Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 7, 2010

Happy Birthday?

Tomorrow, February 8, 2010 is the 100th birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. They were officially incorporated on February 8, 1910. There will be celebratory events throughout the year. The people who currently run the organization will put on a happy face, but it’s a troubled time to be celebrating. Their future does not look nearly as bright as their past. That makes me sad.

Boy Scout

U.S. Postal Museum (Smithsonian Institution) image of the Boy Scout.

I was a Boy Scout, Troop 117, Runnemede, NJ. I loved every minute I spent in scouting. I loved everything from long walks through town to troop meetings to long hikes in the woods, from weekend campouts to week-long summer camp at Pine Hill, from expositions to Jamborees, even the cold-weather events like the Klondike Derby. The troop leaders and other adult volunteers were the finest people in our town. They gave abundant time and talent to the upbringing of the boys in their own community. I’ve spent my whole life being confident in the outdoors because of what I learned in scouting. I feel great pride when I see evidence of a community service project created by an Eagle Scout candidate. Who knows what else scouting did for me or the other 112 million boys who have gone through the organization? But something has changed. And the times have surely changed.

Boy Scouting membership has been in decline for years. In the mid-eighties there were over five million boys in scouting programs. Today, only half that number are, and the decline is steadily consistent over the last 10 years. The people who run the organization have embroiled it in unpleasant controversies and scandal over the last 20 years. I guess after Nixon and Watergate, not even the Boy Scouts are sacred! If it doesn’t somehow get turned around, they won’t last 20 more years at their current rate of decline.

A few months ago I looked at some options for volunteering with the Boy Scouts. I don’t feel like going to regular troop meetings or going out on camping trips anymore so I decided I could contribute something as a merit badge counselor. As part of the education, exploration and skills development, BSA has over 100 different merit badges that scouts can earn. Any and everything from first aid to oceanography, from American labor to nuclear science. To earn a particular merit badge, the scout has to study and work under the tutelage of a sanctioned Scouting counselor – an adult with recognized expertise in that particular area. You only get the badge when the counselor says you get the badge! It’s a wonderful way for boys to gain real expertise, even experience in areas where they have some interest. As I researched my own end of the merit badge counselor requirements I came across the organization’s policies of discrimination.

If you will not openly profess a belief in God, the Boy Scouts don’t want anything to do with you. If you are homosexual, the Boy Scouts will not have you. These policies have generated both controversy and litigation over the last 20 years. Being a private organization the Scouts have consistently won the legal right to retain and enforce these policies. They have paid a substantial price to do that. For example, Stephen Spielberg, the filmmaker (himself an Eagle Scout and who also helped them create a cinematography merit badge) resigned his leadership position in protest. Much of the membership decline is attributed to the loss of support overall. Funding has been reduced by some United Way agencies.

Normal Rockwell rendition of Boy Scouting in the U.S.

Normal Rockwell rendition of Boy Scouting in the U.S.

From what I can tell the reality of Scouting on the ground is a somewhat different reality than the high command professes. The belief in God thing can get a pretty liberal interpretation down in the troops and councils – even a 12-stepper claiming a belief in a “higher power” could be acceptable. As for the homosexual aspect, in many cases it looks to me almost like a mirror image of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy currently in effect. The Boy Scouts have ejected people who went public with their homosexual orientation, but it wasn’t something the organization asked them about. The bottom line on these street-level policies, such as they are, is that they inherently violate the Scout principles. The Scout Law, which every Scout swears to uphold says: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” I think you have to bend that law quite a bit to have a policy saying homosexuals are unacceptable, yet allow them as long as they keep it a secret.

For a long time I’ve been wary of Scouts because of their paramilitary nature, but I think I could have overlooked that for the greater good they provide to boys. However I reluctantly had to decide against supporting the organization because of those discriminatory policies. Recently I talked with a man I was in the Scouts with 50 years ago. He said he would love to contribute something to the organization as well but had arrived at the same conclusion I had. He believes it’s just not fair. Then he told me when he was a Scout, he earned a merit badge through a man who was known in the community to be homosexual, something rare in those days. He said no one in his family or the Scout leadership seemed to have any trouble with that man working with boys. He also said that man was one of the finest merit badge counselors he ever worked with and that he went well beyond the requirement of the merit badge because he was so learned in his area of expertise.

The founding mythology of BSA revolves around an incident that happened in London. William Boyce, an American newspaperman was helped in the streets by a British boy scout who refused to accept a tip for his service. This honorable act led Boyce to research British Scouting, and he brought the concept to the U.S. a couple of years later. I’ve sometimes speculated that from a sociological perspective the scouting movement was a substitute for the right-of-passage part of life that had been usurped by the Industrial Revolution and the changes it wrought in family and society overall. I suspect a clever young mind could make an adequate Doctoral dissertation on that premise. If that has any basis in fact, perhaps the pace and overwhelming nature of technological change is affecting the need of boys for the Scout experience – society shifts again! Maybe the video games and computer gadgets are just way more fun than campfire stories and backpacking outings. The utter floundering I see in the leadership is most apparent in arguments suggesting the Hispanic population is the future salvation for Boy Scouting in the U.S. That suggests to me they simply don’t have a clue.

As I celebrate my own experience with Scouting and feel gratitude for all those who enabled that first 100 years, I am sad that such experiences will probably not be available to boys in the next 100 years. I’d like to be a helpful Scout, but it’s hard to help someone cross the street when neither of you even know where the street is anymore!


  1. I was glad to read your thoughtful meditation on the dilemma for the BSA regarding homosexuality. One of the ironies is that the founder of scouting in Britain, Lord Baden-Powell, was most likely a homosexual himself. Which does not mean he was a pederast, which seems to be what some people equate with homosexuality. And they will doubtless continue to do so, thanks to all the scandals among the priests.

    I myself had a wonderful experience as a Girl Scout all the way through high school, acquiring a great sense of confidence and competence in my own ability to cope with difficult circumstances. We girls didn’t have to wait around for boys to help us out with tough jobs like portaging canoes or building fires in the rain. Looking back, I’m sure a number of our leaders were lesbian, but aside from a few giggles about it among us girls, there didn’t seem to be any official consternation.

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