Gay Scouting as the New Normal

My favorite of Russell Kirk’s many books always has been Enemies of the Permanent Things.  This wonderful, at times ironic, volume is a collection of social commentary, hopeful reminders of work still being done by important thinkers, and biting criticism. The book signals its central theme in its subtitle, “Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics.”

Like much of Kirk’s best work, Enemies is an exploration of social norms and their disintegration in modern public life.  “Abnormity” refers to the abnormal, which also can be taken as the irregular, or even the monstrous. The nature of Kirk’s concern guarantees disinterest from elite and even mainstream readers because it focuses on the objective good (“permanent things”) and how it is being rejected.  Other than in purely clinical settings, where, for example, an abnormality on an x-ray may indicate disease, we don’t like talking or hearing things called “abnormal” these days. We certainly don’t want to think about something “abnormal” as monstrous.  But our very desire to avoid reasoned consideration of abnormity and its consequences is yet another sign of our having too much of both.

In addition to the monstrous politically-motivated evils of genocide and tyranny, modern literature also is full of the monstrous.  What is missing is the capacity and will to judge day-to-day behavior as either good or bad. Our judgment is impaired to the point of disappearance because my considered juxtaposition of abnormity with the normal is difficult to fathom in contemporary society. Normality, to most moderns, means the average, the typical, the common, and the boring. It is, in short, something to be avoided.  In such terms even the monstrous may be seen as “unique,” “misunderstood,” or merely useful commentary on the faults of the “normal,” taken as the boring, conventional average.

This isn’t to say that there is no longer a demand that people conform. Few make more stringent demands for conformity than the mavens of “nonconformist” political correctness. And, after all, social life is, well, social—be it at the church, the “fair trade” co-op, or the gaming console. Even or perhaps especially those who see themselves living “beyond” accepted standards of good and evil follow, impose, and uphold social standards of some kind.  The question, then, is not whether but what kind of “normal” one will seek to be.

Properly understood, normal doesn’t mean merely the common or average.  It refers to a norm—an authoritative standard, a “principle of right action” according to Webster’s, that by its nature intends to guide us in our conduct. Every subculture in the world has its own principles of what it considers right action, from the Boy Scout Oath (now sadly empty words even for that organization) to liberal demands for “sensitive” language usage. What Kirk’s juxtaposition of the Permanent Things with abnormity points out is that a proper norm is not merely whatever standard happens to exist within some subculture, but an authoritative standard rooted in the nature of existence.

My purpose, here, is not to provide a review of Kirk’s book—it’s good, go buy it. Rather, my purpose is to examine one of the central causes of our culture wars, namely that where some people believe norms are what we make of them, others believe that they are, by nature, something more. Traditional conservatives do not seek to preserve traditional norms simply because they are “ours”—though their having been ours for a long time is a sign that they probably have much good to be said about them.  Conservatives seek to preserve norms because they are in an important sense objectively right. Sound arrogant? Sound like a claim to god-like knowledge that a group would use to impose their views on the rest of us? Of course it does, to modern ears. Such a view rests on the conviction that we cannot merely “choose” what is good; we may, in fact, choose to call good what is evil (reproductive “choice” comes to mind, here). And such choices have consequences for both our souls and our societies.

Appeal to objective standards of good and evil in regard to everyday conduct is rejected as preachy at best and more likely a sign of the desire to tyrannize over others. This is so, not because anyone who seeks to uphold proper norms does so out of a lust for power, but because the very notion that we have a duty to uphold common standards goes against an essential liberal myth:  that society can be “neutral” in its treatment of basic moral choices, punishing only actions that clearly harm innocents (with certain exceptions, of course) while allowing us to create our own “lifestyles.” We have become so accustomed to the view that norms are “mere” custom, and that tradition is merely customary, that we have forgotten the relationship between the historical and the permanent. As Kirk explains, permanent goods like beauty do not exist in this world as mere abstractions; they are made concrete in actual objects (such as Michelangelo’s Pieta). In the same way, truth exists in our truth-tellings. And virtue, the permanent good of right character, exists in conduct that follows the right standards of conduct.

