A Closer Look at the Boy Scouts of America

Heather Greene —  August 4, 2013 — 10 Comments

There is one thing that the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) has become very skilled at accomplishing: making headlines. Whether it concerns the so-called “Perversion files,” the new sustainability merit badge, or membership inclusivity debates, the BSA seems to always be in the news. This puts an entirely new spin on their motto “Prepared. For Life.”

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  deflam

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s deflam

On July 28th NBC published an article entitled Wiccans, Earth-lovers, Do­-gooders, there’s a scouting group for your kid. It reports on the recent membership exodus from the BSA noting that “alternative groups are reaping the benefits ….whether they cater to God-fearing Girls, old-school camping enthusiasts or even pint-sized pagans.” That article highlights several organizations including Wiccan-based Spiral Scouts, secular groups like Navigators USA and Earth Champs as well as several Christian-based alternatives to Girl Scouts.*

According to BSA’s own records, Scout membership has indeed dropped. In the year 2000 the BSA had 3,351,969 total scouts. Today, that number is 2,658,794.

Policy “controversy” has caused many American families to look elsewhere for their scouting needs.  In recent years, these disillusioned families are coming from a much wider demographic than in the past. Why? The BSA has been playing a dangerous game of policy “teeter totter” that has only served to alienate more and more social groups.

The most well-known situation centers on the BSA’s long-standing policy of excluding gay members.  As stated in a 2003 BSA document, “We Will Not Allow… Avowed Homosexuals to Be Leaders or Members in the Traditional Programs.”  After SCOTUS ruled this policy legal, the Scouts suffered a series of significant losses.  More than 50 local branches of the United Way and a variety of large corporate sponsors such as Intel, UPS and Merck have severed ties with the BSA. In 2001 director Steven Spielberg resigned from the Scouts’ advisory board stating:

I thought the Boy Scouts stood for equal opportunity and I have consistently spoken out publicly and privately against intolerance and discrimination based on ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual orientation.  

Despite the backlash, the BSA held its ground. Then, on May 23 2013, it changed its position stating:

… the Boy Scouts of American (sic) voted on a resolution that maintains its current membership policy for all adult leaders and states that youth may not be denied membership in the BSA on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone. 

This revised policy led to a new exodus – this time from the conservative Christian groups.  As NBC noted, these organizations are forming their own programs that “focus on sexual purity.” In addition, many older scouting-style groups, like the Baptist’s Royal Ambassadors, have seen an increase in interest.

Unfortunately for the BSA, this revised policy has not garnered significant LGBT support.  The Houston Chronicle’s Wiccan blogger and LGBTQ member, Ed Nelson laments:

The Boy Scouts have always [omitted] Gay and… Bi men from being members…Although I disagreed, I respected their stance as a private organization to allow whom they wish into it. I see the money issues as the main reason for the sudden change of heart… It is sad to see when people change who they are for others.

On the surface Nelson’s assumption appears to be correct. The BSA’s partial policy change is a weak attempt to appease donors and lure back members. But it hasn’t worked. Additionally, the BSA is only inviting membership attrition through an environment where dedicated, BSA-educated children cannot become future leaders. These boys will take their skills and their own children elsewhere.

This game of “teeter totter” doesn’t end with the membership debacle.  Religiously, the BSA also teeters on the edge of a well-greased fence. The famous Scout’s Oath states, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” Lord Baden-Powell, the founding father said, “No man can be really good if he doesn’t believe in God and he doesn’t follow His laws.”  These are, by their very nature, exclusionary statements that have, in fact, birthed many alternative scouting organizations.

Image by Artistic Infusion Program Master Designer Donna Weaver / United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Charles Vickers

Image by Artistic Infusion Program Master Designer Donna Weaver / United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Charles Vickers

Although they do still exclude atheists and agnostics, the BSA has developed an interfaith sensibility.  It provides leaders with an inclusive holiday calendar, offers multi-faith badges and encourages group discussions on the global community. BSA affiliated organizations do include several minority religions.  The BSA states,

Scouting encourages each young person to begin a spiritual journey through the practice of his or her faith tradition….While Scouting does not define religious belief for its members, it has been adopted by and works with youth programs of all major faiths.

