Boy Scouts of America

A big news story: Scouting was a mainstream thing, embracing a vague faith. What now?

A big news story: Scouting was a mainstream thing, embracing a vague faith. What now?

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?

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Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

No doubt about it, the generic Scouts are in trouble.

There are a number of important reasons for this, including a tsunami of legal problems linked to decades of hidden sexual abuse. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it — because of an important Washington Post story with this headline: “Lawsuits. Possible bankruptcy. Declining numbers. Is there a future for the Boy Scouts?”

But here is my main question today: What are the crucial factors that are — statistically speaking — threatening the future of Scouting? Let me add: Is there more to this than the current legal climate?

To answer that question, let’s flash back to a 2015 piece from the news service of the United Methodist Church that ran with this headline: “Churches can have gay Boy Scout leaders.” As you would imagine, United Methodists were divided on the wisdom of that Scouting policy change, as they are divided on every important issue linked to faith and sexuality. However, this story includes a crucial number:

As part of the resolution approved July 27, the Boy Scouts’ executive board also committed to indemnify and defend legally any religious chartered group against discrimination claims. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling in 2012, have ruled that religious bodies are free to set their own rules for choosing and dismissing leaders. …

More than 71 percent of Scout units are chartered to faith-based groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America units. The United Methodist Church also has the highest number of Cub Scouts, with an estimated 200,000 members.

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?

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An amicable parting? Joint statement on Mormon Church leaving Boy Scouts ignores values clashes

An amicable parting? Joint statement on Mormon Church leaving Boy Scouts ignores values clashes

Differences?

What differences?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America issued a joint statement this week announcing an end to a century-old partnership between the two entities.

Go ahead and read the entire statement. See if you notice any hint of the clashes over values that brought the relationship to the breaking point:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America have been partners for more than 100 years. The Scouting program has benefited hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saint boys and young men, and BSA has also been greatly benefited in the process. We jointly express our gratitude to the thousands of Scout leaders and volunteers who have selflessly served over the years in Church-sponsored Scouting units, including local BSA districts and councils.

In this century of shared experience, the Church has grown from a U.S.-centered institution to a worldwide organization, with a majority of its membership living outside the United States. That trend is accelerating. The Church has increasingly felt the need to create and implement a uniform youth leadership and development program that serves its members globally. In so doing, it will be necessary for the Church to discontinue its role as a chartered partner with BSA.

We have jointly determined that, effective on December 31, 2019, the Church will conclude its relationship as a chartered organization with all Scouting programs around the world. Until that date, to allow for an orderly transition, the intention of the Church is to remain a fully engaged partner in Scouting for boys and young men ages 8–13 and encourages all youth, families, and leaders to continue their active participation and financial support.

While the Church will no longer be a chartered partner of BSA or sponsor Scouting units after December 31, 2019, it continues to support the goals and values reflected in the Scout Oath and Scout Law and expresses its profound desire for Scouting’s continuing and growing success in the years ahead.

Nope, I didn't catch any sign of strain either. I suppose that's a real nice statement, from a public relations standpoint. 

Meanwhile, back in the real world ...

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Boys will be boys and now girls will be Boy Scouts. Any holy ghosts in this 'historic' news?

Boys will be boys and now girls will be Boy Scouts. Any holy ghosts in this 'historic' news?

This is huge news. Historic even.

At least that's how major news media outlets characterized the Boy Scouts of America's decision to accept girls.

To read accounts by national newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, most everybody greeted this gender-friendly development with enthusiasm -- with the notable exception of the Girl Scouts (a separate organization not excited about the looming competition).

Is there a religion angle to this story? Several of them, in fact? (You think?)

Believe it or not, the question of how faith-based groups so prominent in Scouting -- think the Mormons, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, etc. -- reacted to his change was conspicuously absent from the coverage I read. That's strange since about 70 percent of Scouting units are sponsored by religious groups.

Religion ghosts, anyone?

The lede from the New York Times:

The Boy Scouts of America announced plans on Wednesday to broadly accept girls, marking a historic shift for the century-old organization and setting off a debate about where girls better learn how to be leaders.
The Boy Scouts, which has seen dwindling membership numbers in recent decades, said that its programs could nurture girls as well as boys, and that the switch would make life easier for busy parents, who might prefer to shuttle children to a single organization regardless of gender.
“I’ve seen nothing that develops leadership skills and discipline like this organization,” said Randall Stephenson, the group’s national board chairman. “It is time to make these outstanding leadership development programs available to girls.”
The decision was celebrated by many women, but criticized by the Girl Scouts, which said that girls flourish in all-female groups.

