Boy Scouts’ Core Values Confusion

by Stephen H. Miller on February 7, 2013

In the face of the religious right’s uproar over the move by the Boy Scouts of America to allow local troops to decide whether or not to continue barring gay boys/adult volunteers, the group has now delayed any move until later this year. But as Lillian Cunningham writes in the Washington Post‘s On Leadership column:

If the BSA wishes to hold onto its core mission, which is precisely to instill common values, then it needs to decide on those values at a national level. Right now, what it is actually debating is whether to abdicate that responsibility. …

The BSA has focused too much on its followers of the moment, not its followers of the future. This holds whether you believe they should keep or lift the ban on gays. Do you want followers who are anti-gay? Then keep the national ban, and be willing to give up money from companies that don’t share your view. But do you want followers who are inclusive? Then you need to have a national policy of tolerance and be brave enough to let those people and organizations walk away who don’t want the future you want.

In the short term, the BSA may have found a way to duck out of a complicated situation, but at what cost? This lack of leadership, whether by delaying the decision or pushing the decision down the organization, says the BSA is willing to cut out its own heart.

I see her point, but I’m willing to accept something less than perfect (the BSA adopting a national policy of nondiscrimination) in favor of what may actually be obtainable (letting troops decide for themselves). Smaller steps often pave the way to more comprehensive change, even if those steps smack of compromise and moral equivocation.

Domestic partnerships set the stage for marriage equality; if we demanded full marriage rights from the start, the nation (and even liberal blue states) wouldn’t have had a chance to overcome fears about legal recognition of our relationships. Now, the point has been passed where we need to continue settling for less the legal equality on the marriage front.

Compare this with progressives’ refusal to allow the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to go forward without covering transgendered people, although there were votes to pass the bill with an end to sexual orientation discrimination. (ENDA’s value is debatable, but it has been a key goal of LGBT activists). Refusing to limit ENDA to what was obtainable, however, left it dead in the water, even when the Democrats had large majorities in both houses. Sometimes standing on principle just leaves you standing still.

{ 19 comments }

Don February 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm

hurray! stephen and i agree completely. i would add that the incrementalism has other advantages. it forces the topic to be discussed. anti-gay forces were always going to win as long as we couldn’t be talked about in polite circles. W. demonizing us with anti-marriage amendments did us a huge favor by making people take a stand. yes, we went backwards. but in the end, we’re winning. because they don’t have a tenable position. same with the scouts. i say give them time. their announcement came as a shock to me, so i’m sure the rabid dogs of fundamentalist christianity were also taken aback.

Mike in Houston February 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm

The BSA’s move was monetary — pure & simple. The national organization is not nearly as flush with cash as people assume. (The local scouting organizations raise & spend the majority of the money.) The loss of company foundation money (like Intel) is just the latest in a series of blows to their fundraising — the biggest blow has been how companies have moved away from including the BSA in their annual employee giving (ala United Way) and matching programs. This was precisely in reaction to their policy stances.

This BTW, I think, makes HRC’s move to make company philanthropy programs (and matching gift programs) a a part of revised Corporate Equality Index rating criteria something of a coup de grace blow.

Corporate America has embraced HRC’s CEI as a clear measuring stick for their corporate responsibility efforts around diversity — and once you have a high rating, you do all you can to keep it. (Especially when your corporate experience with LGBT people tells you that BSA’s position just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.)

When it comes to incrementalism… it has some advantages — and is more palatable when the pace of change is like what we are seeing in terms of LGBT civil equality.

But it can seem — and actually be — grindingly slow at the individual level… and there’s always the fear that having achieved incremental victories, those that are comfortable will stop trying for the ultimate goal. (A good example of this can be seen in the calls for donations to marriage equality efforts in places like Texas — without ANY comensurate effort to even look at how to move the ball here.)

I also hate it when I hear crap like “it’s generational” — with the assumption that because the millenials have a different attitude towards LGBT equality, it will magically occur. We know this to be false, because while the older generation(s) may be on the way out, what they leave behind (laws, constitutional amendments, bureaucratic inertia, etc.) doesn’t simply disappear when they do.

