Bare-Knuckle Boy Scouts: Can the Boy Scouts Save America

There is a famous story, repeated in every Boy Scout Handbook since the first edition published in 1910, about the origin of the Boy Scouts of America. Reportedly, an American businessman named William Boyce was lost on a rainy London street and asked a boy to give him directions. After the boy led Boyce to his destination, the American offered the boy a tip, which the lad refused, saying, “No, thank you, sir. I am a scout. I won’t take anything for helping.” Boyce was so impressed he returned home to found the American arm of the worldwide youth movement.

The story illustrates perfectly the Boy Scouts’ vision of a young man of character: a hearty, cheerful fellow who does good turns daily and loves outdoor adventure. In 1910, this was not a political statement. It’s a sign of how strange the world has become that the Boy Scouts has been forced to defend this vision in court.

A Scout is Litigious

The Boy Scouts does not just respond to attacks; it picks fights that other organizations wouldn’t dream of getting involved in. The remarkable thing is that it usually wins. This summer, the organization ordered the Unitarian Church to cease awarding the Religion in Life Award, a religious medal given to Unitarian scouts, because the manual for the award criticized the “homophobic and discriminatory attitudes of the national leadership of the Boy Scouts of America.” It continues to expel scouts and scout leaders who publicly profess their atheism or homosexuality, and it has racked up an impressive legal record defending those expulsions, making the Boy Scouts one of the last institutions in America with both the will and wherewithal to stick to its founding vision.

The Scouts recently won two California cases that were argued together before the state Supreme Court. Opponents claimed that the Scouts is not a private organization and hence fall under the state’s antidiscrimination laws. In one case, Tim Curran, a documentary filmmaker from San Diego, was rejected as an assistant scoutmaster in 1992 after the local scouting council learned he was gay. Curran’s case was argued together with a separate case stemming from the expulsion of two nine-year-old Cub Scouts, Michael and William Randall, who were barred by an Orange County Cub Scout den in 1990, after they publicly proclaimed their agnosticism. In the unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Ronald George noted that “[s]couts meet regularly in small groups (often in private homes) that are intended to foster close friendship, trust and loyalty.” George added, “The Boy Scouts is an expressive social organization whose primary function is the inculcation of values in its youth members.” Early last December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused, without comment, to hear an appeal in the case.

Less encouraging is a New Jersey case, Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, which the organization appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled last March that

[t]here is absolutely no evidence before us, empirical or otherwise, supporting a conclusion that a gay scoutmaster, solely because he is a homosexual, does not possess the strength of character necessary to properly care for, or to impart BSA humanitarian ideals to the young boys in his charge.

The court further found that the Boy Scouts was a place of open accommodation subject to antidiscrimination laws. Veteran court watchers—including Vince McCarthy, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, a pro-life, pro-family public interest law firm specializing in First Amendment issues that filed an amicus brief in the case—feel it is unlikely that the New Jersey Supreme Court will find in the Scouts’ favor. If the Scouts loses the appeal (a decision is expected sometime this spring), the organization has indicated its willingness to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This dogged attitude and unflinching support of traditional ethical values have made the Boy Scouts a target of various liberal groups who are determined to break up an organization centered around men going camping, hiking, shooting, and swimming: basically, men being men. When men act like men, these groups seem to suggest, somebody is always oppressed.

Handbook Throwback

The bible of scouting is the venerable Boy Scout Handbook, now in its new eleventh edition. The Handbook has always been a fascinating mirror of the times, emphasizing new themes in each edition in response to contemporary concerns. Teddy Roosevelt wrote the introduction to the first edition, which was heavy with the kind of outdoor lore that TR loved. During World War II and the Cold War, the Handbook was full of patriotic boosterism, while in the ’60s, amid cultural upheavals, it pushed the slightly defensive slogan, “Scouting today is more than you think.” The newest edition is sure to raise eyebrows among former scouts who wax rhapsodic about nights spent in the outdoors: It advocates “no trace camping” instead of traditional outdoor skills—admonishing scouts not to cut markers in trees, pitch tents in fragile alpine areas, or overuse campfires. A sign of the times: It includes a pull-out section on resisting sexual abuse, warns scouts not to bring their pocketknives to school, and cautions them about relying too heavily on Global Positioning System gadgetry—”it’s no substitute for learning to use a map and compass.”

