our free organization—are on the wrong side of history. Add some corporate donation money, and you will see C. S. Lewis’s observation in The Abolition of Man played out on the world stage: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
So should I have been surprised? Even though I’ve kept somewhat abreast of my civilization’s descent into barbarity, I still breathe as one who’s spent half of my life in the Boy Scouts program. Though the organization has not fully folded to the LGBT agenda yet, change is coming. I still clench to the mad hope that the BSA can be recovered in time, even in a hostile culture. But I also realize that this institution isn’t the one guaranteed the One True Hope.