Boy Scouts is a dying institution, but maybe that's okay

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While it was nice to visit my old Boy Scout troop this break, it was hard to ignore how much the troop had diminished since I aged out. I soon learned that I'm not alone in this observation; this is a trend nationwide. Since 2019, BSA membership has plummeted by 62 percent. The pandemic, plus the financial troubles and publicity of rampant, institutionally-protected sexual abuse can explain this drop. But I also think that perhaps American culture has irrevocably shifted past the need for BSA in its current form.

As an Eagle Scout (with a silver palm, I'll have you know), my experience with BSA was very positive. I don't want this to come off as a vicious takedown of the institution, because I think two things can be true at once. Scouting can simultaneously have values rooted in an outdated worldview, as well as be full of very enthusiastic people who want to have a positive impact on young people in their community.

Scouting was founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British General and war hero from the Second Boer War and a weird guy who was obsessed with stopping masturbation. His ethos on scouting was to teach a generation of young men growing up in newly industrialized cities of Great Britain the value of rugged outdoorsmanship. He saw the youth falling victim to the vices of modern society, and felt the need for an institution that would emphasize a return to traditions and practices that might otherwise be lost. At its core, this is a conservative mentality, although I don't entirely disagree with it. There is value in outdoorsy skills, and I don't think it's inherently bad to criticize how modern society has isolated us from nature.

But these roots of scouting give it a very particular brand of conservative ideology. When transported to America, the image of the noble British imperial scout was replaced by our own mythology of the rugged pioneer. This merged with Norman-Rockwell-style imagery of the idyllic white Christian suburban boyhood, dashes of 20th century military veneration, and just a hint of Native American cultural appropriation to make the unique cultural stew in which BSA thrived for decades.

Now I want to make a brief tangent (that isn't really a tangent) to talk about the Order of the Arrow (or OA), the self-described BSA "honor society." To be inducted, one must be elected by their troop to attend an OA-sponsored camping trip called an "Ordeal." I was given explicit instructions not to talk about what occurred during my Ordeal. But that is a weird and silly rule, so I'm going to tell you what happened.

I, along with a few dozen other scouts from other local troops, camped under the stars for a night. The following day, we were made to do various camp improvement projects while receiving very little food and maintaining a "vow of silence." After our hard day's work, we were taken into the woods and lined up, while a white man from Westchester, New York wearing a feather headdress told us a Native American legend about the value of resilience and quiet service. They then went down the line and whispered a word into our ear, which supposedly, when translated from the Native language from which it originates, means "to love one another." Having successfully completed our Ordeal, we got to have a big dinner and sleep in a heated cabin.

I don't have a super strong conclusion to that story, other than I think it's weird to take a bunch of young men through a pseudo-indigenous ceremony (that we, I really want to emphasize, are explicitly told not to discuss) in order to join a secret boys-only club. It's so incredibly bizarre that people often express genuine concern for me when I tell them about it. It definitely was weird, but I think it strikes people as especially weird when they aren't familiar with the cultural milieu that flavors BSA.

It's also hard to ignore the odd, jingoistic militarism and patriotism woven into the DNA of scouting. It seems pretty strange in this day and age to make children swear an oath to do one's duty to "God and country," and to keep oneself "morally straight." The focus on religion is something that always struck me as very strange about scouting. At every Eagle Court of Honor (the ceremony where scouts are formally awarded the rank of Eagle), there was a particular script the scoutmaster always followed. His speech always included the declaration that, "Of every 100 scouts, it must be admitted that 30 will drop out their first year," followed by a list of statistics about these 100 hypothetical scouts. Some of these seem quite compelling. "At least 1 will use his Scout skills to save another person’s life, and at least one other will credit it with saving his own life." But it also includes the line, "12 of the 100 will be from families that belong to no Church. Through Scouting, these 12 and many of their families will be brought into contact with a Church, and as a result some will continue to be active all their lives." In research for this piece, I discovered a number of troops with their own versions of this speech (I used this one from Troop 111 in Arlington Virginia), all of which differ very slightly in their statistics and none of which cite any sort of survey. So these stats are probably not true. But every one of them makes this claim about religion, as if agnosticism is something people must be cured of.

For an organization with its roots in white, heterosexual, male, Christian patriotism, it's no surprise the Mormon church makes up a huge part of scouting. In 2018, 18.5 percent of Boy Scouts were from the Mormon church. They severed ties with BSA in 2019 over vague moral disagreements. According to a spokesperson for BSA, the decision stemmed from the desire of the Mormon church to establish a youth organization more focused on preparing young men for their religious missions. But it's not hard to guess what other reasons they might have. In 2015, the Church stated that they were "deeply troubled" by BSA's decision to lift the ban on openly gay adult scout leaders, and in 2018, BSA went co-ed. It's not hard to imagine that an organization which claims that "While same-sex attraction is not a sin, it can be a challenge," might not like the marginally progressive direction in which BSA is moving.

There will certainly be a place for youth organizations that go on camping trips, religious organizations that focus on community service, and pseudo-military organizations for kids who want (or whose parents want) order and discipline. But it's probably not necessary that those all be the same institution, and especially one with such a bizarre heritage of white, male, Christian patriotism. Just because Scouting had a positive impact on me, I don't feel the need to defend its continued existence. Every generation is free to evaluate the institutions and cultural artifacts it gets to inherit, and if my generation is the one that kills scouting I won't opine the loss.