Civil Religion, the LDS Church, and the Boy Scouts

Brian Gongol

I was visiting with an associate on business just this week and he asked, out of the blue, "Were you an Eagle Scout?" I confirmed his suspicion: Yes, I earned my Eagle Scout Award in 1993 (though I didn't pin on the badge until Super Bowl Sunday of 1994).

The Eagle Scout Award is one of the few honors you can earn while in your youth that people continue to recognize decades later. Nobody asks me if I was on the academic honor roll or if I was first chair in the percussion section of the school band. But once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout.

That's why it's a sad day, as we hear that the LDS Church is withdrawing its significant institutional support for the Boy Scouts of America for its members over the age of 14. The Mormon community has offered a lot of valuable support to the Boy Scouts, both in terms of promoting membership and in chartering Scout troops nationwide. For the time being, this withdrawal applies specifically to the Venture and Varsity programs, which only cover a limited and interest-specific branch of the Scouting program. But it looks more like the first step toward a broader split than an isolated change.

The Boy Scouts have made some important institutional changes in recent years -- most recently, permitting transgender children who identify as boys to take part in their programs. Some religious institutions are less willing to go along with such changes in policy than others. Those changes in policy may or may not be the ultimate reason why the LDS Church is moving away.

But it's a loss nonetheless. While the Boy Scouts have always promoted "reverence" as one of their core values (it's one of the twelve points of the Scout Law), my own Scouting experience was enhanced by the presence of young people from many faiths. It was formative to see that we could all be "reverent" in different ways.

That kind of sensibility is important to our civic well-being as a country. If religious traditions that have been closely tied to the Boy Scouts withdraw from their past support, that deprives other Scouts of the opportunity to see how they can be cooperatively different -- each fulfilling an obligation to be reverent, but each in his own way.

It's hard to imagine a time when it was more important to teach the fundamentals of good civics to our young citizens. We need more people to enter adulthood with an ingrained sense of the importance of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and -- yes -- reverent. And part of that can come from experience in troop meetings, campouts, and service projects side-by-side with Scouts of all religious traditions.

If any one faith withdraws its active support from Scouting, that isn't going to end the program. The LDS Church has every right to decide what is best for itself and its members. But the departure is unfortunate -- especially if it means that the Scouts who remain from other traditions miss out on the exposure they would otherwise have to peers from other traditions.

Like America, the Boy Scouts are stronger because they consist of many who can differ about they ways they will live their private lives, yet still share an essential belief in some common principles of civic life and engagement. The less we retreat into our own silos of self-similarity and the more time we spend achieving common good alongside people who are different from us, the better.