My Son the Boy Scout

Does he belong to a bigoted organization?

I had a brief but calamitous career as a Boy Scout. When I was in eighth grade my family moved from Connecticut to Ohio. In an effort to integrate us into our new community, my brother and I were enrolled in the Scouts. We had never been Cub Scouts; Little League baseball and other organized sports filled most of our spare time. I don’t remember much about my initiation into scouting, but I do remember one soggy weekend wandering around smoky campfires among hordes of other scouts, all of whom seemed to have mastered the arcane knowledge needed for survival far from the baseball field and the television set. During my brief scouting career, knot tying proved utterly baffling, building fires was something I associated with delinquents, and the idea of spending the night in a leaky tent rather than in my comfy bed seemed like a step backward in evolutionary development.

Happily, we moved again within the year, and I resumed my career as a ballplayer and never again had to worry about building a campfire. Besides, there are too many bugs and the sanitation facilities in the great outdoors are appalling.

However, I’ve changed my mind about scouting, if not about the great outdoors. My son, Nick, is on the verge of becoming an Eagle Scout, scouting’s highest rank. Nick likes nothing better than cooking over an open fire, forging up the side of a mountain, or paddling a canoe hour after hour. He found the sort of camaraderie and shared purpose in scouting that I discovered in the gym. I once spent a weekend with Nick and his troop climbing a few of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. When we returned to our "base camp," I collapsed onto a bunk, certain that death was near. Nick and his fellow scouts never stopped carousing, but also managed to cook dinner and tend to everything else while I snoozed. Like other liberal types, I had had suspicions about the supposed "militarism" of the Scouts. But Nick’s experience has broadened my view. I have been especially impressed with how the older boys take responsibility for the younger ones. I have also been impressed by the Scouts’ magnanimous spirit. Every boy, whatever his skill, geekiness, or idiosyncrasy, has a place in the group.

The Boy Scouts have come under a storm of criticism since the Supreme Court ruled last year that the organization had the right to exclude openly homosexual scoutmasters. If you read the New York Times, you’d think the Boy Scouts were the new John Birch Society, or possibly an ally of the Vatican. A recent issue of Newsweek (August 6) suggested the Scouts are determined to "discriminate" come hell, high water, or reduction of government subsidies. Homophobic, bigoted, intolerant. In short, no place for kids.

As a parent, I worry about such accusations. I’ve asked Nick if the Boy Scouts’ policy has been discussed in his troop. Not often, he says. Nick is not sure he agrees with the policy of excluding openly gay scoutmasters, and I find it a difficult issue myself. He says media reports that the Scouts want to exclude gay boys are nonsense. Aside from the difficulty of determining the so-called "sexual preference" of an eleven- or twelve- or thirteen-year-old, the idea of a witch-hunt for gay kids is as absurd as it is grotesque. In fact, the adults who have led Nick’s troops are far more conventionally "liberal" than Nick is, and he enjoys arguing with them. Whatever the Scouts’ official policy, it has been my experience that all the boys, even those who might stereotypically be considered "gay," are treated with respect. As best I can tell, the Boy Scouts are far more tolerant than the sport teams of my adolescence.

Should the Scouts have the right to exclude openly gay scoutmasters? I think the associational freedom of such private groups is important and legitimate. For many religious people, the immorality of same-sex relations (and extra- and premarital relations, for that matter) is a question of basic sexual morality, not unmotivated prejudice. The fashionable contempt with which such views are dismissed as some sort of irrational sexual fear is unthinking and intolerant itself. I confess that I’m not sure how society should recognize same-sex relationships (let alone bisexual and transgendered people). I think it is good that such private sexual conduct has been decriminalized, but whether this sexual revolution is deepening our moral sensibilities or merely extending the "value-free" zone of indifference is less clear. Nor is it clear how these new sexual realities should affect the socialization of children.

If the Scouts eventually change their policy, it should be their decision, not something forced on them by the courts or the politically correct. The inflammatory rhetoric of the conflict was fresh in my mind during one of Nick’s annual troop picnics. Participating in the amusingly "wholesome" event, I found it implausible that the Boy Scouts were a fount of prejudice and invidious discrimination. Of course I could be wrong about how history will judge these questions, and in thirty years my hesitation and fence-straddling may look no better than the apologetics of Southern segregationists do now. Still, my sense is that even those eager for the full acceptance of homosexuality should welcome the Boy Scouts’ efforts to uphold a moral standard, even a possibly errant one. Without such institutions of moral education, persuading people of the rightness and necessity of moral change is impossible, and all we are left with is coercion or force. Martin Luther King Jr. was not wrong, it seems to me, in thinking that the ultimate success of the civil rights movement rested on a belief in the moral decency of his opponents.

Published in the 2001-10-12 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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