The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

16 thoughts on “The Boy Scouts and the Church

  1. Sharlee

    My biggest problem with the BSA is that it’s a bloated, complex, inordinately expensive program that is a huge drain on the resources of the Church (both financial and human) and benefits only one half of its youth membership–the male half.

  2. Sarah-lucy Hill

    My biggest problem with BSA and the church is that as a young woman it made me feel really, really, really second class. Scouting is fun! And the YW got to do about 1/8 of the fun activities that the Scouts did. It made it very clear that the YM’s development was more important than ours.

    And also, Scouting is fun, if that’s where your interests lie. But I had friends who were more interested in artsy stuff and not so much outdoor stuff, who effectively went inactive because they didn’t like Scouting. And that was a shame. The YW’s organization has its issues but it can (theoretically at least) tailor its activities to the interests of the girls. Hopefully whatever new organization the church rolls out for YM will do the same.

    1. Stephen

      Sarah-lucy, so your problem with BSA is that it’s too fun? And the solution to the boys having more fun than the girls is not to better the girls’ program, but to take the boys’ program away?

      That is a sad attitude.

      1. sarahloo

        Yeah, all efforts to make the girls’ program better or more equal to the boys’ program have failed miserably. And they’re not going to take the boys’ program away and leave them high and dry. They’re going to come up with something that’s probably far superior to the BSA because it will be inspired of God. And it will probably be fun too!

        If you read my comment closely, I don’t have a problem with the fact that BSA is fun, I was merely agreeing with Eric that it can be fun. But I also say it’s only fun if that’s where your interests lie, and not all young men have the same interests. A program with more flexibility (and hopefully inspired by God) would be preferable.

  3. Anonymous

    My son’s experience with scouting was frustrating. As a non-member, more often than not their scouting time time turned into YM which was of no interest to him. If his best friend’s dad hadn’t have been the scout leader he would have dropped out much earlier. As it was he never finished his Eagle and called it a day.

  4. Tamsen Orme

    Amen to what Sharlee said. “Thrifty” my foot, BSA.

    “I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

    I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.”

    Church programs are whatever you make of them. I’m a Primary president, so this year I decided to do a day camp for the Activity Day Girls. I planned it, I hosted it, and not to toot my own horn, but it was pretty awesome. The girls learned Morse code, first aid, archery, did crafts, played field games, built fires, and every girl who attended can now use a compass and tie six different knots.

    (Cub Scouts clearly isn’t the same thing as Boy Scouts, but according to the Handbook the Activity Day program is designed to include both boys and girls, but only if scouting is not available. So it’s like, hey, this program is good enough for the girls, but if there’s any other option, let’s not subject our boys to it.)

    Anyway, I think any Church program can be fun if you make it fun, so I wouldn’t shed any tears over a break with the BSA.

  5. DCL

    There is more here to consider than just the moral implications. The church has very distinct protocols with regard to leadership positions in the church for both men and women. I don’t think many people weighing in on this debate understand all of the facets being considered by church leaders.

    One area not being discussed is how youth leaders are called and why. A bishop, who extends the call of scout leader, would not call an adult female to work in the young men’s organization or scouting program. In the same context, a bishop would never call an adult male to a leadership position in the young women’s organization. To an objective observer I would think this policy and the reason for it would be pretty clear.

    The church takes great measures to not put church members in a position where even the appearance of impropriety could be viewed. This is not only for the safety and well being of the youth, but just as important for the leader. So the reason a gay man or woman wouldn’t be called to positions of leadership over the youth who’s gender is the same as their personal sexual proclivity is, in my view, very consistent with this policy and protocol in the church.

    In this example the gay member who may wish to serve as a boy scout leader is no more discriminated against than a Sister who may wish to be a young men’s leader or a brother who may wish to be a young women’s leader.

    A gay member who is living his or her life in accordance with the teachings of the gospel and the law of chastity would and should be able to serve in other positions within a ward or stake, but with regard to the youth, the church will always err on the extreme side of caution and not put any members in a position where impropriety could be claimed figuratively or literally.

    Even under such care and caution, there have been circumstances where the protections are breached and people are harmed. Church policies are created to try and keep that from ever happening and if/when it does action is swift and direct.

    I know this won’t satisfy those who want to make this into a hateful narrative, but it isn’t about hate, it’s about human nature, the sexual beings we are, the social environment of the world we live in, and the deep beliefs of a world religion.

