For God and Country

The Boy Scouts’ Fall Is a Symptom of Our Age

Being a Boy Scout was one of the most formative experiences in my life. It helped push me beyond the limits of my meager capabilities, preparing me to enter manhood through a mix of discipline, comradery, and hard work. I joined as a Cub Scout in early elementary school and made it all the way to Scouting’s highest rank, the Eagle Scout.

I remember scrambling up rock faces in New England’s treacherous White Mountains, hiking up Challenger Peak in Colorado (altitude sickness unfortunately prevented me from making it to the top), and navigating class V rapids in the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia. I went kayaking in Maine and in the frigid waters of the Colorado River, along with backpacking 30 miles on the Appalachian Trail before a hurricane made landfall that cut our trip short.

During annual summer camps in August, each patrol would put on skits for the enjoyment of the rest of the troop, which at its peak was well over 100 scouts. There, I completed a mile swim and a high ropes course, shot rifles, canoed, sailed, earned countless merit badges, and played Reveille and other calls as the troop’s bugler. 

In the spring of my senior year in high school, during my Eagle Scout presentation, I watched myself through the years in a slideshow as the soundtrack I had picked, consisting of Rush’s “YYZ” and Van Halen’s “Top of the World,” blared in the background.

However, things have changed markedly for the Boy Scouts of America since I went to college, with the Scouts welcoming openly gay adult leaders and girls as the BSA’s numbers went into in a complete tailspin. The BSA rivals perhaps only mainline Protestant churches in the speed and efficiency of losing members, which peaked at 6.5 million in 1972 and has since declined to an astonishing 762,000 in 2021 (though its numbers have rebounded somewhat since the pandemic, to just over 1 million).

The recent announcement of the Boy Scouts of America changing its name to the androgynous Scouting America is not the first signs of capitulation but is instead the capstone of a decades-long abasement to the cultural zeitgeist (Boy Scouts, the main program for youth, officially changed its name to Scouts BSA in 2019). It is a case study in what happens when an institution pledges its fealty to the regime and its ruling pieties rather than to its historic traditions and practices, grounded in an acceptance and enjoyment of the created order.

The BSA’s press release states that the name change occurred to reflect “the organization’s ongoing commitment to welcome every youth and family in America to experience the benefits of Scouting.” This inclusiveness of course implies that limiting its members only to boys was an unjust practice, which defined the organization going back to its founding in 1910. Assuredly, this mindset is borne not of careful thinking about what’s best for boys, but an acquiescence to today’s mass confusion over what God weaved into nature itself.

It’s not creeping wokeness or Marxism, but a clear effort to erase the very differences that make men men and women women. This is an attempt to expunge all distinctions that are the basis of praise and blame—including the very ground of nature itself—which can be traced back to a revolution that remade America in the twentieth century. Historic institutions that transmitted the virtues necessary to form upright boys and girls, men and women, are in the late stages of being assimilated by our Borg, who are retrofitting them to be new outposts of the regime.

Yes, scouts will continue to build two-match fires, go rock climbing, identify constellations, and tie knots. But like The Episcopal Church, despite some still solid troops here and there, at the national level the BSA long ago discarded the idea that boys need to have their own spaces, where they can be mentored by men who possess the character to guide them. 

Helen Andrews has noted numerous times at The American Conservative that the destruction of all-male spaces due to the menace of anti-discrimination laws is one of the more destructive trends in modern life. This is inimical to boys, who “flourish in the company of other boys in ways that the presence of girls inhibits,” writes Andrews. Imagine the confusion when eros is suddenly thrown into the mix during what can be a boy’s most challenging years as he matures. She continues: “Men form deeper friendships in all-male groups, which may be why civil society organizations like the Rotarians that were legally compelled to go co-ed in the 1980s have gotten weaker ever since.” 

The BSA is actively participating in our great de-sexing that is undermining philia, the love between brothers that’s essential for boys and men. And this at a time when virtually every metric measuring the state of boys and men in America is showing alarming results.