Jorge February 8, 2013 at 2:16 am

If the BSA wishes to hold onto its core mission, which is precisely to instill common values, then it needs to decide on those values at a national level. Right now, what it is actually debating is whether to abdicate that responsibility…

Trying to instill common values in a country as increasingly diverse as ours is a very tall order. It’s a major reason why the Republican party is navel-gazing right now. Boy Scouts of America has been blighted for so long because of its open discrimination against gays I would give them up as foreigners. That there be some voices who speak differently, even if just a minority, is something that I think gives the organization as a whole credit. Those who would disagree are just being selfish.

Yes, there is a danger that a valueless “I believe it, so it must be true” moral relativism may prevail if individual troops are left to their own moral devices. The realization that the truth in practical terms does not shine the same way across every square inch of this country is what leads one to realize how elusive morality ever will be, and how it must ever be strived toward. There is only one Force on earth that can lead BSA’s hearts in the better direction.

Houndentenor February 8, 2013 at 8:33 am

Agreed.

I’d just like to add that one of the more disgusting elements of the current debate is that they BSA defenders keep bringing up molestation. Obviously that’s a problem and no one wants child molesters to be troop leaders. But considering that even with a ban on gay leaders, they had their own scandal which they didn’t handle well at all.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57535352/boy-scout-files-show-sex-abuse-cover-ups/

They aren’t afraid that an openly gay man (or women since cub scouts have den mothers) will molest the children. That’s possible but unlikely (since an openly gay man is going to be under extra scrutiny and go out of his way to even avoid the appearance of any inappropriate behavior). No, what they fear is that children will see gay adults as healthy, well-adjusted members of society. That’s what the religious right has always feared. The nice gay couple next door. It’s easy to demonize people who live in the Castro (especially at fundraising time, I might add) or Chelsea or West Hollywood. It’s harder when they are the people you see every day who are obviously not bad people. Just ever so slightly different in a way that doesn’t affect their lives at all.

Jorge February 8, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Agreed.

I’m surprised that you’d agree with me on such… hmm… unconventional reasoning.

Speaking of which, I have absolutely no dog in protecting the Boy Scouts from being tarred for their sex abuse scandal. Oh, and you just gave me a very good reason to justify my indifference. No, wait, who is saying the molestation angle right now? Well, whatever, they’re out there somewhere.

I wonder what I should do?

Jorge February 8, 2013 at 10:47 pm

I think I’ll write to my Cardinal and ask him to remain neutral.

Houndentenor February 9, 2013 at 9:56 am

Every person I see on any news channel arguing against allowing gay scoutmasters has tied it to potential sexual abuse. That’s why I mentioned it.

Hunter February 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Do keep in mind that the “defenders” are all the same old anti-gay hacks who have been opposing same-sex marriage, DADT repeal, non-discrimination laws, and any other measure that recognizes LGBTs as human beings — Tony Perkins, Peter Sprigg, Peter LaBarbera, Bryan Fischer, Matt Barber, Mat Staver, the whole rotten crew. And they’re doing it deliberately and quite cynically. Tony Perkins’ recent appearances on CNN were quite instructive — after tooting on every dog whistle he could find in the “gays = pedophiles” canon, when Carol Costello challenged him on it he started ducking and weaving: “I didn’t say that — you said that.” Typical.

As for the BSA, the article brings out a point I hadn’t considered — the national council is not displaying much in the way of leadership, and certainly not much in the way of morality. Practice what you preach, if you please.

Houndentenor February 10, 2013 at 2:52 pm

BSA membership has been in decline recently. If the Mormons, Baptists and Catholics (and a few other fundie types) bolt, there may not be enough members left to maintain their organizational structure.

Hunter February 12, 2013 at 11:49 am

Trying to instill common values in a country as increasingly diverse as ours is a very tall order.

I’m not sure that’s the BSA’s real problem. We as a nation do have common values, somewhat beyond “Selected Readings from Leviticus.” Their problem is that they no longer share those values, and as others have pointed out, they are in the grip of major institutions that also do not share those values. (The idea that being gay somehow makes you automatically immoral is one that’s firmly entrenched on the “Christian” right and nowhere else.)

The proposed solution of kicking these decisions back to the local councils is probably the best they can do at this point, and it’s better than sticking with the current policy. What I find interesting is the sudden about-face. We can only wonder what was going on behind the scenes.

