The Boy Scouts of America has put off re-deciding the decision it affirmed just last year to continue to exclude gay people from participating in the organization. News rumors of the past couple of weeks have led us to expect a reconsideration soon, and as recently as this morning some were expecting a vote today. Instead, we have only a delay. Perhaps in May the country will see a definitive re-evaluation of the delay of a re-consideration of last year’s decision.
In the meantime, we can only speculate as to the hold-up. Sure, there are the high-profile individuals staking out territory. Texas governor Rick Perry (always, in the reporting on this issue, identified as an Eagle Scout) says no to gay scouting. The president of the United States (sometimes identified, in the reporting on this issue, as the honorary president of the BSA) says yes to gay scouting. And there are the groups of the rank-and-file who, on the one hand, are delivering boxes of signatures in favor of gay scouting to the BSA offices, and, on the other hand, holding prayer vigils to affirm their opposition to gay scouting. Between the celebrities and the grassroots that are for and against the matter, the BSA has plenty of demands to accommodate.
But I wonder if it isn’t something even more frightening than a gubernatorial jeremiad or a presidential finger-wag, something more intimidating than boxes of signatures or earnest prayers, that has caused the BSA’s strategic retreat. The BSA’s leadership may, indeed, fear that abandoning its discriminatory policies could undermine every element of scouting as we know it.
Consider Rick Perry’s principal argument against discarding the BSA’s prohibition of gay people from scouting: “to have popular culture impact 100 years of their standards is inappropriate.” That is, says Eagle Scout Perry, Scouting is about living as though it’s 1913, rather than 2013. And if we discard the great tradition of discriminating against gay people that is part of the 1913 culture that we are trying to preserve, logic will force us to consider discarding everything else from 1913 to which we’ve been clinging for the past century.
And that will yank scouting into truly horrifying chaos. Left-handed handshakes, three-fingered salutes, and green socks are all jeopardized by the radical element that has pushed scouting to reconsider the way it has always been. The delay that the BSA has taken probably isn’t because of a fear that admitting gay scouts and scout leaders will corrode the moral fiber of the institution’s straight scouts and leaders, since we can all see that straight scouts and leaders are perfectly capable of corrupting their own moral fiber. The delay signals a fear that coming into the twenty-first century will force a reconsideration of the Class A neckerchief. Gay or straight, a young adolescent scout with an unwrapped neck will be too radical a break from scouting’s pre-WWI roots for the organization to survive. Accommodationist policies will be developed, unity will be urged, but scout troops will balkanize into pro-neckerchief and no-neckerchief factions, corporate funding will be divided or withdrawn, neck-covering-mandates will be issued and rejected, lawsuits will be filed, neck-free radio will start up in liberal scout zones like Seattle and Milwaukee, the World Scout Jamboree in Japan will devolve into pods of swathed and unswathed scouts violently orienteering and rowing each other, and the next thing you know the four horsemen of the apocalypse come riding over Mount Rushmore.
The BSA’s delay has less to do with the ethical matter of abandoning an out-dated, discriminatory policy than it has to do with the legitimate fear that the organization will—hyperbole aside—come apart as the “yes we will” and “no we won’t” parties refuse to live with each other. But, as an Eagle Scout, I don’t mind saying that the organization whose fears of its own demise prevent it from striding boldly into the future isn’t much committed to its founding vision, anyway, and certainly doesn’t much epitomize the intrepid American spirit.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.” Follow him on Twitter.