[A note from Ken: Roger Baker is a lifelong friend and was best man at my wedding. He's one of many Eagle Scouts I have solicited to write about the Boy Scouts of America's recent reaffirmation of their policy banning openly gay people from membership or leadership. Like me, he grapples with the challenges of parenthood in this situation. I welcome his thoughts — which differ somewhat from mine — in particular because they address the difficult question of whether such policies should be addressed from within, or by avoiding the organization. I'm not yet sold on his ultimate conclusion, but I am thankful for the time he put into this, for his openness, and as always for his friendship. Watch for a post next week with many more reactions from Eagle Scouts.]
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
–The Boy Scout Law
Like many people I know, including family members, Scout volunteers, parents of Scouts and fellow Eagle Scouts, I was disappointed to learn that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) would uphold their banning of gays from volunteer positions within scouting.
This is an issue about which I’ve shared my opinion previously, primarily in closed BSA and Eagle Scout groups on Linked In, but I think the time is right to share my thoughts with a wider audience. (My thanks to Popehat for allowing me to do so here.)
A Scout is Friendly — A Scout is a friend to all. He is a brother to other Scouts. He offers his friendship to people of all races and nations, and respects them even if their beliefs and customs are different from his own. – The Boy Scout Handbook
Personally, I think that the decision to ban gays from Scouting is detrimental to the BSA and puts this venerable organization on the wrong side of both a rising tide of popular opinion in America and several core American and Scout values. The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . .”, a promise which America has been trying to live up to for over 225 years. I’m proud to be part of the latest generation to try to take another step closer to that ‘more perfect union’, particularly regarding the realization of another key American concept, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ”. Often America hasn’t done a good job at fulfilling this principle, but we’re among a select few nations on earth which is constantly striving for it. And I’m willing to do my part.
I can’t say, in all honesty, that I’ve always thought this way, but as I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that this is the only way that America can exist — and still be America. I’ve tried to pass that knowledge on to my children and the Scouts I’ve been responsible for.
Many of the volunteers I work with have decried the BSA for this decision, saying that it goes against the central tenets of Scouting. It’s no secret by now that I agree. The pragmatist in me, however, can see beyond the idealism to the nature of the organization itself for an explanation. Having reviewed the announcement closely and filtering that through over three decades of involvement with Scouting, I can read between the lines to see what a delicate balancing act Bob Mazzuca, Chief Scout Executive, and the national organization is trying to perform.
Scouting’s basic units are Cub Scout Packs (for boys <12 years) and Boy Scout Troops (for boys >12). Each must be chartered by a parent organization, which, more often than not, is a church. This powerful constituency within the BSA undoubtedly factored heavily into the review committee’s thinking during its deliberations. Note this line: “While not all Board members may personally agree with this policy, and may choose a different direction for their own organizations, BSA leadership agrees this is the best policy for the organization [emphasis added] and supports it for the BSA.” From the BSA press release.
I suspect that the review committee knew that they are in an untenable spot and chose what they considered to be the lesser of two evils. They chose stability and continuity, hewing to precedent and preserving the organization rather than uncertainty and chaos which would come with the disintegration of the organization. I disagree with that choice, but I can understand the process from whence it came.
A Scout is Reverent – A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.– The Boy Scout Handbook
Unfortunately, this more recent decision isn’t the only area where Scouting seems to run counter to modern American values. Scouting insists that “duty to God” is a fundamental part of the Scout experience. Having grown up in a strictly religious home, this particular requirement wasn’t a problem for me as a young scout, though my family’s faith wasn’t mainstream. My Scoutmaster made it clear that Scouting religious observances were non-denominational and that he wasn’t interested in diving too deeply into the beliefs of individual scouts and scout families. Within our troop, they were performed perfunctorily and at larger council-wide gatherings they were little more than brief interludes. It really wasn’t given tremendous weight and certainly wasn’t used as a qualifying test.
As an adult, I’m rather distant from religious observance and institutions. My own journey has been lengthy, but I’ve come to the place where much of the trappings of modern religion seem rather frivolous.
Yet I don’t experience any metaphysical dilemma when participating in religious observances by friends and other family members, such as saying Grace at meals, or singing hymns at the rare church appearance with friends or on Scout Sunday. After all, a scout “respects the beliefs of others.” This doesn’t diminish me to share in their expressions of joy and devotion. It helps me to gain a better understanding of them as people and friends.
When theistic belief is considered more broadly as a belief or understanding in a ‘higher power’, I think the concept is still constructive. It encourages individuals to look beyond themselves, helping frame thought and action to be more than “what benefits me (only)” to “what benefits everyone”. Since Scouting is a service-oriented organization, this fits the bill. I believe, however, that one can be a good Scout, a good citizen, a good member of the community without professing belief in God in even the broadest terms.