What are those “right standards?”  There is the rub. Virtues as diverse as justice and generosity depend in part on circumstance and history. It would not be just to return a borrowed gun to the lender at a time when he was not in his right mind because of the potential danger he would pose to himself and others. And cultures impose differing standards regarding the proper level or type of generosity depending in part on the level of scarcity they face (for example, some emphasize the duties of guests, and some the duties of hosts).

These variations lead all too many people to believe that norms are merely commands that we can and should change at will to meet current needs. But, while our practice of permanent norms can and should take circumstances into account, the norms themselves are permanent and beyond choice. They also are fundamental to our society and even to our existence as decent persons. Thus, to establish a new norm that celebrates the monstrous in art is to degrade art and with it our society. And to “redefine” social norms regarding such fundamental institutions as the family and the church is to degrade us all in pursuit of an acceptance that cannot be given without destroying the source of norms itself.

Redefinition of the family began with a humane justification—to end disadvantages placed on children of unwed parents and recognize the breakdown of certain marriages so that the former spouses might move on with their lives. Redefinition of the church (that is, of its role as an organizing institution for public life) began with the desire to establish public peace and the right of all persons to follow their consciences in determining how best to worship God. These reforms could be seen in Burkean terms as the elimination of abuses and the fostering of a society of mutual affection better able to provide for personal and common virtues.

But somewhere along the way (much earlier than most of us would like to think) moderns began to believe that family and religion themselves were individual choices which should be defended against any public norm save the vaguest, most insipid and harmless call to “love” and to “do the best we can” (without, that is, too much effort or suffering). Society increasingly is seen as a collection of individuals following their own desires, requiring a state that prevents violence, insures against bad consequences, and prevents any person or institution from “imposing values” on anyone else. This is the source of contemporary doctrines of “non-traditional” families and of “separation of church and state.” No authoritative standards are to be allowed where choices of family and faith are concerned, and this is seen as maximizing individual liberty and, of course, reducing all kinds of unpleasantness, preachiness, and attempts to “force” one’s own norms on other people.

But, of course, public life is not neutral. A public school that wishes to have a wall “separating church and state” will punish students who dare express their faith on “neutral” public grounds. As all but the most willfully blind recognize, the school quickly descends into hostility toward religious expression and a fostering of anti-religious rhetoric and sentiment as the wall must be built ever higher and guarded ever more closely to prevent “invasions” from people of faith. As a result, the beliefs and habits spawned and maintained by religious faith and tradition atrophy and even come into disrepute among the increasing number of people subject to the delusion that one can have a sane, moral public life without common norms rooted in a common understanding of the order of existence. The faithful become the outcast, and religious norms disintegrate, to be replaced by the false, thin, and empty norms of individual autonomy and liberal ideology.

And the family? It becomes merely one social unit among others the state may or may not take into account in dispensing benefits.  The natural family (husband, wife, and their children) becomes just one possibility, with no special status, as individuals seek to couple in whatever ways give them pleasure and receive public recognition and support for their choices.

The problem with our loss of a norm where the family is concerned is not just that, increasingly, families fail to form, or conform to the norm. It is that we lose our understanding of the central purpose of the family, which is to raise children to be virtuous adults.  And, having lost our understanding of this purpose to society’s most fundamental institution, we altogether lose our understanding of what it means to form children into virtuous adults.

Virtue itself is no longer recognized as a permanent good, now being seen as merely “normal.” And we all want, apparently, a “new normal” that is, well, whatever we want it to be at the moment. As a result, our society more and more sees children as a burden to be indoctrinated into autonomous self-sufficiency as quickly as possible so that we will not have to tend to their needs—by staying married, foregoing personal enrichment, or even keeping smut off the television during certain hours of the day.

No longer recognizing our duty to form children’s character to fit the norms of virtue, we instead see them as mere small adults, who need no special protections against adult society. Now even the Boy Scouts, for so many decades dedicated to forming virtuous young men, sees itself as just another organization for leisure activities, in which the sexual conduct of its members is to be taken as irrelevant. After all, does one have to be straight, or religious, to camp, or tie knots?

Of course not. Only if groups like the Scouts have as their purpose the formation of virtuous young men do such things matter.  And only if young men’s virtue includes not engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage does the issue of homosexuality matter. So, of course, today’s Scouts see no problem (or at least admit to seeing no problem) with practicing homosexuals participating in Scouting.

