Healing our Institutions (Starting with the Boy Scouts)


People sometimes leave institutions that no longer uphold their values. This can be a courageous act that sends a powerful message. But, such an act, when taken by too many, cedes control to the people and the ideologies being opposed. The result can be counterproductive. People have a responsibility to defend our institutions, defend the language of human history, and refuse to cede ground to those that promote intolerance and injustice. To illustrate this, I’ll discuss the current controversy within the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) regarding the acceptance of gay members. Because this is a question of evolving human ethics, I will examine core religious beliefs and justify my position that BSA policy needs to change.

Countries and Institutions struggle and at times make mistakes. Nevertheless, they form the fabric of our society and often deserve to be healed instead of abandoned. The Catholic Church struggles with a laundry list of issues, including discrimination against women, clergy sex abuse, and their stand on homosexuality. Some have left the church, but many remain (30% of the US population) and presumably wish to heal these wounds. People in Israel struggle to cope with the growing ultra-Orthodox population (Haredi Judaism), now 10% of the population, whose views about women’s rights and other issues are unacceptable. Unless this faction is engaged instead of isolated, painful as that will be, Israel risks drifting to an extremist ideology. There is a recent anti-democracy movement in the United States, illustrated by people petitioning to secede from the union when the vote does not go their way (i.e. electing President Obama for a second term). As difficult as it is to deal with growing extremism, these factions need to be reintegrated, and our institutions need to be preserved.

Boy Scouts

Consider the impact of people abandoning the Boy Scouts. In 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the BSA to ban gay scoutmasters. People have struggled with how to cope, and some chose to disengage. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations called on its congregants to withdraw their children from Boy Scout troops. Eagle Scouts, including Kelsey Timmerman, returned their badges to protest the ban on gays. Membership in the Boy Scouts has declined for ten years as funding eroded and families walked away. These protests are understandable, but when extremists gain control of our institutions, values, history, and even language become distorted. This is exactly what has happened to the Boy Scouts.

Look at scouting through a historical lens. The Supreme Court, in upholding the ban, sided with the BSA’s claim that it has always been a distinctly conservative group. But, it is not so. When the BSA incorporated in 1910, they had a pluralistic ideal and diverse membership. Traditional American Values implied an authentic national consensus, not a narrow ideology. The religious element of the early program espoused a philosophy based on American deism, and demonstrated a commitment to religious pluralism. This upheld a long tradition of deists in America, including George Washington and Ben Franklin. Prior to 1979, BSA materials defined the term “morally straight” as meaning respect for others; it did not imply a heterosexual orientation. Deism was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a tradition that rejected revelation, but accepted observation of the natural world as sufficient proof for the existence of God. Robert Baden-Powell (founded the Scouting Movement) and William D. Boyce (founded Boy Scouts of America) were complex men, whom I would not label as liberal. Nevertheless, by the standards of the early 20th century, the BSA began as an inclusive organization.

A lot has changed in the last 100 years. I’m not going to cover the history or explain the variety of forces that pushed the Boy Scouts to the religious right. I will, however, assert that a more effective response to this drift may be the opposite of disengagement: perhaps it would have been better if liberal religious institutions had refused to disengage. We have to wonder if we would even be having this debate if more of these institutions were actively involved with scouting and sponsoring troops today.

As it is, liberal religious organizations are challenging the BSA’s current identification with the religious right. An amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court before the 2001 decision stated that liberal denominations and government sponsors represent 60% of all troops. These groups are pointing out that maintaining the position that homosexuality is immoral amounts to preferring some religions over others, which is clearly a break from scouting’s ecumenical past. Large metropolitan councils have been challenging the national position as well. Many petitioned for the right to add sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies. BSA National rejected these requests, but some councils, including the Boston Minuteman Council, went ahead anyway. This past February, I wrote Boy Scouts: Your Star is Rising, where I described, based on my personal experience, how communities and churches struggled with this issue. I remain hopeful that the 1,400 voting members of the National Council will open the doors of scouting in May, when the issue of gay non-discrimination will be addressed. Adding another voice of reason to this debate, President Obama has urged the Boy Scouts to change. No matter what the National Council decides, liberal organizations should engage the Boy Scouts at a local level and expand sponsorship of troops. National policy does not represent local attitudes, and we should not cede ground to extremism.

