Reports that the Boy Scouts of America re-affirmed their ban on “open or avowed” homosexuals broke fairly late in the news cycle yesterday, so let me just touch briefly on the key points of the decision for any newcomers:
- The Boy Scouts of America issued its first official Position Statement regarding sexual orientation in 1991, stating “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts.”
- Variations on that general theme followed over the next few decades, including a specific ban on anyone who “hold[s] himself out as a homosexual” in leadership positions.
- An eleven-member committee was appointed to re-evaluate the organization’s position on sexual orientation in 2010.
- Yesterday that committee submitted a unanimous decision to continue abiding by the existing policies, retaining the recent wording prohibiting “open or avowed” homosexuals.
In some reports this is being portrayed as a new policy or a modification of an old one, which it isn’t; apart from some wording changes over the last two decades the basic idea has remained the same, and the 11-member committee didn’t write any new guidelines or policy statements themselves.
As a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout (albeit one with a mixed view of that high honor), I almost wish I could say that this were a simple case of wrong-headed bigotry, and that the National Council could, over time, be swayed by moral and reasoned arguments.
It isn’t and they can’t.
The root cause is even more embarrassing in its own way: cowardice.
Scouting is a strange little world once you go beyond the level of volunteer Scoutmasters or less-than-minimum-wage camp staff and move into the domain of what we call “professional Scouters.” It’s very much its own church of self, in many ways, with a rigid hierarchy and strict standards of “success” and “failure” at every organizational level. A great deal of bureaucracy is devoted to measuring those successes and failures, from individual troops on up to district, area, and regional councils.
An outsider might reasonably assume that those benchmarks for success had something to do with Scouting values, but for the most part it’s purely a numbers game. “Good” councils have lots of active troops, positive recruitment trend lines, and high sales figures. “Bad” councils have declining membership or low income. Funds and favor from on high flow accordingly.
Your survival as a unit at any level, in short, is dependent on membership. The quality of the membership matters less (and the quality of the programs you offer those members even less still) than what you can show on paper.
“But wait,” you say, “wouldn’t that pressure the BSA toward more inclusive policies, not less?”
And it might, if not for a peculiar quirk of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known to most of us as Mormons:
“Where Scouting is authorized by the Church, quorums may participate in Scouting activities during Mutual. Under priesthood leadership, Scouting can complement the efforts of Aaronic Priesthood quorums and Primary classes in building testimonies in young men and boys.”
Non-Mormons might struggle a bit with some of the terminology there, but in layman’s terms this means that Scouting is the default activity that the church encourages leaders to enroll young males in. If you’re signing your Mormon boys up to do something, the church would like that something to be Scouting, until such time as they change their policy.
That means that the roughly 400,000 LDS-affiliated youths (out of about 2.7 million youth overall) are a minority, but a substantial and more importantly a guaranteed one. Unlike the other 2.3 million, the BSA need expend no resources on recruiting them. They’re freebies.
Unless — unless, unless, unless — church elders were to decide that some other organization would better “complement the efforts of Aaronic Priesthood quorums and Primary classes in building testimonies in young men and boys.” At which point membership would suddenly decline by about 400,000 overnight.
This stick-like carrot has been waved at the National Council for years now, and it works every time. “Scouting values,” as far as policy decisions go, bear an uncanny resemblance to LDS values, give or take a bit of magical underwear.
As cynical as I can be about the organization, the Boy Scouts of America was a huge part of my adolescent life. I think it shaped me for the better and I think crucial parts of its model — most especially the faith that young men can learn valuable lessons from only slightly older young men, and might even do it better than they would from adults — are worth fighting to preserve and maintain. But preservation of the membership numbers at the expense of our own organizational values would be disheartening to see even if it came without the added taint of bigotry.
Exclusion can never make a movement grow in the long term. Entropy always wins that game. How many potential members are we losing to less archaic-seeming youth groups and summer camps each year in exchange for 400,000 guaranteed members that may or may not be particularly active or interested in Scouting? We have no idea. But the decision is short-sighted at best even on a practical level, to say nothing of indefensible on a moral one.
Is it more or less reprehensible to discriminate out of petty fear, rather than deeply-felt personal prejudice? I have no idea. But either way I can’t help but think that, organizationally, our National Council is falling short on a few points of our Scout Oath and Law. I see little of courtesy or kindness in this latest re-affirmation of old, bad policies, and nothing at all of bravery or helping other people.