Some major religious charter partners are voicing concern, even talking about dropping their relationship with BSA. I’ve seen some Mormon leaders quoted as saying that everything’s fine, they will continue as they have up till now; meanwhile, a CBS news story today quoted other Mormon leaders indicating that the LDS Church is investigating starting its own scouting program. In the end, I imagine there will be a great cooling of support, a splintering of opinions, within groups such as the Latter Day Saints and Southern Baptists. That same CBS news story quoted a leader in the gay rights movement saying that they won’t stop until BSA overrides the right of individual charter partners and foists gay leaders on unwilling community groups.
So, what has BSA gained by this decision? And perhaps more importantly, what has it lost?
I doubt that we will see much dramatic change locally. The lifting of the ban on gay youth didn’t bring in any noticeable surge in kids. I don’t think there is a huge number of gay adults clamoring at the gates to start leading hikes, either. In fact, the real shocks over the next several months will probably come from a few well-placed volunteers who come out of the closet and fess up to their sexual orientation, to the consternation of many who know them. But in the short term, this change is a big Meh.
But If BSA thinks it has finally made this issue go away and that now, everything will be fine and Scouting will start to grow again, then I think it is fooling itself. BSA’s place in American society has been shrinking for decades. It’s still the biggest and best out there, but it’s lost a lot of people since its peak in my youth. I think that has more to do with competition from other programs and a kind of institutional bloat on BSA’s part. So, I don’t think BSA has gained much of anything by this decision.
As for what is has lost, well, that’s another story. After the fraught decision to end the ban on gay youth, we lost a lot of charter partners. We didn’t necessarily lose a lot of units, but there were lots of churches – many with longstanding records of support for Scouting – who dropped their affiliation with BSA. The organization as a whole lost a lot of goodwill it could ill afford to lose. In the short term, BSA was weakened, and unless the new charter partners care a whole lot more about their Scouting units than the old ones did, the weakening will continue.
But BSA has also lost something of its core values. The ban on gay leaders was never entirely built upon fear of pedophiles preying on children. Protecting children and youth was an important value, and still is. But my colleagues who endlessly harp on “gay ≠ pedophile” are missing the point. Just as important as the value of protecting young people from something was/is the value of offering them something to aspire to.
The Adult Role Model (once upon a time, the “Adult Male Role Model”) is a key facet of BSA’s methodology. Kids need heroes, and Scout leaders are supposed to help fill the bill. We expect of those we entrust with leadership more than just programmatic competence; we expect them to be somebody we want our kids to resemble as they grow up. That doesn’t mean they are flawless – sainthood is not a prerequisite for the position – but it does mean that we expect them to model the behaviors we think of as “good.” We teach more effectively by example than by precept, in other words.
It’s the same reason we don’t allow “self-affirmed, practicing homosexuals” to serve as clergy in The UMC. It’s not that their sins are any worse than anybody else’s sins, but if you erect your sin into a lifestyle and demand that it be called virtue, your example overrides any other ethical or spiritual teaching you have to offer. Strictly speaking, it’s about the teaching, not the behavior. Any disordered lifestyle that we have ceased to struggle against – not just relating to our sexuality – would render our witness ineffective and belie the transformation we say Christ calls us to.
BSA may say that it will protect the right of its more conservative charter partners to choose their own leaders, but the institution as a whole has already decided that “gay is good.” When you say that this is no longer a bar to leadership, you’re saying that it is at least part of the adiaphora, the indifferent matters, and you’re not objecting to those who say that it is part of the essential goodness of God’s creation, a thing to be celebrated in and for itself rather than merely to be overlooked.
So, while it may not make a big difference in terms of numbers and programs, in changing its standard of the good – its teaching of the good – by changing its policy on the Adult Role Model, BSA has lost a part of its soul. That is a real loss, and it is not something to pass over with indifference. That is something to mourn.