Let me add an additional point. In addition to banning gays, the Boy Scouts have denied membership to people whose only crime was to reject beliefs not based on empirical evidence. Specifically, these youth refuse to claim belief in a higher power. If Scouting is to accept freedom of thought, and be open to all, then this is unacceptable.

The Boy Scouts of America is mostly run by dedicated volunteers of good faith, though religious leaders have misinformed some of them about issues of human sexuality. These volunteers are struggling to live and act by the moral principles they’ve been taught. It is counterproductive to label the Boy Scouts as “hateful”. There are egregious organizations for which this word applies, but not here. Programs like the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate”, although well-intentioned, have backfired by oversimplifying complex issues and driving a wedge between otherwise well-meaning people. Sound bites and slogans are not a replacement for conversation, understanding and tolerance. Liberals and conservatives need to engage with each other, otherwise nothing will change and no one will learn.

Rigid thinking, imposed by zealots, tends to split society. While vocal protest of wrong-headed institutional policy is sometimes right, people need to understand the dangers. True liberalism does not mean universal agreement, but it does mean respecting freedom of thought and tolerating a range of views. For now, I hope that the BSA officially relinquishes non-discrimination policies to local councils. Conservatives will find it difficult to oppose such a local-control argument. For the future, I hope that the next generation of national leaders will embrace nondiscrimination, as the founders of scouting did in the beginning.

Re-imaging God

Religious thought has changed before and it will change again. Catholics famously refused to believe Galileo, but who today would believe geocentrism? Slavery was promoted by religion for centuries, but who today would deny that slavery is evil? It is easy to find examples of religions going astray and holy books being inconsistent. Richard Dawkins is famous for pointing out hypocrisy and falsehood in religious institutions. From the point of view of reason and science, I can’t argue. Nevertheless, I don’t condemn religions for getting scientific and moral questions wrong; instead I see many people, working over thousands of years, attempting to make sense of our world and live a life of meaning. Paraphrasing Theodore Parker, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rev. Jack Mendelsohn added that if anything is to bend toward justice, it will be human hands (our hands) that do the bending. These words tell me that no single mind is capable of revealing true wisdom, which has evolved over the centuries from the collective efforts of our ancestors.

Let me say this to the religious zealots: if belief in God means accepting a deity who created the earth in seven days, and interpreting scripture literally, then, no, I don’t believe in your definition of God. The one point that I would add to the many authors who have eloquently criticized religious thinking is that the definition of this remarkable word should not be relinquished. It has, after all, evolved throughout history. If I discard revelation, and leave creation to science, then I am free to re-imagine the essence of the word God.

Most people reject religious zealots, but nevertheless desire hope. People need something that speaks to the human condition. For most people, the solution is to cherry pick from religion and science to form a semi-rational world view. The story of Jesus saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7) is heart warming, but the story of Jesus calling a Canaanite woman a dog, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (Matthew 15:22-28), is offensive. As for science, Einstein’s theory of relativity is widely accepted, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is often questioned. If you cherry pick your beliefs, then I suspect that you don’t take the bible literally, but you’re also uncomfortable accepting all scientific theories, even when they are well established. You feel that science alone does not speak to your dreams, passions, and imagination.

Just for a moment, suppose our ancestors rejected the supernatural when defining the meaning of God. They could have simply said that God is the unity of nature, community, mind and heart. Imagine the etymology of our language if this had been the case. Instead of being a wish, the phrase “trust in God” would mean trust in each other. Instead of expressing servitude, the phrase “duty to God” would mean rising as a community to our challenges. The word reverence would express respect for each other and for the earth. In this worldview, hope and wisdom come not from a king, but from our collective being; the same insight that Jefferson had when he recognized that the power of government comes from the people. After all, it was our collective vision of justice that overturned biblical teachings of white churches in the south during the civil rights movement. If the world accepted a natural definition of God, then tortured arguments about reading god’s mind to reconcile faith with homosexuality would melt away. Being gay is OK, and it always has been. Claiming a storm to be God’s punishment for gay marriage becomes logically absurd. Without mysticism, the word spirituality speaks to the human spirit, and the unlimited creativity of the human mind. Rather than stories of men hearing voices in the desert, revelations become scientific theories that are empirically verified by our best minds.

