by Michael Otterson, The Washington Post, Published: May 31, 2013 at 9:42 am
The dust had barely settled from the May 23 vote on the Boy Scouts of America membership policy, when the media analysis and post mortem on this iconic American institution began.
Understandably, virtually all the headlines referred to the inclusion of gay scouts. The New York Times described it as a “milestone.” The Washington Post lamented that the policy still excludes gay adult leaders. Time magazine referred to “dramatic change.” And that is probably how history will record it.
But what has been largely missing from the mainstream media coverage of all the lobbying, placard waving and rhetoric on that day in Grapevine, Texas, was one fact that should have been inescapable. Rather than representing another episode of slippage in a very long culture war, as some religionists claimed, or a “step in the right direction,” as some gay advocates defined it, BSA in reality reintroduced and reinforced some of its century-old core values and nailed those colors firmly to the mast in an unmistakable message. And it was that reaffirmation of principle, plainly restated in the Membership Standards Resolution, that enabled some of scouting’s traditional supporters – including America’s largest sponsor of scouting, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – to back the new membership policy.
What were those principles? A few hours before the vote was taken in Grapevine, Gary E. Stevenson, the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered the keynote speech to a well-attended breakfast assembly of scout leaders. Bishop Stevenson addressed those principles directly, rather than focusing on the membership vote that was on everyone’s mind.
“I am very aware,” he said, “of the controversial moral, legal, and policy issues that face this great organization. They are deep and they are wide and they will test the best in us. Although I don’t speak directly to these issues this morning, I believe it constructive counsel for each of us to pray that divine direction manifest itself upon those who have the weighty responsibility to lead this organization appropriately.”
Bishop Stevenson then turned to what he termed a foundational principle “as old and deep as the organization itself ” –duty to God. It’s worth repeating part of what he said.
“Boy Scouts of today face issues not faced by generations before them: declining morals, technology, addictive behavior and declining academic performance to name a few. I believe that the key to solving these issues lies in family and duty to God. If boys truly understood what their duty to God entails and lived it, they would grow safely into manhood.
“…It is this common belief in duty to God that has forged the iron-strong connection with Boy Scouts of America we (i.e. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have shared over the last 100 years. One hundred years of evidence has shown that this impact-proof, non-rusting core principle works better than whatever has been, historically, the next-best idea. Duty to God is where the power lies. Duty to God is what changes lives.
“…Some may not see the sacred gatekeeping role scouting plays. They may see only fundraising and not a foundation. Others may brand scouting activities as merely outdoor recreation, but it can and must be shown that BSA is not a camping club; it is a character university centered on duty to God. I quote again from Robert Baden-Powell: ‘The whole of [scouting] is based on religion, that is, on the realization and service of God.’
“… Scouting must never overlook this core principle. We still need duty to God. We always will. When the societal and political winds come, and they surely will, scouting cannot unhinge itself from this foundational principle.”
Understanding this emphasis makes it easier to appreciate why Latter-day Saints in large numbers supported the resolution that was later passed by 61 per cent of assembled scout leaders. For Mormons, embracing duty to God as a core value is inseparable from the behavior that is expected to follow – behavior that it instills in its young women as well as its young men, and encourages in adults as well as its youth.
One key line in the new resolution that the scouting body approved is worth citing: “…any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of scouting age is contrary to the virtues of scouting.” That is it, in a nutshell. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this was never about whether the BSA or local scout leaders should try to discern or categorize ill-defined and emerging sexual awareness of pre-pubescent boys and early pubescent young men who make up 90 per cent of scouting. Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops. Rather, it has always about teaching moral behavior to all boys, and instilling the core values that are part of responsible adulthood. As the church said in a statement issued promptly after the BSA vote, it is responsible behavior that “continues to be our compelling interest.”
Where next? The last line of the church’s official response stated it this way: “We trust that BSA will implement and administer the approved policy in an appropriate and effective manner.” In other words, the church is taking the BSA resolution at its word: that duty to God is an “immutable tenet” of scouting; that the “Scout Oath and Law are fundamental to the BSA in preparing youth for responsible citizenship”; that “effective screening, education and training,” is in place, as well as “clear policies to protect youth and provide for their privacy”; that “sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is contrary to the virtues of scouting.”
To be sure, not everyone agrees with these values. Those who don’t are not compelled to become scouts or to embrace what traditional scouting has to offer. They ought now to allow scouting to chart its own future, consistent with its century old values, free from interference, advocacy and agenda-driven politics. Let’s remember, it has always been – and should always be – about the boys.
Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.