One of the books I loved most as a boy was my uncle’s copy of the Boy Scout, Handbook for Boys (1948). I loved it because it connected me with my Dad, to my uncle (a lifeguard and a marine) and to older generations of men who seemed able to do outdoor things about which I mainly read. I grew up in scouting, in the Cub Scouts, the Webelos (Wolf, Bear, Lion), and in the Boy Scouts. I was not a very good scout—I did not have the discipline to accumulate many merit badges and my first Pinewood Derby entry was a complete failure—but I did enjoy hanging out with the other boys and the camping was fun. I caught my first fish (a 2 lb Northern Pike) while canoeing the boundary waters of Minnesota with our troop. Dad taught me to polish my shoes properly for the formal meetings. The boy scouts taught me how to stand at attention, salute, and a little bit about first aid and survival. Our scoutmaster was Ralph Violet. He gave a lot of time to us boys and I guess he hoped that it would help us turn into men. I think it helped.
As far as we knew, everyone in our troop was heterosexual. We were aware that there were homosexuals somewhere in the world but most of us never met any open homosexuals. Indeed, until 2015, open homosexuals were prohibited from joining the Scouts. In January of this year the Boy Scouts of America announced that they will begin accepting transgender Scouts.
As far as I am able to determine, however, the Scout oath has not changed. It says:
On my honor I will do my best:
to do my duty to God and my country,
and to obey the Scout law;
to help other people at all times;
to keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight (p. 19).
We used to recite the Scout oath at all the formal gatherings. Of course it has all the problems of any civil religion. In the 1960s and 70s, when I was reciting the oath we all knew what honor, God, country, and “morally straight” signified. It meant no sex outside of marriage (on which many Americans gave up in the 1970s), no homosexuality (opposition to which many Americans gave up in the 1980s and 90s), and anyone who proposed that boys should dress like girls or girls like boys for anything other than a skit (see Milton Berle) would have been regarded as mentally ill.
Of course, we did not stipulate which God. We did not explain how and why it is that honor is even possible, let alone a virtue. Of course, the whole thing presupposed an unspoken consensus built around a Judeo-Christian ethic, if not exactly Christian orthodoxy on the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. Once Christian morality was divorced from its truth claims and particularly its claims about God, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, salvation, and the church, the cultural consensus built around the morality of Christ became unstable and proved untenable. If we use the latest decision by the BSA, it took fewer than 70 years for “morally straight” to devolve from a symbol of the Judeo-Christian ethic to a symbol of the sexual revolution.
The moral collapse of the BSA was predictable. The court cases re-asserting the right of the freedom of association have value but clearly the leadership was internally unable or unwilling to withstand cultural pressure created by media criticism and even the criticism by the 2012 Republican candidate for the presidency, Mitt Romney, for excluding homosexual scouts. It is instructive also to note how effectively the arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality can be effectively used to argue for the social acceptance of what used to be know as “transvestism” (dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex). Please notice again how archaic it seems even to refer to the two sexes rather than to speak of gender, when it is patent nonsense to use them as synonyms. Sex is a biological category. Gender is a grammatical category. Sex refers to biology which is fixed in almost every case. Gender refers grammar which is relatively arbitrary and assigned. Once we conceded this confusion we opened the door for people to talk rubbish about “assigning gender” at birth. Physicians and midwives are not God. They assign nothing. They recognize the OEM: the original equipment provided by the manufacturer (God). There is a great difference between recognizing reality and creating it. God does the latter and we do the former.
This is a lament for a lost world but it is more than that. It is a note about a way point in cultural decline. Scouting was a way for boys to learn to be young men, to take a bit of risk and responsibility, to learn to handle fire, knives, and even firearms. It was an opportunity to learn a little bit of independence—we were turned loose at giant camping events just to wander in the woods. We had a compass, a watch, and a pocket knife and it was expected that a 10-year old boy should know how to use them to find his way back to camp. Scouting was also an opportunity to learn to think about others (rather than an opportunity to require that everyone affirm nonsense). In its own way, Scouting helped boys come to grips with a reality beyond themselves. Most fundamentally, Scouting was about getting to grips with nature, both literally and figuratively. We were learning about the natural world beyond urban and suburban life but we were also learning that there is such a thing as nature: build a fire incorrectly or use a pocket knife carelessly and one could get hurt. At its best, Scouting put boys in touch with nature, a relentless law that punished law breakers. Tragically, in a transparent attempt to remain relevant at all costs, Scouting has capitulated to the late-modern war against nature and forfeited its most basic mission and become just another curiosity in the museum of the collapse of the late-modern West.