    1. David Pearson

      Then why are their multiple men involved in the day to day activities at Girl’s Camp? Also, under the guidelines of celibacy and worthiness, a lesbian woman can be a Young Women’s leader at all of their activities.

  6. DCL

    There is a need to clarify one aspect of my post. Women are called to positions in the scouting program but as scout leaders with direct or sole responsibility for the young men. They are not allow to go camping alone with the young men. But there are positions in an LDS scout troop where women are called to serve. On the flip side, men can serve in roles that oversee the young women in the church, but again are not in direct or sole responsibility for the leadership of the young women. A bishop and/or a counselor would serve in such a role. Leaders who have consistent and direct contact and leadership roles with the youth are always of the same gender.

  7. DCL

    Oh good grief – wish there was an edit feature… Women are called to positions in the scouting program but NOT as scout leaders with direct or sole responsibility for the young men. – Sorry

  8. David Pearson

    I don’t understand why The Church is fighting this. You can be in a bishopric as a gay man, but not a scout leader. You can be a youth Sunday school teacher as a gay man, but not a Scout Master.

    If the church really wants examples of gay and lesbian women who live their prescribed celibate life, wouldn’t they encourage those living those standards as leaders of youth organizations? Because the message they’re leaving now is that there is no place for any LGBTQIA people in the gospel.

  9. Dave Wilcox

    I’m actually surprised at how many people seem to be misinterpreting the statement from the church. The statement gives two reasons why the leadership is going to reconsider our relationship with the Boy Scouts:

    1. Through this policy change, the BSA has given its endorsement of active homosexuality. This represents a shift away from traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs that attracted the church to the BSA in the first place (yes, the BSA was founded in the 1910s as a supplement to religious instruction). It’s obvious to me that the Church intends to continue its practice of admitting homosexuals into full fellowship in the Church (along with the potential to become adult leaders to the youth) as long as they don’t actively participate in homosexual lifestyles. Why should the Church continue to provide support (lots of money, time, attention, etc.) to the BSA if our fundamental beliefs are not aligned?

    2. More than half of the young men in the Church live in countries where the church is not sponsoring scout troops. The church would serve its own interests by investing more money and attention on a global program for all its members rather than just on the already privileged youth in the US and Canada.

    There are several other reasons that were not mentioned in the statement about how it would benefit the Church to leave the BSA. If the church were to separate from the BSA, the Young Men and Young Women programs would surely become more united and more equal. Any new program is probably going to be less stressful on the Church’s teenagers who are overburdened with so many responsibilities (seminary, school, extracurricular activities, college preparation, missionary preparation, etc.) The primary children, both boys and girls, will probably be united into a single, gender-equal program.

  10. Stephen

    Rex, you may not remember me, but I remember you and have long considered you a friend. But your confusion on this issue is unfounded.

    Let’s assume I’m a middle-aged heterosexual man. Is it appropriate for me to take a bunch of 12- to 16-year-old girls out camping for a week? Certainly within the Church, the question is absurd. Even most in the wider world would agree that no, it is not appropriate for a man to intentionally go out alone with a bunch of adolescent girls to camp for a week.

    But why not? After all, I’m not sexually attracted to girls, but to adult women. Yes, some of the girls, especially the older ones, are pretty womanly and quite attractive. But, hey, they’re not my type! At least, they’re not old enough to be of interest to me. How do you know this? Well, I have said so, haven’t I? What more proof do you need?

    Sure, the girls look up to me. I’m their leader. And sure, they’re immature, possibly even open to seduction by an unscrupulous older man. But you can trust me! I would never do such a thing! I’m MARRIED! That proves my bona fides.


    How is it any shade of appropriate for a man who is openly attracted (in a sexual manner) to other men to be given sole responsibility for the care of a bunch of young men, who are themselves inexperienced sexually and might be just as foolish and prone to seduction as a bunch of teenaged girls? Are we to believe that homosexual men are just lots more virtuous and trustworthy than heterosexual men? Do you have even the least evidence of that, beyond your own say-so?

    Your bafflement at the Church’s reaction shows only your own myopia on this issue, doubtless based on your personal situation. I have long admired and respected you, but in this you are blind to the obvious truth.

    Your other concerns, such as concern about indoctrination, are equally unfounded. On the indoctrination thing: What do you think Scouting is? It’s not mere skills-teaching. It is indoctrination, and always has been. Another word for “indoctrination” is “teaching”. This is not a bad thing. It’s what we are expected to do.


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