Today it was announced that the LDS Church would stop using using the Boy Scouts of America’s Varsity and Venturing programs, which are designed for 14- to 18-year-old young men. While they will still enroll younger boys, between 8 and 13, in the Cub and Boy Scouts, this is a big move. (You can read the Church’s official release here, and excellent news coverage here.) Largely thanks to Mormon boys automatically enrolling in the BSA, around twenty-percent of Boy Scouts nation-wide are LDS. Ceasing the Varsity and Venturing program will take away around 130,000 boys–more than 5% of the entire scouting body. And given that the Church’s commitment to the younger scouting programs seems shaky–are those programs really less “difficult to implement within the Church” than Varsity and Venturing?–it appears that’s just a temporary stop-gap to lessen the complete blow of separation. I assume a full detachment from the BSA is in the near future.
The Boy Scouts program has long played a crucial role in LDS youth. For Mormon leaders, the program provided a way to develop a certain sense of masculinity and responsibility. It also provided an avenue toward Americanization: previously seen as aliens to America’s cultural body, Mormon communities could prove their patriotism through their participation in the most red-blooded of all American institutions. The results were plentiful: a disproportionate number of eagle scout awards are earned by Mormon boys; weekly youth activities often revolved around completing the criteria found in the boy scout handbook; frequent scouting award ceremonies were held in church buildings, mingling religious fraternity with secular achievements; organized scout camps became a rite of passage; and at least once a year, many wards would hear pleas for members to contribute to the “Friends of Scouting” program.
I can tell you that as someone who never really bought into scouting, it was all a bit overwhelming.
But the BSA was an increasingly awkward fit for the modern LDS Church, on at least two fronts. First, the affiliation required local units to spend far more money on young men programs than it did young women. This inequality of resources has been a point of contention, especially with the younger generation’s growing disillusionment with Mormonism’s gendered structure.
And second, in an expanding global church that tries to correlate practices and programs across cultures and continents, the fact that American youth programs were based on a different set of expectations was odd. From outside American borders, the LDS attachment to the Boy Scouts of America seemed a remnant of a parochial institution.
This is why, in some ways, the Church’s distancing itself(and eventual disassociation altogether) from the BSA should come as good news. This will allow resources to be more equally distributed throughout local congregations. (Or at least, it will make continued inequality even more indefensible.) And the Church can feel more comfortable that their youth across the globe are receiving a more correlated experience. Given the Church’s penchant for developing and instituting its own programs, they should be ready to move on in a post-BSA world without much problem.
But there is another cultural trajectory that led to this separation, and it doesn’t have as positive a spin. Or at least as progressive a spin. In recent years, due to both change at the leadership structure as well as external influence, the BSA has been forced to ease up on some of its more traditional practices. They announced that they would admit gay scouts in 2013 and transgender scouts this year. They also decided to allow gay men to serve as troop leaders. The latter move seemed especially dire to the LDS Church, as they released a statement saying they were “deeply troubled” by the decision. They even threatened that “the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined.” Today’s announcement proves they were not bluffing.
And though the Church’s insistence that recent news the BSA might allow girls into their scouting programs did not play a role in this move, it is hard to imagine this gendered barrier meant nothing. The writing seemed on the wall for the past few years given recent developments. In the end, it is unlikely that a challenge to the LDS church’s gendered structure for youth did not play into the decision.
So while many progressives may applaud the Church’s decision to move toward ending their affiliation with the Boy Scouts, others might see the move as further proof of the world’s corruption. Even the Boy Scouts, the narrative will go, were prone to be swayed by popular opinions. Part of me worries this will lead to even further retrenchment and isolation. Only time will tell.
Also, as Bryan Waterman put it on twitter, “How will all those young men get their drivers’ licenses without becoming Eagle Scouts?” It’s an important question.
(As a footnote: this decision makes me wonder of Thomas S. Monson’s state of health. Of all the big supporters of the Boy Scouts at the LDS institutional level, Monson was the biggest. Even those who expected a separation to take place between the two organizations didn’t think it would come before Monson’s death. Perhaps he’s had a change of heart, or perhaps his increasingly diminished health has led to a concomitantly diminished voice in these matters.)