The Scouts' threat to church norms

Boy Scouts

Yes, the decision by the Boy Scouts to open the doors to gay boys but not to gay men is an awkward compromise, but social progress often proceeds by awkward compromise. The fact is that it is now officially possible to be both openly gay and, in Scouting lingo, "morally...straight." And that's what's got conservative religious leaders' knickers in a twist.

How can their churches continue to sponsor troops? "Upholding traditional morality is vital for sustaining this partnership, for protecting Scout members, and for ensuring BSA has a strong future," says a statement signed by 50 of them. "By introducing homosexual identification into Scouting, the Boy Scouts would effectively require church-sponsored Scouting units to endorse that which they consider incompatible with Scripture," Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention declared.

Sure, gays belong to their congregations. But it's often by way of a wink and a nod, of don't ask and don't tell, and in any case with no threat to what strictures against homosexuality the ecclesiastical authorities have in place. The norms abide.

Take the Catholic Church...please. It has staked out a position that (sexually inactive) gays can be honorable members even of the clergy. Yet despite the Easter pledge of USCCB president Timothy Dolan's Easter to do better by gays and lesbians, the bishops couldn't bring themselves to take a position on the Scouts' anti-discrimination proposal. If the reaction to yesterday's vote from the National Catholic Committee on Scouting is any indication, decisions will be made diocese by diocese.

But then there is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite numbering less than two percent of the American population, its churches sponsor more Boy Scout troops than any religious body in the country. It is fair to say that Scouting is profoundly integrated into the Mormon way of life -- a way of life that exceeds all other branches of the Judeo-Christian family tree, and perhaps all other religions known to man, in valorizing the heterosexual family.

And yet last month the LDS Church managed to gingerly climb aboard the Boy Scouts' anti-discrimination bandwagon. ("We appreciate the positive things contained in this current proposal that will help build and strengthen the moral character and leadership skills of youth as we work together in the future.”) And it stuck to its guns after the vote. How could this be?

A cynic might say that, so far as Salt Lake is concerned, the Holy Spirit follows the election returns. What I'd say is that the Saints understand the world to be a spiritually evolving place, where truths that once seemed timeless can be revealed as partial or even mistaken. Plural marriage, the exclusion of black men from the priesthood -- these have gone by the boards when the norms of society at large required. Who's to say that approving the Boy Scouts' anti-discrimination rule will not turn out to have been the right call too?