The Boy Scouts is, literally, the youth program of the Mormon Church for boys, a bond forged because the church saw their core values as the same: Patriotism and devotion to God. The Mormon Church is also the largest Boy Scout charter; about 20 percent of all scouts are Mormon.
Reconciling its relationship with the Boy Scouts as the national youth group become more accepting of gay equality appears to be growing more difficult for the Mormon Church, whose press office put out a statement Monday, saying leaders were “deeply troubled” by the lifting of the ban, as well as by the fact that they had asked for a delay in the vote because the church bureaucracy takes off in July.
Facing litigation, the Scouts Monday approved a new policy allowing troops to pick openly-gay volunteer leaders and banning discrimination in the hiring of employees. But it leaves it to individual troops and councils, most of which are faith-based, to choose leaders who reflect their own values.
Church officials declined to elaborate on the statement Tuesday. But it puzzled some observers because the Mormon Church has made high-profile efforts in the last year or so to soften its comments about sexuality and the place of gays and lesbians.
This spring gay advocates and Mormon leaders in Utah made headlines when they announced they’d been secretly meeting for many months and had hammered out a compromise to ban discrimination in housing and employment against LGBT people. Both sides said they were willing to recognize the needs of the other.
One detail of that compromise, however, may shed light on the new tension over the Scouts: The sole requirement church leaders had at the time was that there be an exemption in the compromise legislation for the Boy Scouts, so they could continue to not hire openly gay employees.
On Tuesday Mormons and longtime church observers were trying to sort out what was going on. Was the church being sidelined by its longtime partner? Why did the church seem blindsided by a vote that had been in the making for some time? Was this really a shift away from compromise? Is it possible to imagine the Mormon Church separating from scouting?
Jim Dabakis, an openly gay Utah senator who was involved in that compromise, said the church statement was “puzzling” but that he suspected it was part of the overall flux in a country feeling the push-pull of competing rights – those of traditional religious believers and those of LGBT people.
“I suspect there is some post-same-sex-marriage-ruling jitters there,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s recent finding of a constitutional right to same-gender marriage. “It’s been a long, hard road on LGBT issues for all sides, and these social battles go back and forth, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
Rather than making a dramatic move away from scouting, a core of Mormon life, Dabakis – who grew up Mormon – said he hopes his bargaining partners would wait a while to see how the changes plays out. “Don’t respond in the heat of either victory or losing. It’s just bad policy.”
Mormon blogs from progressive ones to those closely affiliated with the church showed a range of views, from church members applauding the move either because they don’t like Boy Scout programming or because they oppose gay equality, to those who were embarrassed by the church’s statement because it seemed condemning of gays. When the Scouts welcomed openly gay youth in 2013, the Mormon Church made clear that its teachings call all youth to chastity and that gay youth are welcome along with straight youth. In other words, they tried to downplay the difference.
“Wow. What an I’m-taking-my-ball-home comment! If Scouting is good for young American men, then it will surely remain good whatever the outcome of the vote. And to be grumpy like this in public seems remarkably impolitic,” Ronan James Head wrote on the popular progressive Mormon blog bycommonconsent.
Some complained that the girls’ youth programs aren’t as extensive.
Commenters on the church-run ksl.com news site debated the wisdom of church officials who said this week that the Mormon Church may break off and form its own youth program, one that matches church teachings and thus would be easier for the church to adapt to its many overseas missions. Some said the Scout vote was a good reason to leave while others said the prominence and history of the Boy Scouts would not be simple to replace.
“I’ve been waiting for the day when the church will drop the scouting program. I hope this was the last straw. It overshadows the Duty to God program which is paramount to anything regarding the young men these days. Forget the basket-weaving merit badge; time to refocus our efforts on that which really matters,” one ksl.com commenter wrote.
Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University – who is also a Mormon who was in scouts, and whose son is in scouts – said Tuesday that the church statement doesn’t reflect the fact that the Mormon Church has sought more conciliatory positions on hot-button issues than some other religiously conservative faiths.
Monson, who last year published “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics,” said his research shows that Mormons – more than evangelical Protestants, among others – are more open to compromises such as civil unions and are becoming increasingly so.
“I think if you read between the lines [of the church’s statement Monday], they were just trying to get this to slow down and have a conversation. My guess is it’s not necessarily a visceral negative reaction,” he said.
The Catholic Church’s scouting association put out a statement Monday saying the new policy seemed workable — if it continues to allow church-affiliated troops to pick their own leaders, and if clear guidelines are set for how “sexual orientation” is described. Catholic teaching accepts that people are gay or lesbian in their identity but forbids same-sex sexual behavior.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, said Southern Baptist churches have been “cooling” toward the Boy Scouts in recent years due to their opening on gay issues. “This will probably bring that cooling to a freeze,” Moore told The Associated Press.
Mormon Church leaders said Tuesday that they wouldn’t expect any comment until August, when their full leadership regroups.