Tom Scharbach February 8, 2013 at 6:39 am

BSA is a private association. It is free to do what it wants in terms of membership, and it is free to marginalize itself of self-destruct, for that matter, if that is what it wants to do.

BSA was founded to bring rural values to the city kids through outdoor activities and civic education, and is probably useful (it is no doubt important to the kids who are Scouts) but certainly not essential or, in my view, worth all the fuss and bother. If BSA closed its doors tomorrow, nobody uninvolved in Scouting would care in a year.

Having said that, I’m struck by the parallels between the BSA dilemma and the dilemma of the Republican Party.

Both are under increasing pressure from the mainstream (donors in the case of BSA, general election voters in the case of the Republican Party) to get off the dime on “equal means equal” but under unrelenting pressure from a religiously conservative minority to resist any and all movement toward “equal means equal”.

Both are, at this point, attempting to straddle the issue (BSA by leaving it up to the individual troops, the Republican Party by softening its message without changing its positions) but both must know, in the end, that a straddle won’t work any better than the “civil unions compromise” so highly touted a few years ago worked.

Sooner or later, both are going to have to join the mainstream or be marginalized.

Tom Scharbach February 8, 2013 at 6:53 am

Yes, there is a danger that a valueless “I believe it, so it must be true” moral relativism may prevail if individual troops are left to their own moral devices.

This statement includes the unspoken assumption that moral relativism inevitably leads to a “valueless” culture. I don’t believe that is true, and our country is a good example of why it is not true.

Moral relativism is embedded in our Constitution. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for believers and freedom from religion for non-believers.

Our country is founded on the principle that the securing common good while preserving individual freedom of belief and actions is the purpose of government, and that the people, acting within and through a constitutional republic with separation of powers (vertically and horizontally) will, in the end, be able to discern and effectuate the common good while retaining the right of individuals to hold whatever moral values they believe.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been messy, or deny that the goal remains a work in progress, but it has worked well for a long time.

I’ve found that complaints about “moral relativism” come down to, in most cases, complaints that others don’t believe what the complainer holds to be absolute truth.

Jorge February 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Moral relativism is embedded in our Constitution. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for believers and freedom from religion for non-believers.

I was going to disagree, but I wound up convincing myself that moral relativism is embodied in majoritarian rule, and that united (if not universal) moral principles are embodied in the Bill of Rights.

It’s a very chancey thing, relying on the collective wisdom of a community.

Tom Scharbach February 9, 2013 at 6:14 am

It’s a very chancey thing, relying on the collective wisdom of a community.

Yes, it is. The majority is almost always convinced that its views are right and the views of the minority wrong (and dangerous), and is more than ready to impose its will on the minority, to the exclusion of individual liberty.

To lessen that danger, our constitution separates powers horizontally (separation of the branches, each, and in particular the courts, providing a check on the powers of the others) and vertically (federal and state).

Ultimately, the Bill of Rights, and the power of the courts to interpret the Constitution to limit the power of the state and federal governments so as to thwart the will of the majority is our greatest protection as individuals.

The power of the courts to stop the majority from imposing its will on the minority when individual rights are steamrolled frustrates the majority (and has throughout our history), and the howls of a frustrated majority from time to time (e.g. today’s mantra about “judicial activists” and attempts by social conservatives to remove jurisdiction from the federal courts over matters of marriage) are, perhaps, the best indication that the system still works.

Our founders we not just a bunch of smart guys in powdered wigs. Our founders and their immediate ancestors had lived through the horrors of unchecked majoritarian power in the colonies.

Adams came from Massachusetts, which was born of religious intolerance, and when things got too bad, led to the founding of Rhode Island. Jefferson came from Virginia, which had established religion and banned the practice of Catholicism. And so on. It was no accident that the Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion from the power of the majority?

Our system of separation of powers and checks on majority power is not perfect. The majority can go mad and amend the Constitution to impose its will, as is witnessed by Prohibition on the federal level and the anti-marriage amendments in the states.

But it is what we have, and by and large it has worked well. In the long run, a balance is found that works.

Houndentenor February 9, 2013 at 9:59 am

Many a scifi story has been written about dystopic societies in which justice is administered without any understanding of the circumstances. Even the people who call for absolute morality would not really want to live in such a world. And in my experience (growing up around religious hypocrites) the people who scream the loudest about public morality are doing the most heinous things in private.

