Dogma and the Boy Scouts
I read recently that the executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America voted in favor of a resolution allowing openly gay adult leaders, and that the longstanding ban could be repealed as early as July 27. As an Eagle Scout, member of the Order of the Arrow, and a longtime Assistant Scoutmaster, my feelings are (to say the least) complex.
Up front, it is worth noting that there is a material difference between the policy change of two years ago (which allowed same-sex-attracted youth to participate in Scouting programs) and the policy change proposed here: the expectation in Scouting is that youth refrain from both heterosexual and homosexual conduct, whereas no such proscription holds for adults. In the 2000 Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Boy Scouts asserted that the practice of homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the moral teachings it seeks to instill.
In a pure conceptual vacuum, I am neither surprised nor particularly bothered by the proposed policy shift: the Boy Scouts has always been a very diverse organization at the national level, including within its pale a variety of beliefs and practices about which many would vehemently disagree. But this shift does not occur within a vacuum: it occurs in a context of immense cultural pressure to “rethink” issues that have previously been advanced as moral truth-claims.
Here is what concerns me, more than anything else: this policy change, objectively speaking, guts the organization’s ability to point to tradition and principle as fixed lodestars.
Permit me a momentary digression. I am not Catholic: just to name a few things, I don’t think contraception is a moral evil, that bodies must be interred whole in Catholic cemeteries, that priests are required to mediate before God, or that “indulgences” are an appropriate framework for thinking about charitable works. That said, I have a deep and abiding respect for the Catholic Church, and affirm many of its values and teachings, though I do not myself embrace all its tenets. That respect stems from the fact that the Church does not kowtow to popular whims where its core teachings are concerned—peripheral matters (i.e. heliocentrism, creationism) aside. Those who call for the Church to “get with the times” are wasting their breath—even the “liberal” Pope Francis hasn’t pushed for substantive doctrinal modifications. That simply isn’t how a trans-cultural organization, one that claims to stand for absolute and unchanging principles, can afford to operate.
I will never agree with all the teachings of the Catholic Church. Indeed, I may think some of them are harmful, exclusionary, and contrary to my own understanding of the Christian faith. But I never want the Church to change: a Church that does so loses the right to speak with moral authority. I submit there is value in living in a society where such institutions exist, as challenging to our sensibilities as they might periodically be.
“Well, what about racist ‘theology’ at places like Bob Jones University?” is the natural question that arises as this point. “Shouldn’t that change?”
First, the interpolation of racial segregationist views into Protestant theology is a fairly new innovation, so rejecting those views is a return to an older way of thinking. But second, as objectively laudable as it might be for BJU to change its discriminatory policy, that doesn’t change the brute fact that in so doing, it sacrifices its institutional claim to speak for unchanging principles. There is a sharp conceptual distinction between the propositions “from an external perspective, this norm ought to change” and “from the perspective of the organization, we ought to change to embrace this norm.” Trying to simultaneously balance “remaining within the good graces of society” and “upholding unchanging principles” is effectively impossible: it’s an “unstoppable force”/”immovable object” dilemma. One simply cannot coexist alongside the other.
Community-centric organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, are already suffering from the effects of civic atomization. It’s hard to compete for youths’ attention when the Internet, TV, and video games are so immediately accessible, providing quick dopamine dumps that require no lasting physical or mental investment. The bedrock of the Boy Scouts is its longstanding heritage: its members participate in a tradition of physical, mental, and spiritual development that is grounded in a rigorously unchanging value set.
Taken in isolation, I am not sorry that the Boy Scouts will allow gay leaders. The organization has always permitted Scouts and Scout leaders from a myriad of faith traditions, the practice of which many conservative theological traditions would define as “sin,” and (in my view) it makes little moral sense to be offended by the presence of gay members but not by diverse religious practice. But understood contextually, I am sorry that this decision upends the organization’s ability to invoke “timeless” moral principles. This will, I predict, ultimately shipwreck the organization.
That is a “compromise” I hope the Catholic Church—despite my own disagreements with some of its stances—never makes.