Last week, I wrote a blog about Scouting and the ongoing debate about our national membership policy. Well, it's another week, and another week with Scouting in the headlines, so it's another blog about Scouting.
National Leadership is hung up on just two words out of the many hundreds, if not thousands, of words and directives that make up what it is to be a scout.
These words come from the membership oath, and as I described it last weekend:
. . . and morally straight. To be a person of strong character, your relationships with others should be honest and open. You should respect and defend the rights of all people. Be clean in your speech and actions, and remain faithful in your religious beliefs. The values you practice as a Scout will help you shape a life of virtue and self-reliance.
But what does this really mean? You know I have been a Scout since I was 8 years old. That's a very long time….to put it into some perspective, my friend Jay Martin (Eagle Scout, class of '83) came home from school one day and asked me if I wanted to be a Cub Scout. This was in the fall of 1974, some 39 years ago. Like a lot of kids, I wasn't terribly interested in badges. I did not make Arrow of Light (the highest award in Cub Scouting) nor did I progress much past First Class on the Trail to Eagle.
As a youth member, I was more interested in the outdoor aspect of the program. I love to camp...I like fire, I like swimming and aquatics, and I like getting up on top of mountains to see what's up there. It was not until I became an adult and started teaching the next generation what I knew that my devotion to the organization truly took hold.
"Morally Straight" can mean many things to many people. As you're aware, in addition to the oath, we have a set of rules we follow in the Scout Law. I enumerated all 12 points last week, but we'll take a look at just one again.
A Scout is Reverent. A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.
Scouting is NOT a religious organization, no matter what some other folks may tell you. Baden-Powell himself was a God-fearing Victorian, so naturally some elements of Anglicanism crept their way into the program. But as B-P aged, he softened his views significantly on the role of religion in the program. By the time he died in 1941, he had gone out of his way to make multiple statements and writings that a Scout is a "brother to all other Scouts", no matter what their religion, creed, race, or background.
Certain religious sects do not have any officially-sanctioned youth program within their ministry. Instead, they rely on the Scout program to fill that gap. The two that spring most prominently to mind are the LDS church and the Methodists. The LDS has such a huge influence over the Scouting program because they charter the most amount of units, followed closely by the Catholic Church. As a result, the National Council is heavily populated by Mormons, and because of their geographic location (Irving, TX), Southern Baptists.
Both of these groups are well noted for their conservative views, and sometimes bizarre and exclusionary rituals and policies. By populating the national leadership of Scouting, they are able to wield undue influence over national scouting policy. Make no mistake, this is why this is an issue. For the better part of Scouting's existence, it was headquartered in New Jersey, only moving to Texas in the early 1980s. Ever since then, the movement has become increasingly intolerant and polarized. (What is it about Texas that has that effect, anyway?)
I wonder what all of you think "Morally Straight" means? For me, it's easy. It means doing the right thing...following the Oath and Law and doing what B-P intended. Go back to last week and look at a couple of the points of the Scout Law and the description. As I said, those were written with 11-year-old boys in mind, in order to teach them what these noble words mean, and how to act when carrying out your duties as a Scout.
For 81 years of Scouting in America, these principles were what guided the organization. In 1988, James Dale in California earned his Eagle but was denied the badge just because he was gay. He in turn filed suit, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the BSA's favor, calling it a "private organization" who can decide what kind of membership they want.
Which doesn't exactly ring true. Every year, the Congress of the United States authorizes the BSA to operate under a National Charter. I don't know about you, but if Congress is granting you permission to do something in the name of the Government of the United States, there's very little that is more public than that.
The debate continues, and National has shown a distinct lack of courage by delaying a decision until May. It is, however, progress...as they didn't just come out and say no.
But what does this mean for all of us in uniform? Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is my life's work. As I mentioned previously, as a youth, I was not terribly interested in badges; I just wanted to camp. Now as an adult….well, I've been selected for Scouting's Honour Society at the highest level (Vigil Honor), I've earned my Webelos Den Leader award, and this past year completed "Adult Eagle", or Woodbadge training. As I go further along, I continue to suspect that I have missed my calling and I should have been a teacher.
Empowering the next generation of youth, and training their adult leaders, is the most rewarding part of the program. As a dear friend put it, as a den leader you can affect maybe 8 boys. A Scoutmaster has a little bit more influence. But if you train 15 adults how to be good leaders, then multiply that by the average troop size, the influence you can have over boy's lives increases exponentially. This is why I'm in it….primarily to teach and pass on what I have learned.
In all of my Scouting, I have not learned hate. I have not learned discrimination. I have not learned exclusion. I have not learned bigotry. These things are all counter to what a Scout is supposed to be.
Whether or not Lord Baden-Powell is whirling in his sarcophagus is yet to be seen. But the program he created and devoted the second half of his life to is in danger of fracturing and perhaps even heading for the dustbin of history. In the UK, it's very progressive. The program is now co-ed, and there are many variations of the oath, depending on your personal beliefs. There has been no falloff in membership, and overseas the program is stronger than ever.
Here in the United States though, I fear we are in danger of becoming irrelevant. It's not unlike the NRA and the tin ear their leadership has. I think most of us in the trenches "get it". Not even my hard right-wing friend disagrees. He's as devoted to the program as I am, and despite his misgivings, he doesn't want his local youth discriminated against or excluded in any way.
This program has done many things for many people. I feel that my own beloved Scoutmaster has had such an influence on my life that for years I listed him as a personal reference on my resume. I am equally devoted to another dear friend who is no longer with us...I wear his neckerchief slide, and barely a day goes by that I don't think of the influence he had over my troop. (And to this day, his is the only name I pray for on those rare occasions I attend Catholic Mass….not even for members of my own family; he meant that much to me.) And when I was Cubmaster...I wore as a temporary insignia a patch that was designed by my own Cubmaster "Big Al" almost four decades ago for our Bicentennial (when I was a Webelos Scout.)
This is what the program is supposed to be - dedicated adults passing on what they have learned and influencing the next generation to do the same. There is another oath, one that is far less-well known to outsiders, that has become my own personal mission statement. I've had a printout of the relevant part on my desk for over a decade, to remind myself every day what I'm supposed to do.
"...I will seek to preserve a cheerful spirit, even in the midst of irksome tasks and weighty responsibilities, and shall endeavor, so far as in my power lies, to be unselfish in service and devotion to the welfare of others."
National Council has lost sight of that. By excluding some, they diminish us all, and they are jeopardizing the future of the entire program. All over the sake of two words and what their narrow definition of them is.
As for me, I no longer believe the BSA is "Morally Straight", and as such, I've taken a bit of a stand. I am no longer reciting those words at the end of the Scout Oath. For me, a scout is Physically Strong and Mentally awake.
I tend to recite these things in a rather large voice, and at the last troop meeting, another member of the committee noticed....his head whipped around and he stared pointedly at me as I went silent during those words.