By Riley Manning
Like Scout parents and leaders across the nation, Scout parent Kathryn Scott held her breath this spring as the Boy Scout National Council deliberated a membership policy which would allow openly gay Scouts to participate in the program.
Though national Scout leadership was emphatic about not allowing gay troop leaders, and Scout code prohibited Scouts from sexual activity of any kind – gay or straight – for parents like Scott, the change went too far.
“What we saw was the Scout organization caving in to pressure,” she said. “There was a consensus among our families that we didn’t want our sons seeing that as an example. We want them to stick up for what’s right.”
As a result, Scott and the rest of Christ First, the small non-profit hosting her son’s Scout troop in Oxford, voted to not renew their Cub Scout charter in January 2014, and began looking for other options.
Scott soon found she was not alone in her concern. The policy change spurred some major Scout leaders to defect from the organization and form the website onmyhonor.net. It was there Scott learned of the newly-formed Trail Life USA program and attended Trail Life’s inaugural leadership convention in August.
Trail Life follows the essential model of Scouting, except kids may start earlier, in kindergarten. In addition, Trail Life features a final co-ed stage for 18- to 25-year-olds, at which point Trail Life merges with American Heritage girls, a faith-based Girl Scout alternative formed in 1995 after the Girl Scouts took a no-stance policy on sexual orientation.
But the real difference between Trail Life and Boy Scouts, Scott said, is that the Trail Life organization is intentionally direct when it comes to the Christian standards of its members and leaders.
“A statement of faith and values is signed by troop leaders all the way up to national board members. Charter organizations who sponsor troops must subscribe to that statement, too,” Scott said. “Religious awards will be offered at every level.”
In addition, Trail Life USA policy states members are called “to live a life of holiness… reserving sexual activity for the sanctity of marriage; marriage being a lifelong commitment before God between a man and a woman.”
And their motto, “Walk worthy,” comes straight from Colossians 1:10.
Back in Tupelo, Harrisburg Baptist Church has voted to accept Trail Life USA as a valid replacement for Scouting. In reaction to the policy change, Harrisburg held a congregational vote in July to determine the future of its Troop 85, made up of over 80 Scouts.
Harrisburg’s pastor, the Rev. Forrest Sheffield, said the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the church’s Scout charter to expire at the end of the year.
“The Scout board knew they would receive this reaction from many churches, but chose to force that reaction anyway,” he said.
Sheffield acknowledged that, as a pastor, it can be tricky to stand firm on his beliefs while at the same time not alienating people.
“It’s our responsibility to love everyone, but that doesn’t mean we accept sin,” he said. “In John 8, Jesus said to the adultress, ‘Go and sin no more.’”
But Sheffield shared the same wariness of many Scout skeptics and predicted the admission of gay Scouts may lead to allowing gay Scout leaders. At the end of the day, Sheffield said, parents have the right to choose what they think is best for their children.
“I admire the Trail Life policies I have read, and support them greatly,” he said.
As for Troop 85, the Scouts found a new home at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, whose Vestry voted recently to adopt the troop. All Saints’ pastor, the Rev. Paul Stephens, said he has advocated taking in Troop 85 since their dismissal from Harrisburg.
“If All Saints’ had a troop and was faced with the decision, I would have continued to sponsor the troop,” he said. “That decision, I believe, would be clearly supported by the Gospel, by our Baptismal Covenant, and by my understanding of the Scout Oath.”
On the same Sunday Harrisburg voted to drop Troop 85, the parable of the Good Samaritan was the gospel lesson appointed to be read at Episcopal churches.
“To me, that parable calls us to act on what we have in common, not on what is different,” he said. “To some extent, we label everyone we see in one way or another, and these labels become barriers that keep us from seeing how God is at work.”
Stephens pointed to the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant, which asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
In particular to Scouting, Stephens, himself an Eagle Scout, said every boy deserves the opportunity to develop the life and leadership skills Scouting provides. He hoped Scouts working to finish their Eagle requirements before the end of the year will stay connected, and the leaders who stick with Troop 85 will provide continuity for the boys.
Casualties of the culture war
Rick Chapman, executive director of Northeast Mississippi’s Yocona Area Council, said almost 10 troops under his supervision have followed Harrisburg’s example, and Sheffield said his congregation’s vote was one of conviction on scriptural truth.
“The Scouts were one group who stood their ground year after year,” Sheffield said. “We had to take a stand.”
This tension between well-rooted religious institutions and other cultural forces – economic, governmental, or otherwise – is nothing new, according to Professor James Bowley, head of Millsaps College’s Religious Studies department.
“For a long time in the South, churches, especially Baptist churches, wielded the most power when it came to issues of religion and morality. Then came the Civil War, and the moral authority of Southern churches was condemned for many in ‘the North’ and other parts of the country,” he said. “This has continued through the Civil Rights era and continues today in other issues. More and more people are seeing the anti-gay policies of churches and other institutions as morally wrong, so they are challenging those policies. This is what happened with the Boy Scouts.”
Bowley said the particular animosity expressed by churches toward homosexuality may stem from losing ground as a central social institution of society, especially in the South, as the South becomes more culturally diverse.
“When a group feels threatened, they often react by separating themselves from the ones they consider impure, or wrong,” he said. “They do so by making public stands against those people, explaining the actions of ‘the others’ as caving in to evil forces or political pressure, and by joining other likeminded folk to insulate themselves, often by spreading fear.”
For Stephens, there is enough room in society for multiple opinions. The key is authenticity and dialogue.
“I’m not criticizing Harrisburg by any means. Our church did what we felt led to do, and I respect Harrisburg for doing the same thing,” Stephens said. “It’s unfortunate that on many issues we end up talking over each other. But to have an open conversation calls not only for self-examination, but risk-taking, because when we are authentic about who we are, we risk being rejected. But without taking that risk, our differences will continue to dominate conversations of the day, instead of finding common ground and building.”