Scouting has already been forced to ungo major changes due to its unyielding theistic stance, so you can be assured that the organization knows that its position on this is counter to public sentiment (and Constitutional law). It can no longer receive support from the military, for example, compelling it to move its National Jamboree, held every four years, from its traditional location at Fort A.P. Hill to a new location, The Summit: Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in West Virginia.
A Scout is Courteous – A Scout is polite to everyone regardless of age or position. He knows that using good manners makes it easier for people to get along.
Not long ago, I had a parent call me, distressed that her son wanted to join Cub Scouting. She disagreed vehemently with Scouting’s policy regarding gays and additionally thought that religion was a private family matter that shouldn’t be pushed by Scout leaders. She was ready to pull her application.
I explained to her simply that in both cases, she should let her conscience guide her. Our pack certainly accepted everyone, though the issue of gay volunteers, parents or scouts hadn’t yet been raised. I’m sure we had some, but it hadn’t become an issue. I assured her there wouldn’t be any 'witch hunts' to determine the sexual orientation. Such actions and the attitudes which inspired them were counterproductive, prejudicial and were really beside the point of developing young leaders. Regarding the religious requirements, they were as much or as little as she and her family felt comfortable. We certainly didn’t apply any litmus test.
I’m pleased to say that her boy is now a Bear and very happy in scouting (as is she).
A Scout is Brave – A Scout can face danger although he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at him or threaten him. – The Boy Scout Handbook
I’ll tell anybody who asks that the bravest person I know is gay. In 1998, “Ted” (name changed for privacy) had stopped by the side of the road to fix his own car, but had paused in his work to help two nursing students with their own mechanical difficulties. Suddenly another driver veered off the road and hit the stopped vehicles. “Ted” lost both his legs, one above and one below the knee.
I was asked to fill in for him at the company where we both worked, with the expectation that he’d be out a year to recover. But “Ted” was back at his desk in less than four months, doing his job much better than I was doing it. After this tremendous set-back, “Ted” was forging ahead and building a new life. Gutsiest thing I’ve ever been witness to. “Ted” continues to inspire me to this day.
I’m a little chagrined that, if “Ted” chose, he couldn’t be a volunteer leader in the Boys Scouts of America because of who he is. Ironically, he is among the best men that I’ve known.
It should surprise no one that an organization which is primarily about teaching leadership should find that its highest achieving members are doing just that. I have great respect for those Eagle Scouts who are voicing their protest for BSA’s decision to exclude some Americans by returning their Eagle Scout medals. If you create leaders, expect them to lead.
I believe, however, that courage takes many forms. I believe that just as these Eagle Scouts are drawing attention to this unjust policy through their courageous acts, I can perform similarly by standing for what I believe in within the organization: Speaking about my opposition to this institutional policy of inequality, writing about the damage it is doing and will do to Scouting and providing a strong example to Scouting and America’s future leaders.
I believe that I can have a greater effect on BSA and this policy by being part of it than I can be opting out.
A Scout is Kind – A Scout knows there is strength in being gentle. He treats others as he wants to be treated. – The Boy Scout Handbook
Despite everything else, I can agree with one item coming out of Irving, TX, recently: “Scouting believes that good people can personally disagree on this topic and still work together to achieve the life-changing benefits to youth through Scouting.”
I will continue to be active in the BSA, doing what I can to push the organization into the future. I hope my son will continue to be active because I think it’s teaching him important lessons, delivering valuable experiences and providing valuable socialization. My own Dad didn’t participate in Scouting other than to enroll each of his four sons at one time or another. Two of us became Eagle Scouts and are still active in leadership roles. Two others found their own path. Scouting is something we can do together.
(I should note my daughter is receiving no less of me: I am a registered leader for the Girl Scouts of America and am proud to be an assistant leader for her Brownie troop.)
Even more importantly, my participation is something I can do for both my son and my community. Like many of my generation, September 11, 2001 was a watershed moment for me. It forced questions on me which I could have ignored during my pursuit of career, family and success: “How can I make my community better, stronger?” and “If not me, who? If not now, then when?”
This is what it comes down to for me: How can I be a positive influence on my own son and future generations?
The answers I’ve uncovered: Get involved. Stay involved. Be a force for good in the world. Listen, teach and mentor.
(Those who qualify can join one of Scouting’s Research panels here. I just did. I’ve got a few things to say.)
For me this is done through my involvement with Scouting. I’m regretful that an organization which has done and continues to do such good has become associated with such negative actions, but this will only change if I step up and do something. And I will. In the manner and to the degree that your conscience guides you, I encourage you to as well.
Eagle Scout Class of 1985
Lifetime Member, National Eagle Scout Association
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017