The closest the Times gets to the holy ghost is right here:

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Is this a news story? National Catholic Scouting committee has rejected trans policy shift

Is this a news story? National Catholic Scouting committee has rejected trans policy shift

Welcome to another edition of what could become a regular feature in these confused times for mainstream journalism. The problem is that I don't know what we would call it.

We could call this feature "Got News?" However, we tried that already here at GetReligion and the concept never caught on. The whole idea was that there is often valid news -- often highly important news -- reported in alternative news publications (think denominational press services), yet these stories rarely seem to get covered in the mainstream press.

Then again, the "Got News?" concept doesn't really work when journalists in mainstream newsrooms spot a story, then cover that story, but then fail to offer follow-up reports that let news consumers know about important developments that same ongoing story.

As any experienced journalist knows, it is very rare for major story to break then just freeze. If there is a big news earthquake, there tend to be aftershocks. What would we call this concept -- Got Aftershocks?

This brings me to the Boy Scouts of America. Again.

The other day, I wrote a post about a New York Times report about the decision to begin allowing transgender boys to join the Boy Scouts. This was an interesting report in that -- rare for the Gray Lady -- it focused almost totally on the views of conservative critics of the change and contained next to zero material from voices on the winning side of the debate.

I called that post: "Boy Scouts push trans button: So in which pulpits and pews are people celebrating?" In other words, for reporters covering religion, there were big questions that needed to be answered as the aftershocks of this decision spread into the religious groups that host Scout troops. While some conservatives would head to the exit doors, I wondered how people would respond on the religious left and in the often muddled middle. Thus, I wrote:

If you know anything about Scouting, you know that -- in addition to the Baptists -- the key players are Catholics, Mormons, United Methodists and, to a lesser degree, Episcopalians. So if the goal is to figure out what happens next with this story, readers really needed to hear from leaders in those flocks, especially from progressives who actively supported the changes.
In other words, we need to hear from the winners who now get to put these policies into action. 

Soon after this, there was an important reaction from a major religious group -- as in the Roman Catholic committee that works with Scouting programs. This would be important news, right?

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Boy Scouts push trans button: So in which pulpits and pews are people celebrating?

Boy Scouts push trans button: So in which pulpits and pews are people celebrating?

So the Boy Scouts have made another move to dance with the Sexual Revolution, opening the doors to transgender boys.

As you would expect, there are all kinds of religion angles to this important culture-wars story. As you would expect, the New York Times led with words of praise from "critics of the organization who for years have called for more inclusive membership rules." The story also understands that, while some people celebrated the decision, others were grieving.

The twist in this particular Times report -- "Conservatives Alienated by Boy Scouts’ Shift on Transgender Policy" -- was that the story focused almost exclusively on the voices of the losers, thus missing a key element of where this story may be headed in the future.

Yes, you read that right -- the Times pretty much ignored the views -- religious and cultural -- of key leaders on the victorious Religious Left. Maybe that angle will get ink in future coverage? Here is a crucial piece of background material, which follows extensive comments from the Rev. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention:

Whether the new rules would lead to an influx of transgender scouts seemed uncertain. Besides one highly publicized case of a transgender boy being excluded from a New Jersey Scouting unit, there had been limited attention on the issue before this week. Boy Scouts officials declined to be interviewed, and would not comment on how many youths the decision might affect.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Boy Scouts said it was “no longer sufficient” to rely on a birth certificate to determine gender. “The B.S.A. is committed to identifying program options that will help us truly serve the whole family,” said the spokeswoman, Effie Delimarkos, adding that those efforts would remain “true to our core values, outlined in the Scout Oath and Law.”
For many years, the Boy Scouts have found themselves facing conflicting forces on issues of sexuality and inclusion. The Scouts contended with a pattern of declining membership, canceled corporate donations and public criticism over the group’s restrictions on gay youths before easing those rules in 2013. And the move this week to allow transgender youths was hailed by some as a positive, overdue step toward equality.

So the Southern Baptists -- a major player in terms of churches hosting Scouting programs -- are disappointed and this latest BSA policy shift may push more religious conservatives toward the exit door (to alternative programs such as Trail Life USA.

But who are the other major players, on the religion side of this debate?

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A year after Boy Scouts' decision to allow gay adult leaders, some awkward language from AP

A year after Boy Scouts' decision to allow gay adult leaders, some awkward language from AP

Is the awkward, passive language intentional or just bad writing?