While encouraging this personal “spiritual journey,” the BSA also produces a marketing pamphlet entitled “Bringing Youth to Christ through a Scouting Ministry.” The BSA uses this document to attract Church affiliates suggesting that the BSA program can be used to enhance their outreach ministry.  The document states, “When properly interpreted by an adult Scouter of strong faith to young people, even the unchurched begin to understand their need for God.”

How can an organization promote interfaith education and tolerance while also advertising itself as a potential tool for faith conversion?  Moreover, how can any public school system be legally allowed to affiliate or promote the BSA, as such, by allowing leaders into the classrooms? (Now that is another “can of worms.”)

Once again, the BSA straddles the proverbial fence in an attempt to maintain the integrity of its membership and its funding. The self-proclaimed values-based organization seems to be very willing to compromise or bend its values in the name of numbers.

Boy Scouts 2010 Jamboree. Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  Preston Kemp

Boy Scouts 2010 Jamboree. Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Preston Kemp

As if that wasn’t enough, the BSA was recently chastised for excluding children from their Jamboree due to a high Body Mass Index (BMI.)  For an organization that advertises itself as a program for young people that “…develops personal fitness,” the exclusionary practice is contradictory.  It has now successfully ostracized yet another segment of its loyal membership.

Despite the BSA’s inability to maintain a position, it is still a social staple. In fact, a Salt Lake City-based Utah Pride Center has tried twice to become an affiliate organization. Why?

If you peel away all those sticky issues, you find a program that offers a very important experience.  It takes children outside, puts them in nature, forces them to interact with each other and engage their environment. These types of experiences are becoming as rare as the vinyl record.  Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls the problem “nature-deficit disorder” to which the BSA has a cure.

But …

For many of us, joining comes with significant compromise – in one form or another.  Do you pack away your beliefs and say yes when your son begs to join?  Or do you say no and take him hiking?

spiralIf you are lucky, you might find an alternative. Or, if you are tenacious, you can start your own as did the Central Pagan Florida Association. President Amber Moon has just finished the leadership requirements for Spiral Scouts and will be offering the experience to her organization’s children.

This is one of the many decisions facing parents. To Scout or not to Scout?  If the BSA would just stick to its policies and stay out of the news, the path to a decision might be clearer for everyone no matter the demographic.  Or just maybe it’s all this floundering that has made the decision easy…certainly not to the benefit of the BSA.

What route have you gone?


*NOTE: The Girl Scouts is a separate organization professing an open religious policy and calls itself a “spiritual organization.” The GSA is open to gay and lesbian participants.  

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • margieR

    The girl scouts have also admitted transgender girls, i believe

    • kenofken

      The Girl Scouts decided a long time ago to focus on actual scouting rather than using kids as culture war pawns.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    My boys are part of the scouting organisation in the UK, and the missus is a leader.

    They just ‘stay quiet’ about the religion thing, as it is still very much Christonormative.

    I grumble a lot, but since the boys also go to a CofE school, I can’t really bitch too much.

    The problem with being in such a small minority is that there is not a huge amount of alternatives.

    • Apel Mjausson

      There’s a wide variety of scouting organizations outside the US too. Growing up in Sweden, I was a scout in the Goodtemplar Scouts, “Nykterhetsrörelsens Scoutförbund”. They’re a member of IOGT International.

      Their main thing is to get kids (boys and girls in mixed groups) through adolescence without drugs and alcohol. Alcohol is a big problem that nobody wants to talk about in scouting. At least it was in Sweden and I doubt it’s different in other countries.

      NSF are religiously unaffiliated. Instead they have three watchwords that translate roughly to shared humanity, democracy, international insight. There’s a lot of emphasis on learning about how people live in other countries, particularly developing countries.


  • Kallel Peterson

    Valid points and observations in this one, and I’d know. I’ve been in the Boy Scouting program for most of my life.I’m an Eagle Scout. I work for a local summer camp. I’m also a Pagan, in large part because of the Scouts. The exposure to nature I received in their program, and the feeling of “something more” in the forests led me to investigate paganism as a young teenager. I’m hoping against hope and the charter organizations that the Scouts utilize that they will continue to evolve and grow to be more inclusive. I hope that, because, despite all its flaws and deeply troubling past decisions, the Scouts do have something to offer to young people (I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Louv, and cried when I read Last Child in the Woods).

