I was talking with a fellow Eagle Scout last night. We were both feeling saddened by what should have been a heart-warming image we saw on Facebook: boys and their dad dressed in scout uniforms. But the uniforms were not Boy Scouts of America uniforms; they were uniforms of the newly-formed Trail Life scouting program.
Now, I have watched the BSA’s discernment surrounding homosexuality with great interest and a fair amount of sympathy. I loved my ten-plus years in the scouting organization. It’s where I learned to tie knots, build fires, paddle canoes, set up tents, and respect the outdoors. My troop met in my church’s basement. There were kids from our church, and there were kids from other churches, but there were also kids from no church at all. The movement acknowledged God in simple ways: a mention in the Scout Oath, the God and Country program, and the occasional Scout Sunday. Still, the BSA was not a religious organization. It found a pretty nice way of honoring religion while remaining universal.
The scouting movement that I know is an inherently slow-moving beast. When I pictured men in neckerchiefs and knee socks and patch-covered uniform shirts trying to come to grips with a culture and its changing views of sexuality, I chuckled a little. But, the BSA came around–a little late for my taste–but it came around.
On some level, I have respect for those who hold an inerrant view of Scripture. I have close friends and family members who are Christian Fundamentalists. There is a way that those on the Christian Right hold those of us on the Christian Left accountable. At its best, Fundamentalism keeps us from losing sight of Scripture, sometimes forcing us to cling tightly to God’s Word as we try to seek justice for the changing world around us. So, I struggled with why Trail Life should bother me at all.
It’s the uniforms.
A friend of mine asked a group of gay and lesbian teens about their positive experiences with organized religion. Her question was met with complete silence. Could the Church have screwed up more royally than this? The Bible is a deeply complicated book, but it’s filled with good news. And not one crumb of good news fell to any one of these kids at any time that they could remember. We’re not talking about lobbyists, or the Human Rights Campaign, or Justice Ginsberg. Just kids. Children.
Jesus, what is wrong with us?
So, the BSA adopts a stance of tolerance, with no small degree of reluctance. I’ll take it. The scene at the troop and pack level is probably not greatly changed. There are undoubtedly some gay scouts; we know that there are gay and lesbian leaders. These are kids from our neighborhood schools. These are moms and dads from our communities. This is not a sweeping value judgment on homosexuality; it’s just a reasonable attempt to include people who want to be included. Gay kids should learn to camp, hike, and tie knots. Gay and lesbian adults should be allowed to lead. It’s not that big of a deal.
I know that Trail Life is just a way to try to experience those same things while opting out of a policy that some find to be offensive. I get it. I’ll even give the organization a little credit for not disallowing gay boys to join; they’ve even received some criticism for not excluding in this way. But, I also don’t get it. They will not allow youth who are openly gay. John Stemberger, Trail Life’s founder, created the organization in 2013 in direct response to the BSA’s decision to allow gay youth to join. We’re not even talking about adult leaders here; we’re talking about the decision to include gay teens. Just kids. Children.
Honestly, what pushed me over the edge is the uniforms. A group of people took a reluctance to include people different from them, and they designed a uniform for it. GLBTQ kids can recognize that there are Christian kids who will not accept them because they have a uniform that says so. A uniform.
Jesus, what is wrong with us?
As I look at my patch-covered BSA shirt and my dusty neckerchief, I’m prouder now than I was back then. The BSA is not revolutionary, by any means. But it’s tolerant, and it made the intentional decision to be tolerant.
And my PC(USA) church is tolerant, perhaps revolutionarily so. My hope is that we will see the day when every gay teen, every transsexual child, and every lesbian mother will see the Presbyterian symbol, including its open Bible, and know that they are truly, deeply welcome here.
Eagle Scout Doug Brown (on right in photo) went on to become GPPC’s Director of Music in 2004. Possibly he recalled his scouting experience with knots when he tied one with Amy Spencer in 2012, creating a blended family that includes six children. Doug returns to our organ bench tomorrow, following a multi-state full family road trip.