There remains, for now (and it will be a brief time) a ban on openly gay scoutmasters as a sop to traditionalist fear of sexual predation.  But the core of the Scouts is now gone. And what is most sad is the extent to which this picture of youth organizations as just another recreational outlet, devoted to a virtue that rejects traditional religious and family values, truly is the “new normal.”

When the scouts’ decision was made, it was trumpeted in the mainstream media. I happened to look through the Fox News homepage that day to see what kind of coverage it would provide. The answer is essentially none.  An AP story, largely laudatory, ran as a minor headline for a couple of hours, then disappeared. Apparently “conservative” opinion leaders have decided to maintain their commitment to the mantra of abnormal societies everywhere—put money in thy pocket, and again put money in thy pocket.  With material well-being as the only goal, potentially divisive social issues that might cause dissension because some of us are foolish enough to see them as important, must be buried.

And with such concerns virtue itself is buried. And the new normal makes all of us, in one way or another, monstrous.

This essay first appeared May 29, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • tony chan

    The bearing revealed by your picture tells me you are just right for standing at the gates of Scouting to announce to every gay twelve year old, “You sir, are a monster.”
    tony chan

    • Rock St. Elvis

      Would that make the author a monster?

  • tom

    The gay men will not be stopped from crawling into those pup tents. The easy option is simply to turn each troop over to a church (or synogogue) parish. Catholic Scouts of America has a wonderful ring to it and will emphasize the God and Country ethic of scouting BETTER than the BSA ever can again. It’s a grand opportunity if our Lotus-eating bishops can discern it. They probably can’t.

  • Tony

    The Boy Sods of America …
    The normal kid can’t get any love. The kid with psychological / moral problems is hailed as a hero.

  • Paul McGuire

    “So, of course, today’s Scouts see no problem (or at least admit to seeing no problem) with practicing homosexuals participating in Scouting.”

    Why must conservatives assume that a boy who proclaims he is gay is immediately a “practicing homosexual” anymore than any young boy who is assumed to be straight is out there having sexual relations with girls? The scouts have not done away with rules that prohibit scouts from engaging in sexual activity.

    As the rule changed currently, it means that boys can reveal that they are gay without being kicked out of scouting. People are coming out younger and younger these days and it makes no sense to make it so that a boy who is out in all other aspects of his life must hide his orientation throughout scouting until after he receives his Eagle Scout. Or would you prefer that a boy who otherwise completes his requirements for Eagle Scout be denied that rank because he comes out?

    • tedseeber

      “Why must conservatives assume that a boy who proclaims he is gay is immediately a “practicing homosexual” anymore than any young boy who is assumed to be straight is out there having sexual relations with girls? ”

      Because we were once straight young boys, and know that the ONLY thing keeping us from having sexual relations with girls was a lack of opportunity.

      • Paul McGuire

        Only a lack of opportunity? Not the morals you were brought up with in the Church?

        • tedseeber

          I was brought up in the 1970s. The sum total of the morals I was brought up with in the Church can be expressed by “Jesus was nice, you be nice too. Jesus Loves You, rah rah rah”.

          I was brought up in a country where Humanae Vitae was suppressed, and sexuality was used to sell everything from toothpaste to beer.

          MOST of my contemporary cradle Catholics, are not Catholic today.

          • tom

            It’s never too late. Even Teddy Kennedy got a spiritual bill of good health from O’Malley and Wuerl on his spin into eternity.

            • tedseeber

              Exactly, which is why I started studying in my 20s. But unless we are willing to start teaching Catholic values earlier, to expect gay teenagers who *are already dissenting from Church teaching* on chastity to play ball and not attack their tent mates, is a bit ridiculous on its face.

    • JERD

      Denial of participation in Scouts is not the author’s point. This is the point: Can the self proclaimed gay Scout be encouraged by his Scout leaders to reject his sexual inclinations because they are not “normative,” in other words, they are not “virtuous?” The answer of course is “no,” not in today’s culture.

      For the BSA there is now no distinction to be recognized between the heterosexual and homosexual scout. As the author states, heterosexuality reserved for marriage is no longer a virtue, it has become “irrelevant.” The BSA has rejected a “permanent thing,” and has accepted the relativist chameleon-like ethics of contemporary culture.