    While money is most definitely a factor in their decision making process at the council level, I think that numbers represent the bigger fear for the old white dudes that are in charge at national. As I said to them when I wrote urging them to completely discard their discriminatory membership policy regarding the LGBT community, if the Scouts wish to remain relevant THEY HAVE TO CHANGE. Simply put, it’s not the 1950’s anymore, and it’s time they realize that or give up. I don’t really want to see them give up, but maybe if/when I have kids, they’ll be going to Spiral Scouts rather than Boy Scouts and Venturing.

  • Deborah Bender

    That’s an interesting NBC article, but it totally overlooks the Campfire Girls, who were the main organizational rival to GS USA in the mid-twentieth century. I wonder how they are doing.

    Girl Scout camp introduced me to the natural world and vigorous physical activity. I probably wouldn’t be alive today without it.

  • Wolfdragon

    As a bisexual pagan with a child in scouts, I find that acceptance can depend on what group is acting as your “host”. My son’s host church is Methodist and they seem to be quite tolerant. Those that are uncomfortable with my sexuality or religion just don’t say anything. Our troop leaders have no problem with me leading groups or being a chaperon. Our group has also had a Hindu family so interfaith was something they were already familiar with when we joined. Since the issues with gays in scouts came up the Baptist have been dropping members and the Methodist are making a point to pick them up. They don’t care who/what you are, they just want to provide a great experience for the kids. If the BSA could remember it’s own values then perhaps they would see an increase in members.

    • cernowain greenman

      A large independent Christian church here in Indianapolis, IN just kicked out their scouts over the issue of the National organization allowing gay youth to join. Seems to me that they would rather “make a point” than allow their youth the opportunity of being scouts.

    • kenofken

      The root of the problem is that BSA does remember its own values. Although scouting had some of its origins in older woodcraft and even quasi-pagan movements, its predominant strain reflected the values of Edwardian England and then World War I America. Its core values were Christian triumphalism, racism/cultural chauvinism, militarism and notions of citizenship that were virtually fascist in nature. Homophobia went without saying.

      These founding core values and assumptions affect the culture of an institution in ways that are not easily changed with time. They become self-perpetuating because they select and groom new generations of leadership who share those same values. They were also greatly reinforced by the Cold War and the disproportionate involvement of conservative churches like LDS and RCC in recent years. Yes, there are lots of individual troops and leaders and rank and file who are tolerant, but the national leadership and the very large religious conservative wing of the movement are fighting that every step of the way.

      BSA has some worthwhile things going on, but the tradeoff is that you feed and subject yourself to an organization with some very sick values at the national level. Things are good with you and your troop, but someone with a grudge could raise a stink with national or regional authorities, and you, and your kid would be out on your ears.

  • TadhgMor

    This is interesting for me. I recently spent two and a half weeks in West Virginia working the most recent national Jamboree (not a Boy Scout, I just worked with production on all the shows). So I have some recent experience with fairly high ranking Boy Scouts and one of their marquee events (I ran cameras for nearly every show).

    I got to say it’s a mixed bag. They had worship tents for Muslims and Jews, and most of the “big” events they had were entirely non-religious, other than the occasional (and clearly rote) references to God. Mostly rock bands (horrible ones) and motivational style speakers (Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs and the King of Sweden).

    There were a number of Sunday church style services held on the main stage (Jews and Muslims used some smaller daily stages elsewhere from my understanding). Protestants, Mormons, and Catholics all got a go. But even during this the services were pretty tame by my experiences.

    Now the Mormons though, they are really trying to push the Boy Scouts towards more overt religion. They paid for an another big show entirely themselves (which costs a good bit) in order to bring in some Mormon boy band that talked about faith and God alot and do some horrible little re-enactment with a fake Baden-Powell. I can tell you that that show made me uncomfortable in a way none of the others, even the Church services, had (the services were entirely voluntary attendance, out of all the kids there only a fraction showed up).

    So I guess I see a very mixed bag. Many of those days, around many of the Boy Scouts and even some of the older volunteers I think I could have comfortably been an “out” pagan without problems. But the trends the Mormons are trying to push are worrying to me.