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Lyle Denit: Scouting’s sad detour into culture wars

The Gazette responded that the BSA “shouldn’t be too concerned” if Page withdrew his support over a reversal of the ban.

Both views reflect a misunderstanding of Scouting’s history in the United States and say more about the nature of civic relations in the country than they do about Scouting’s purpose.

Scouting began in 1907 in England. It proved very popular with boys and quickly spread abroad, coming to the United States in 1910. In many countries, Scout organizations started along religious lines, with different denominations setting up their own groups. The Boy Scouts of America, however, aimed to include all ethnic, religious and class groups under one “big tent.” The BSA consciously tried to avoid politics. Racial inclusiveness in the BSA was less noble, and if not a national policy, racial discrimination in regional councils at least reflected the attitudes of the country well into the 1970s.

Sexual orientation did not overtly figure in to the Scout membership question, just as it was kept closeted in the national consciousness. The BSA was never a Biblically based or specifically Christian organization.

While “reverence” is included as one of the Scout laws, the BSA encouraged recognition of and participation by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all denominations of Christians. And in local practice, reverence has been interpreted widely. No one religious interpretation was given any official preference.

As a Boy Scout in the late 1960s and ’70s, I sensed a change in the BSA from that big-tent practice, as it began to react against the social ferment of the times. It instituted the wearing of the American flag on every uniform, where previously it was just worn when traveling out of the country, and where our patriotism had not been any the less for it. The organization moved its national council office from New Jersey to more conservative Texas.

These were symbols of the organization beginning to take a side in the emerging culture wars.

In the decades since then, the BSA chose to adopt a position against LGBT members, and the country at large divided into partisan antagonism. Where there is nothing in the Scout Oath and Law that requires one to be heterosexual, the National Council of the BSA has for too long helped foster that misconception.

As the country opens up on the issue, the national organization has boxed itself in with a certain faction, far from the intent of the founders.

In many ways, however, local Scout units have always felt a great sense of autonomy from “National,” reflecting their communities in the way they practice the program of outdoor adventure, leadership development and character building. This has allowed many units that oppose the ban on gay members to carry on, trying to practice inclusiveness without getting their “charter” to exist revoked by the National Council.

Whichever way the National Council votes on the membership issue, it has unfortunately polarized the organization, which meant to unify Americans. The loss of “liberal” or “conservative” members is a loss to all. It will be a big challenge to find its way back to a place where all families, of all political, class, and “reverential” stripes, will feel welcome to participate.

We are fortunate in our region that this practice of openness has largely continued, with units wishing that National had never picked this unnecessary fight. Hopefully the National Council will find the wisdom to lead, or at least follow, a path closer to the original vision of the BSA.

Lyle Denit of Amherst is a volunteer Scout leader with Troop 504 in North Amherst.

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