Scouting in a Fractured American Culture

The New York Times runs an article about how the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to address concerns about shrinking membership as they celebrate 100 years of boy scouting in the US. The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it’s peak in 1978, with 2.8 million boys currently in the Scouts.

To judge from the commentariat at the Times, you would think this is entirely the result of the BSA remaining firm in their ban of gay scout leaders and statement that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath.” Not to mention saying that boys who refuse to recite the Scout Oath because of its references to God and reverence may simply not have a place in the program. Commenters claiming to be Eagle Scouts line up one after another in the comments to announce that no son of theirs will ever be a member of the Scouts while it remains homophobic and theocratic.

I find this rather hard to believe — especially as girl scouts (who have chosen the other side of the cultural divide, with acceptance of atheist girl scouts and an open door for Planned Parenthood to provide sex education through the organization) have suffered identical membership declines, with only 2.3 million girl scouts in the US as they near their own centenary.

What I think this underscores is rather two related but separate trends:

1) The US have become culturally fragmented to an extent that an organization such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is not capable of appealing to the entirety of American culture. These organization must, by their nature, have a philosophy of what it means to be a responsible and maturing young person, and in formulating any set of principles along these lines they will necessarily estrange a significant portion of the country. Be assured that for parent claiming he will never let his son join the boy scouts because they are homophobic, there are other parents who would never allow their sons to join a troop led by an gay scoutmaster, or to belong to an organization which assured boys that homosexual activity is “normal and healthy”.

2) The scouts thrive in a culture in which there is some degree of father/son culture, and in which people are excited about outdoor activities. Certainly, some of the boys who benefit most from Scouting are boys without fathers — and many other boys from stable families have fathers who don’t have time to be “scout dads” and come to all the meetings and camp-outs. (I was among that latter group, as my dad worked many nights and weekends.) But if virtually no dads are willing to put time into helping to run a troop and do outdoor activities, scouting simply won’t happen. Adult leadership is always an essential component. And although troops can thrive in urban or suburban settings (my troop was sponsored out of our working-class parish in the old suburbs of Los Angeles) it has to be at least possible to interest boys in the idea of camping and hiking and trying knots and building fires. For people to whom the idea of going camping seems totally pointless, scouting will have little point.

As a result of these two, it strikes me as unsurprising that scouting finds less fertile ground in some parts of the country and among some cultural groups in the modern US. But so long as it remains true to its core values, the Boy Scouts will continue to thrive among those open to its values, and where scouting does thrive it will continue to provide boys and young men with a chance to learn skill and independence while gaining an appreciation of the great outdoors. I certainly look forward to the day my son is old enough to join.