Jorge February 11, 2013 at 9:09 pm

(It’s true. I watch crush videos! j/k)

Houndentenor February 8, 2013 at 8:21 am

One of the most bizarre moments in the Boy Scouts debate this week was seeing the President of the Southern Baptist Convention (I’m a former member, btw) on CNN. Recently the SBC decided to leave it to each individual church in the convention to decide whether or not it would ordain women to be ministers or deacons. This is a big policy shift since in the past it forbid such things outright (although that didn’t stop it from happening). But he just couldn’t see that leaving the decision to allow gay scouts was exactly the same thing. He couldn’t because he didn’t want to. All the focus seems to be on gay scoutmasters and not on the guys who spent over a decade in the organization and get booted out for being gay just before they finally make Eagle Scout. This has actually happened and it’s where the attention out to be focused in discussing this issue.

So why is everyone freaked out if a few troops in urban, liberal areas allow a lesbian den mother who all the other parents approve? Because the defense in the discrimination cases against gay scouts has been that this moral code is part of the raison d’etre of the national organization. If they take that out, the local troop has no defense. How that would play out, I don’t know. but that’s the fear.

As for marriage, 10 years it seemed inconceivable that there would be so many states (or even countries) that allowed same sex couples to marry. I don’t think that at the time the plan was incrementalism so much as “we’ll take the best deal we can get because it’s probably all we’ll get in our lifetime.” The national organizations mostly didn’t want to take on the issue of marriage as it seemed a loser in politics. But yes, the result was that gay people, once you got to know them, turned out not to be nightmarish stereotype the religious right made us out to be. In fact, we probably owe all those social conservative demagogues more than a few muffin baskets for demonizing us to such a ridiculous extreme. Even the worst among us could hardly live up to the monstrous strawmen they used to scare their congregations. It’s especially not working with younger people who have openly gay classmates. The same happened with other minority groups. They’re just people and by and large more alike us than they are different.

Tom Scharbach February 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I don’t think that at the time the plan was incrementalism so much as “we’ll take the best deal we can get because it’s probably all we’ll get in our lifetime.”

I think that’s right, Houndentenor. A few conservatives, most notably John Rausch and David Blankenhorn, talked up civil unions as a “compromise” a few years ago, nobody on either side of the issue treated the idea as a serious path forward.

Blankenhorn has since dropped his opposition to marriage equality. I don’t know where Rausch stands at this point. I stopped paying attention to him after the “compromise” op-ed. After making a strong case that civil unions weakened marriage in his 2004 book, Rausch abandoned the compelling logic of his argument for marriage when he teamed up with Blankenhorn, and I wrote him off.

In any event, nobody in their right mind ever thought that the fight was over anything other than marriage equality. The anti-marriage forces didn’t buy civil unions as a solution, as is witnessed by the number of “nuclear option” anti-marriage amendments that were gestated as soon as it looked like civil unions might become the “new marriage”, and neither did the grassroots gays and lesbians who have been the driving force behind the marriage equality movement.

TomjeffersonIII February 14, 2013 at 10:30 am

1. The ‘local option’ probably makes sense for the Boy Scouts of America because it is an issue that often gets especially emotional at the local level and, frankly, the national leadership would (from what I hear from folks off the record/reading the tea leaves) rather that it get decided at the local level

2. Yes, the local option means that the policy will probably not change too much, except in places (mostly cities) where having the ban is bad for business.

3. I would agree that change often has to happen gradually. I think that part of the problem with how the ‘trans issue’ (as one gay Republican put it, before I changed where I was sitting) was handled with the bill was the sheer absurdity of tossing folks under the bus and then acting like that they were not doing so or that folks did not have a right to be upset at being tossed under the bus.

Compare this with progressives’ refusal to allow the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to go forward without covering transgendered people, although there were votes to pass the bill with an end to sexual orientation discrimination. (ENDA’s value is debatable, but it has been a key goal of LGBT activists). Refusing to limit ENDA to what was obtainable, however, left it dead in the water, even when the Democrats had large majorities in both houses. Sometimes standing on principle just leaves you standing still.

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