Still, the new edition is certainly less touchy-feely than the tenth, which infamously suggested hiking with an umbrella. Perhaps recognizing that it’s unlikely that your average suburban scout will ever need to survive in the backwoods by identifying edible plants, the woodlore and nature material has largely been removed to the Scout Fieldbook. Taking its place is a section called “Personal Development,” which is at the heart of the Handbook’s claim to be a “guide for life.” Many observers felt that the new Handbook would signal whether the organization would stick to its guns on its veneration of traditional ethical values. If that’s true, with this new section the Boy Scouts of America has definitely drawn a line in the sand.

In the new Handbook, the Boy Scouts supports the largely derided position that self-respect—the book never once uses the weasely phrase “self-esteem”—must and can be earned through mastering skills, setting and achieving goals, and comporting oneself like a gentleman. The book can be as hyped-up with personal optimism as a motivational speaker on No-Doz: “You are a collection of wonderful talents, ideas, and experiences. Your skills and interests are possibilities. They are hints of what you can become.” But it never lapses into the “I’m OK, you’re OK” rhetoric that many professional educators dole out to kids like cheap Ritalin. Instead, the Handbook offers such nuggets of forgotten wisdom as “solving . . . problems takes lots of hard work,” and celebrates the value of personal initiative, self-reliance, and good judgment. And the advice isn’t just sloganism. The book is remarkable for its specificity: Don’t spend too much time watching TV; don’t download dirty pictures off the Internet; spend time with the elderly; help out around the house; speak politely to adults. The Handbook confronts the issue of sexual promiscuity head-on, telling hormonally charged preadolescents that “sex is never the most grown-up part of a relationship. It is never a test of manliness,” and reminds scouts of their responsibilities to young women, their future family, their faith, and themselves. The section concludes, “Abstinence until marriage is a very wise course of action.”

The new Handbook is that rarest of things in modern child-rearing: a cheerfully written, optimistic, yet ultimately unflinching guide to what is and is not proper. A man’s virtue tells in his actions, the organization is saying, and it has a fairly clear idea of what a good man looks like—and what he doesn’t look like. This kind of moral clarity is enough to set the teeth of most psychologists and self-esteem educators right on edge.

Sensitive, Yes! Scouting, Not

It’s easy to make fun of the Boy Scout Handbook and its staged pictures of smiling, well-scrubbed, carefully diverse scouts heading off into the wilderness. Further, it’s legitimate to wonder how much of the ethical message penetrates the web of booger humor, flatulence jokes, and gross behavior that marks any endeavor largely comprised of twelve-year-old boys out of earshot of their mothers. Still, it’s hard to suggest that the world wouldn’t be a better place if more junior-high schoolers took the Boy Scout Handbook seriously as “a guide for life.” And in an age marked by absentee fatherhood, sexual promiscuity, and abortion—all problems caused at least in part by men’s abrogation of the duties of being a man—a little old-fashioned male bonding isn’t a bad thing if it’s accompanied by some old-fashioned ethical values.

In fact, male bonding, as well as the strange and often indescribable rituals that attend it, is a positive good. The American boy is the subject of a great deal of hand-wringing these days, and with good reason. Despite continuing cries of gender inequality from feminist educators, boys are more likely than girls to do poorly in school, become sexually active and begin using drugs at an early age, drop out, or commit a crime. Yet often these same hand-wringers willfully refuse to acknowledge the harm caused by an education system and a culture that increasingly push boys to act like girls; one that forbids them from engaging—under the watchful eyes of adult males who themselves once needed socializing—in the kind of harmless crudity, head-butting, and messing around in the dirt that go hand-in-hand with the inculcation of masculine virtue. Boys will be boys, which means they’ll never be turned into girls, except for a few aberrant Alan Alda types. The question is: What kind of boys will they be? As the social chaos of the inner city demonstrates, if you don’t channel male aggression into responsible venues, it doesn’t simply disappear; instead, it expresses itself in meaningless, and deadly, violence. If the Boy Scouts is sometimes a bit wide-eyed in its defense of scouting, which often comes down to boiling Ramen noodles in a state park, it nonetheless can occasionally make a twelve-year-old look up from his Nintendo and ponder what it means to act like a man. For that alone, it deserves society’s support and respect. Let’s hope the courts continue to think just that.

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