From looking at the managers who have overseen the BSA’s decline, it’s not difficult to see how the organization ended up in its current state. Recent national executives like Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s much-maligned Secretary of State, and Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, guided BSA down a path of obsolescence, irrelevance, and decay. Seemingly straight from the plot of a Tom Wolfe novel, BSA will now be led by Roger Krone, a former executive for Boeing, another formerly great American institution that looks to be locked into a nosedive.

Accompanying this is the decades-long sexual abuse problems that have plagued the Scouts, the payouts for which recently sent the organization into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As the Associated Press reported, “A federal judge in March upheld the $2.4 billion bankruptcy plan for the Irving, Texas-based organization, which allowed it to keep operating while compensating more than 80,000 men who filed claims saying they were sexually abused while in scouting.”

And clearly, the Scout Oath—which speaks of a boy doing his duty to God and country and keeping himself “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight”—is at odds with the morality that greases the ever-turning wheels of our managerial regime. The Scouts were instead birthed in an Anglo-Protestant culture that instilled the virtues necessary to be good men and good citizens. As Scouting’s founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, once stated, “No man is much good unless he believes in God and obeys His laws. So every Scout should have a religion…. Religion seems a very simple thing: First: Love and Serve God. Second: Love and serve your neighbor.”

Known as “Chief Scout of the World,” Baden-Powell was a veteran of the British Army and a war hero. He displayed the virtues central to Scouting when he helped defend a town during the Siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War: 

A Boer army of in excess of 8,000 men surrounded him and his troops. Although wholly outnumbered, the garrison withstood the siege for 217 days, and much of this is attributable to some of the cunning military deceptions instituted at Baden-Powell’s behest as commander of the garrison. As a result, Baden-Powell became a national hero back home.

These distinctly masculine qualities were the ones Baden-Powell wanted to promote among boys when the Scouts was first founded overseas in 1908. 

Even 15 years ago, the things Baden-Powell worked for had already been largely neutered. In an illuminating piece for the Claremont Review of Books, Kathleen Arnn compared the original Scout Handbook, first published in 1911, and the 12th edition, published in 2009. Forthright presentations of masculine virtue and adventure had given way to the typical platitudes one hears during a corporate seminar.

Arnn reported that the 2009 Boy Scouts Handbook “largely replaced the traditional language of virtue with the progressive language of leadership.” An old chapter on Chivalry was “completely removed,” and “the chapter on Leadership, which is presumably meant to replace it, has little to say about moral virtue beyond the Scout Oath and Law.” Discipline and the importance of inculcating an adventurous spirit were noticeably absent. Moral judgment was reduced to making “healthy choices.” An example of courage was “refusing a cigarette at a party.” At the time of the essay’s publication in 2011, Arnn concluded by commenting that the BSA “handbook suggests what their leadership believes, and foreshadows what they may become.” Unfortunately, she was right.

Instead of extolling excellence, cultivating and channeling ambition toward good ends, and preserving a moral framework based on the teachings of Scripture and nature, Scouting’s elevation of modern ideas of leadership is a child of our time. As Clifford Humphrey has argued, leadership is a genderless set of skills that “anyone can learn through study” rather than statesmanship, which presents examples of human excellence by which one can measure his progress.

In a review of Lord Baden-Powell’s life at the New Criterion, Anthony Daniels wrote that he “understood instinctively that boys need both a belief in something and physical activity if they are not to go to the bad, their natural destination.” Boys must have examples of greatness they can look up to. Character portraits like Plutarch’s Lives used to function as a mirror, providing boys with templates to which they should aspire. And the Bible laid out the model for Christian rulers, perfecting the virtues of pagan antiquity. Despite what you may have heard, yes, boys should want to be like David. 

Though decline is the overriding character of our times, this also means there is nearly limitless potential to fill yawning gaps and build new institutions that can help secure a better, more prosperous future for ourselves and our posterity. Institutions are especially needed that can give boys purpose, forming them into being good husbands and fathers, providers and protectors who look to fulfill the mandate of filling and subduing the earth. The opportunities are there. All we need is the courage and decisiveness to act. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

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