I don’t fully agree with atheists who say that religion poisons everything. It is true that contemporary religion has a dark side, such as when it is used to suppress free speech, restrict women’s rights, or promote injustice for gays. Nevertheless, in my view, the poison is the lies, distortions, and superstitions that are presented as truth, and the delivery agents are the leaders, believers, and charlatans who fool the masses and enrich the powerful. Even if the world were purged of all the evil done in the name of religion, the poison would still exist. Imagine Wall Street as a infallible church, right-wing economic theories as gospel, and Paul Krugman as heretic (playing the role of Galileo). Servitude, in any form, is the enemy. Blind obedience to God, King, Pope, dictator, or CEO, enforced with fear, intimidation, or thought control, is poison. If a core meaning of God is love, then the power of God must come from the minds and hearts of all people.

Fundamentalists believe God to be a supernatural deity who created the universe. Atheists don’t believe in God at all. Perhaps there is a third way: a meaningful definition of God that is consistent with science. Pluto was once called a planet, but then we discovered that it was not. The body in space has not changed, only the science. So, why not reinvent God? After all, almost everyone has pondered an alternative interpretation of God. What woman has not envisioned God as a female? Now, I know that science is stark. We are a tiny spec in the universe; human history is a flash in geologic time; eventually the sun will expand and likely engulf the earth; and we are here at all only because a tiny branch of evolution flourished. But, maybe we’re looking for God in the wrong places. Maybe God did not exist at the beginning of time. Maybe God is evolving. Maybe we need to look for God within ourselves. As our species reaches the limits of its environment (the earth), then survival might depend more on cooperation than fitness. We can only hope to be a species that makes the unique adaptations necessary to make this evolutionary leap and survive. Future generations might think of God not as a power imposed on us, but rather as a power that evolved within us.

Gotthold Lessing said “The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather his sincere exertion to get the Truth.” We’ve spent years refining our understanding of the atom, so why not question a 2000 year old definition of God? Whether we discover God or invent God, we need to imagine a meaning of God that binds us together. The nature of science is that it changes as new evidence and knowledge is discovered. Religion needs to change as well.

Path Forward

I would be a naive utopian to think that a humane civilization will come about without a struggle. Science (Theory of Cognitive Dissonance) suggests that it is difficult for people to change their beliefs even when faced with clear evidence to the contrary. As religion evolves, believers and non-believers need to respect each other as individuals, and engage in meaningful discussions. Along the way, we need to raise awareness of emerging truths. The creation / evolution debate might have been interesting 200 years ago, but it is not an interesting debate any more. Without common awareness and understanding, monied interests (such as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council) will inject false controversy into our schools and government. House bill 2306, introduced to the Kansas board of education in February 2013, asks schools to teach the “scientific controversy” about climate change. The controversy is over; climate change is happening.

Some argue that people become polarized when flooded with too much information; it happened after the printing press was invented, and it is happening now with the emergence of the internet. The enlightenment emerged 300 years after the printing press, but we don’t have 300 years to wait this time. Science alone will not save us: monied interests can influence a few scientists, enough to confuse the public. We need the majority of neutral scientists to speak out in the public interest without fear that funding will be lost or objectivity will be compromised. If we believe our world to be a sacred place, then we need a sense of reverence to accompany the study of science, and we must ask scientists to help us understand this flood of new information we receive daily.

Scientists are the key. They need to engage in the public forum, especially at the local level, in scouting, churches, temples, and government. Science needs to inform our religion, and our relationship to each other and the world. In addition, we need a new generation of religious leaders who are able to bring the good news of science into houses of worship. Religious leaders who have rejected the supernatural need to come out of the closet. Focused more on how to live than what to believe, religious leaders will still teach us to uphold justice, reject hate, and address human suffering. If we can harmonize the values of theists, atheists, and others, then we can begin the hard work of living meaningful lives on this precious little planet we call home.

Some may find this discussion about re-imagining God heretical, but I’m OK with that. The point is this: we need to have an open dialogue about the nature of God, and we need to be humble enough to accept ambiguity in our understanding of the universe. In the 18th century, asking about belief in God would spark a conversation: Deist God or Christian God? Trinitarian or Unitarian? Would it not be awe inspiring if, through our collective efforts, we created the Promised Land envisioned by Dr. King? Such a place would echo the teaching of our ancestors who described a “Kingdom of God” here on earth; a place where we have reverence for God, for science, for nature, and for each other.