      • Paul McGuire

        But remedying denial of participation in the scouts was the point of the policy change. There have been a number of scouts who came out as gay before they attained the rank of Eagle Scout and were denied their Eagle Scout. The change says that merely being gay standing alone is not sufficient to deny a boy participation in scouting.

        • JERD

          I suspect the writer would reply by saying the this “remedy” proves his case. The remedy – allowing participation by openly gay males who in most cases are approaching adulthood – is a rejection of the virtue of heterosexuality within marriage. The “permanent thing” – the virtue of traditional marriage – has been tossed aside by the “remedy” and replaced with the moral equivalence of hetero and homo sexuality. The BSA’s capitulation to the demands that it accept a scout’s open renunciation of the virtue of heterosexuality within traditional marriage, is a throwing off of a virtue – a “permanent thing.” BSA thus is now less than what it was – before a store of virtue, now a mere place for leisure activity,

          • tom

            Besides, the next step by the narcissists will be to remove the concepts of morality and God from scouting. They’re nothing if not predictable in their destructive urges.

        • Deacon Ed Peitler

          you insist on talking about scouting; the issue here are objective norms. they DO exist and homosexuality is not among them

        • Rock St. Elvis

          “Coming out” is a purely voluntary choice. If it violates the rules of an organization, it is not the organization’s fault that the kid defies them.

          • Paul McGuire

            Coming out is voluntary but staying in the closet is harmful and causes a number of problems to the individual. Living a lie is not easy. Having relationships while living a lie is difficult if not impossible because relationships have to be based on trust.

            Scouting is all about honesty and integrity so it seems reasonable that they would encourage gay scouts to come out and be honest about themselves.

            • tom

              Drama Queens have… It’s not the fault of the Boy Scouts! They want to go hiking, and camping, free from drama, Paul.

            • msmischief

              Honesty does not mean revealing all. A Scout who can not keep silent when fitting is not fit to be a Scout.

            • Rock St. Elvis

              Keeping your temptations to yourself and bringing them under control is not harmful. Indulging in objectively evil (not to mention inherently unsanitary) acts is.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      Getting back to the article at hand, being homosexual is not normal. There are objective norms and you can shout all you want but there is nothing you can do to make something that is objectively abnormal into what it is not. You will hoodwink the majority of “thinkers” today to agree with you but what is objective truth is just that: outside of our own doing. Doubtful whether this will make any sense to you at all.

  • Todd Aglialoro

    This is manifestly false. Even in its announcement of the policy change regarding sexual orientation the BSA reiterated that sexual activity of any kind is inconsonant with scouting virtue.

  • Midge

    As I understand it, the Boy Scouts didn’t question anyone about sexuality; they weren’t talking about it at all.

    When you think about who the troop leaders are, just parents of one or a couple of the kids in the troop, the old way is the only way that makes sense. Those troop leaders shouldn’t be dealing with sexuality, especially the sexuality of children, other peoples children. Suppose a boy “comes out” to the troop leader and says, “Don’t tell my parents.” What a position to be in!

    What if a self-declared homosexual boy attempts suicide and tells people he felt that his troop leader didn’t like him because he was gay? God forbid, a kid actually commits suicide and the suicide note says the scout leader “hates gays.”

    How do you deal with the other boys in the troop being uncomfortable? Its a very uncomfortable situation for them. If they are not friendly enough to the homosexual kid, they are accused of “bigotry.” If they are friendly, someone will gossip that they are homosexual, too (or the homosexual kid will attempt a relationship and thats big problems).

    Who would sign up for this? You even have to worry about the danger of a lawsuit because we’ve already seen that homosexuals are very litigious about “discrimination.”

    • tom

      The Boy Scouts are dying under these endless assaults by narcissists. Thinking of a replacement organization within the Church is the only reality, now. The Leftist will continue their acting out in churches, parades etc. until the Church bites the dust.

  • there are more important issues than this on earth..

    .. ditto, ditto ..

    • tom

      There could be a nuclear bomb and leprosy is now extant in ireland.

  • Catholic Eagle Scout

    The religious medal saying “GOD AND COUNTRY” at the top of your article is the Protestant religious award. The Catholic award is called AD ALTARE DEI and displays the papal colors. No points for Scouting Knowledge.