No More Boy Scout Religion

The Boy Scouts of America was one of the most cherished organizations in the American culture. It seemed to sum what “a good American” was all about, and it captured the general outlook of our national character. It is what many people think of when they think of how to “just be a good person.” But, sadly, what was once only a rhetorical saying now has a new and literal meaning– there are no more Boy Scouts.

What killed the Boy Scouts was sex. They thought–wrongly–that everyone knew what sex was and how to use it responsibly. But this has been proven false. Three years ago, the Boy Scouts began to revise their position on human sexuality, eventually coming to admit homosexual members and even scout leaders. You can read about how that came about here. This week the Boy Scouts announced that they will allow transgender members. This has left many Americans who traditionally supported the Scouts for reasons of moral and spiritual formation dismayed and depressed. On a surface level it all seems rather absurd. After all, this is the BOY Scouts we are talking about. If boys no longer have to be boys, what’s left? But on a deeper level, what this reveals is that the Boy Scouts do not actually have a shared moral and spiritual foundation. Whatever they thought they once had is now definitively gone.

The Religion of the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America was originally an organization dedicated to physical, spiritual, and moral training. Indeed, the combination was what made them unique. If you consult the “fundamental principles” of the World Scouting Organization, it is clear that the scouting movement was founded with this very concept in mind. It places “Duty to God” as its first duty:

Under the title “Duty to God”, the first of the above-mentioned principles of the Scout Movement is defined as “adherence to spiritual principles, loyalty to the religion that expresses them and acceptance of the duties resulting therefrom”. It should be noted that, by contrast to the title, the body of the text does not use the word “God”, in order to make it clear that the clause also covers religions which are non-monotheistic, such as Hinduism, or those which do not recognize a personal God, such as Buddhism.

When asked where religion came into Scouting and Guiding, Baden-Powell replied “It does not come in at all. It is already there. It is a fundamental factor underlying Scouting and Guiding”. (2)

A careful analysis of the Founder’s writings shows that the concept of a force above man is basic to Scouting. The whole educational approach of the Movement consists in helping young people to transcend the material world and go in search of the spiritual values of life.

This supposedly principled stand was what made scouting attractive to Christians, but it has actually proved to be the Scouts undoing. You see, that qualification–“the clause also covers religions which are non-monotheistic… or those which do not recognize a personal God” opened the door for self-contradicting and revolutionary ideals, ideals that could later be turned against many scouts.

You see, the Boy Scouts believed that there was a basic core to all religions and communal outlooks. Yes, we might disagree on incidental matters, but surely we can all agree to be “good people.” We can keep the “main things” in perspective and keep private things to ourselves. This sounds quite nice, and it reflects what we might call the old “big tent” civil religion. It’s what Episcopalianism and other mainline Protestant churches preached each week. It’s the religion of the “good ol’ days” in America.

You can see this in the Boy Scouts Oath and Law:

The Scout Oath

On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

The Scout Law

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

This  sounds very good, does it not? And yet we know that several key terms are purposely undefined. “God,” “morally straight” and “reverent” should all stand out as controversial. The Boy Scouts, like many Americans, thought that even if people disagreed over the external names, that surely there was still a basic core that everyone held, that everyone just knew. But everyone does not agree on these basics. Sure most people agree about “don’t steal” and “don’t murder,” but as soon as you ask a few more questions you see that that the agreement unravels. Don’t murder, yes, but what about infants in the womb or the elderly who are losing their quality of life? When the question turns to God, the disagreement becomes pronounced, and when anyone attempts to apply “morally straight” to the topic of sexuality, they find out that there is no more common ground.

The Scouts had purposely not defined the foundation for their supposedly “obvious” common morality, and so once it was called into question, all of the other dominoes fell. The Boy Scouts had no concrete position to appeal to. They were at the mercy of societal consensus, and not even a simple majority opinion. They were at the mercy of elite educational, corporate, and media opinion. To their own surprise, the Boy Scouts discovered that they had, all along, been what C.S. Lewis calls “Men Without Chests.”

No More Boy Scout Religion

The death of the Boy Scouts is not just about the Boy Scouts. It’s about the death of Boy Scout Religion. The reigning ideology of American, what some folks will commonly refer to as “the Fifties,” was actually never orthodox Christianity. It was a sort of well-mannered liberalism that said that all of our disagreements must surely be unimportant and that we can certainly be nice and get along. Anyone who didn’t feel this way must be anti-social or “illiberal.” This was the Boy Scout Religion explained above. It always had its contradictions and underclasses who did not enjoy it so well, but still, Boy Scout Religion worked as long as there was a core majority who really did agree on important truths and values.

But those days are gone. The core is no more. And we need to see that this was bound to happen and will happen again if we accept the false belief that particulars of faith don’t matter. If “duty” is disconnected from a specific spiritual power, then it can always change, and when duty changes, one must “do their duty” by way of conflict with other duties.

Boy Scout Religion always turns in on itself. Its children fight their fathers, and they use the weapons that their fathers gave them and trained them to use.

No More Boy Scout Christianity

If there is no more Boy Scout Religion in general, because it was always a belief in a generality without particulars, then there can also be no more Boy Scout Christianity. What this means is that Christians cannot assume that words like “God,” “morality,” and “reverence” can stand without definition. We must fill in our particulars, and we must insist that those particular have the ability to determine your eternal fate. They are the difference between eternal life and death.

Christianity teaches love. But what kind of love? It teaches the love of Christ. And the love of Christ is the love of the specific Jesus Christ who came as the climax of the covenant with Abraham, the fulfillment of the law, and the Lord of all. If you love me, Jesus says, keep my commandments (John 14:15).

This does not mean that every hill is a hill to die on. There are still “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23). At the same time, we should remember that when Jesus used that expression, he also said, “these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” The weightier matters really are weightier, and yet the other matters should not be neglected. If we have secondary disagreements, we must be sure that they really are secondary, and then we must see that our disagreement is still a problem. It is a problem that we can allow to exist for a time, but it is a problem that we should wish to eventually resolve.

The future for Christianity is not agreement on general names with no particulars supporting them. It must be an agreement on the gospel of Christ, and that will require an agreement on the practical source of that gospel, which is the Word of God. We must base our beliefs upon the Scriptures, and we must preserve the belief that the Scriptures have an objective meaning that we can faithfully discover through the careful use of logic, grammar, and historical support.

We must also have means of accountability in our churches to show that we are playing fair. Kindness does not exist merely for its own sake. Rather, kindness exists as a form of Christian love, the same Christian love which longs to bring people to the true Christ. Thus we must teach our members to adhere to our beliefs, and we must have certain tools to make this possible. This will require membership, confessions of faith, and some sort of church discipline or accountability.

Most of all, however, it will require faithful preachers and teachers to get specific. We must proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and we must have a desire to pursue knowledge and truth. This does not mean that we do this at the expense of other virtues, and it does not mean that we turn our churches into purely intellectual or academic centers. We must put our renewed minds to sacrificial work. But, again, in order to do this, we must actually have renewed minds.


The old gentleman’s agreement to “go along to get along” is over. We cannot assume that everyone agrees on the basics. They do not. And inclusion for inclusion’s sake will always lead to exclusion, the exclusion of traditional principles. Christians have to see the obvious because it’s been here for some time.

Know what you believe and why, and find churches that actively support and reinforce these same beliefs. Get specific. Fill in the blanks. Who is your God, and how do you know? What does He require? What does the Bible say?

Find people of integrity who actually live those beliefs. If you don’t currently have people like that in your life, please send us a note. We’d love to meet you.

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