Boy Scouts – Summary

Scouting is worth saving. So are churches, temples and mosques. So is our country and so is the world. Human institutions are bound to be imperfect. When they make mistakes, we have the choice to flee, fight, or fix them. No one choice is right all of the time, and no one choice is right for everyone. Imperfect as these institutions may be, a world of isolated individuals, who get their information from television and the internet, scares me more that a world where people are trying to form communities and get along with each other.

People can be rational without abandoning the institutions of their youth or their history. After all, who wants to give up the traditions they grew up with? I sure don’t. I’ve done my best to raise rational, objective, science minded children, but there would be screams of protest if I ever suggested that we give up our Christmas tree. Enjoy your traditions, whatever they are for you. I’ll respect your path toward truth and meaning if you’ll respect mine. By the way, that’s what the term reverence is truly about. Traditions are fine as long as children are educated to distinguish fact from fiction.

Inclusiveness is the vision. In his book Legacy of Honor, Alvin Townley describes the Boy Scouts as a movement in which millions of Scouts and thousands of troops have participated. He describes Eagle Scouts from every walk of life and every religion.  He talks about how these scouts have become leaders that practice citizenship and service to others, values that transcend religion and apply to all humanity. We should not split Boy Scouts into two organizations, one liberal and one conservative. We should have one BSA. We should have one USA. We need to preserve our institutions by remaining engaged with each other.

A plurality of beliefs can be held together with common principles. In Scouting, these principles are embodied in the Scout Oath, Law, and Outdoor Code. Scouts hold diverse beliefs, but agree to duty, honor, citizenship, and service to others. Suppose the Boy Scouts of America updated their policy to accept gays, atheists, and agnostics: what will change? Absolutely nothing, except that scouting would be more inclusive, which was the founders’ intent.

5 thoughts on “Healing our Institutions (Starting with the Boy Scouts)

  1. weeklysift

    The article you linked to said that the atheist scout was challenged to recognize a “Supreme Being”, which to me seems a bit more specific than a “higher power”. In 12-step-programs, “higher power” can be defined by the individual, and some define it pretty loosely. In practice, if you can make some kind of personal sense out of the steps that use the phrase “higher power”, you’re OK. (I don’t think you’d get away with saying, “That step doesn’t apply to me because I don’t believe in a higher power.”)

    So I guess my question is: How much of a “being” does a boy’s Supreme Being have to be to satisfy the Scouts? Could they be happy with a boy who believed in an impersonal notion like the Tao or had reverence for the Universe in some Spinoza-like way?

  2. Allan Post author

    It depends on the council and the point in history. I know of an atheist Eagle Scout from the early 1970s. I recall that he got push back at his board of review, but ultimately passed. I don’t know of any cases of scouts being denied Eagle prior to 1970. Today, Some councils avoid the topic, so the answer would be that they need only ponder the question. Buddhist scouts have no issues, and I’ve never heard of a problem for Taoists. My interpretation of the BSA charter is that they are to be nonsectarian and not define what it means to believe in God or practice religion. Nevertheless, at least in recent history, some councils have established a threshold to specifically exclude atheists and agnostics.

  3. Paul Brozdowski

    Well done Al! Hopefully the BSA will make the right decision – Religious thought has changed over time and religious doctrine has too – I think you would enjoy reading Marcus Borg – a terrific writer with a historical perspective on the development of religious doctime and the Catholic faith – His intreptetation of the Bible as far more figurative than literal might not reinvent God – or Jesus – but it does more to reconcile science and common sense with an understanding of the devine than anything I have read – Paul

    1. Allan Post author

      Thanks for the positive feedback Paul. I will add Marcus Borg to my reading list as I find religious history interesting. The last book I read on the subject was Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God,” which inspired some of my thinking. You’ll may also be interested in a link shared by another reader from yesterday’s NYT: Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Religious Atheism’ (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/ronald-dworkins-religious-atheism/). Keep the comments coming.

  4. Pingback: Keep up the pressure (National Boy Scouts: Do the Right Thing) | Commentary by Allan

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