Mormons and the Boy Scouts: Heading down different trails

'Separation from the BSA will allow the church to continue distinct programs for boys and girls, each designed to train the next generation in their designated gender roles,' writes Benjamin Park.

In this June 25, 2016, file photo, Cub Scouts watch a race during the second annual World Championship Pinewood Derby in New York's Times Square. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

(RNS) — It is a common stereotype, though one not far from the truth, that the average Mormon boy is an Eagle Scout.

There are certainly a lot of them. Recent statistics suggest that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes up about 20 percent of the Boy Scouts of America enrollment. This has been a long and interdependent relationship: The BSA provided a wholesome structure for Mormon boys, with typically half of the LDS church’s weekly activities nights dedicated to some scouting initiative, and the LDS church provided a continuous stream of boys (and money) for the national institution. It seemed a match made in heaven.

But the two groups seem destined for divorce.

The BSA in recent years has been more willing than the LDS church to embrace inclusive and progressive values: The organization announced in recent years a willingness to admit gay and transgender Scouts and Scout leaders. The Mormon faith has proved adamantly opposed to these same types of advances. In 2015, LDS leaders expressed disappointment about these shifts and warned they were “re-evaluating” their historic relationship with the organization.

Church administrators backed up their threat earlier this year when they declared their intent to phase out BSA programs for young men. While at first the change only involved the Varsity and Venturing programs, it was clear that it was merely the first step toward a full separation between the institutions. Two groups that had long been seen as congruous in activities and values were now appearing to diverge.

The BSA’s announcement on Oct. 11 that it would begin integrating girls into its various programs further exacerbated this growing rift. This was a long-predicted move, rumors of which may have prompted the LDS church’s decision to separate over the past few years.

Mormonism prides itself on maintaining distinct gendered programs for its youth, which reflects a broader commitment to separate spheres. (The faith still revolves around an all-male priesthood leadership structure.) Separation from the BSA will allow the church to continue distinct programs for boys and girls, each designed to train the next generation in their designated gender roles.

So, what does the divorce between these two previously intertwined organizations mean for their divergent trajectories?

The origins of the LDS-BSA connection were rooted in convenience and overlapping values. Scouting initiatives began as part of a broader cultural movement to help return the nation’s youth to principles of rugged individualism and masculinity; in response to what some saw as an over-feminized society, boys needed to learn how to become men.

Simultaneously, Mormons, in the wake of denouncing polygamy and embracing America’s political system after decades of conflict, were eager to prove their patriotism; the energetic acceptance of the BSA was one way to prove their commitment to American ideals. Producing hundreds of thousands of Eagle Scouts was an effective way to assimilate into America’s cultural institutions.

But nearly a century later, both groups have different priorities that made this association exceptionally frail. Pressured to be more inclusive, especially in the wake of several scandals, the BSA was expected to better reflect America’s evolving values if it desired to remain a prominent institution in the 21st century. The BSA’s belated, and often begrudging, acceptance of LGBTQ identities made it appear increasingly antiquated. To stay relevant, the Scouting organization had to leave behind traditional structures.

The LDS church, on the other hand, has become confident enough in its status within American culture that it no longer needed the BSA’s validation. Further, the church’s consistent attempts to become a global faith, with more members outside the United States than within it, made devotion to one nation’s Scouting organization even more quixotic. Dropping BSA programs will allow the faith’s leadership, always devoted to standardizing practices across continents and languages, to create a program for young men that can be replicated outside America.

It is indeed striking to see two organizations that have previously been interdependent go their separate ways. But given the divergent paths each side has taken in recent decades, this split appears a logical development in their respective trajectories. The BSA now seeks to be a little more American; the LDS church, a little less.

(Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of American history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. His work focuses primarily on American religions, including Mormonism. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminEPark. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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