That's my question about a single line that stands out to me in an Associated Press story on the Boy Scouts of America.

A few of our posts at that time: here, here and here.

Kudos to the AP for revisiting the decision at the one-year mark. 

However, this is one of those stories that feels squishy — as in broad, sweeping statements supported by quicksand — from the beginning. Throughout the piece, there are more anecdotes than hard data. Feel free to read the whole piece and tell me if I'm wrong.

The lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — There were dire warnings for the Boy Scouts of America a year ago when the group's leaders, under intense pressure, voted to end a long-standing blanket ban on participation by openly gay adults. Several of the biggest sponsors of Scout units, including the Roman Catholic, Mormon and Southern Baptist churches, were openly dismayed, raising the prospect of mass defections.
Remarkably, nearly 12 months after the BSA National Executive Board's decision, the Boy Scouts seem more robust than they have in many years. Youth membership is on the verge of stabilizing after a prolonged decline, corporations which halted donations because of the ban have resumed their support, and the vast majority of units affiliated with conservative religious denominations have remained in the fold — still free to exclude gay adults if that's in accordance with their religious doctrine.

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Concerning Mormons sticking with Boy Scouts, a little creativity goes a long way

Concerning Mormons sticking with Boy Scouts, a little creativity goes a long way

Inverted pyramid, you're still the one.

A staple of news writing for more than a century, the inverted pyramid "puts the most newsworthy information at the top, and then the remaining information follows in order of importance, with the least important at the bottom."

For example, most news organizations went the straightforward, "who, what, when, where, why and how" route with Wednesday's news concerning the Mormon church sticking with the Boy Scouts of America.

From The Washington Post:

The Mormon church announced Wednesday that it will remain in the Boy Scouts, a month after the church expressed major concern about the Scouts lifting a ban on openly gay adult leaders.

From The New York Times:

The Mormon Church announced Wednesday that it would continue its close association with the Boy Scouts for now, ending speculation that it would sever ties because of the Scouts’s decision last month to let openly gay men and women serve as leaders.

From The Deseret News:

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church will continue to charter the nation's largest Boy Scout organization.

From CNN:

(CNN) The Mormon church will remain affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America despite the organization's decision to allow gay troop leaders, church officials announced Wednesday.

From The Associated Press:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church announced Wednesday it will maintain its longtime affiliation with the Boy Scouts despite the organization's decision to allow gay troop leaders — preventing what would have been a thundering blow to the national association.

None of those ledes will win a Pulitzer. But they get straight to the point. And in a click-happy world, that's usually helpful.

But what might happen if a journalist tried a different approach?

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Backpacker heads out into the woods and gives Trail Life USA a fair shot

Backpacker heads out into the woods and gives Trail Life USA a fair shot

There is the Boy Scouts of America story, which is complex and getting more so every minute -- especially among decision-makers for American Catholics and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalists are covering these stories, of course.

Then there is another story that could be covered, one that focuses on the people in religious flocks that are not interested in compromising on centuries of basic doctrines about marriage and family. There have been a few stories about these folks, but, so far, they have been rather thin and packed with stereotypes.

The former Boy Scout in me is interested in knowing what happens to the folks who have left. I'm interested -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- in some of these other options because I know that many members of Orthodox parishes are starting to look for ways out of the Boy Scouts. But do they want to join some kind of hyper-Evangelical Protestant alternative?

I'm happy to report that a freelancer linked to Backpacker Magazine -- a bible, of sorts, for people who wear out more than their share of hiking boots and rain slickers -- has turned out a serious story about Trail Life USA, one of the largest of the faith-friendly alternative camping-and-outdoors operations.

The key: This story focuses more on what boys are doing in these troops out in the woods, as opposed to what their lawyers are saying in courtrooms. There are sections of this piece that will make the palms of Unitarian Universalists or urbane Episcopalians sweat.

I also appreciated that reporter Patrick Doyle, who works out of Pittsburgh, didn't focus on a Trail Life unit in, let's say an evangelical megachurch in Bible Belt, Mississippi. He focused on a troop in a northern setting, based in a mainline Protestant flock. Here is the overture, focusing on the roots of this troop:

Boy Scout Troop 452 has been meeting at Concord United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as long as there’s been a troop, nearly 70 years.
But this isn’t the usual weekly gathering of the boys and their scoutmaster, Richard Greathouse. This meeting is just for their parents.

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