Sunday, May 28, 2006

Scouting Teaches Values?

The state of Florida, in its ongoing determination to be socially irresponsible, particularly when it involves anything remotely connected to taxation, has created a whole series of specialty auto tags. For a mere $30 extra above the cost of a state-issued tag with its rather pale orange plugging the citrus industry, individualist drivers in a hyperindividualist culture can express their individuality. They do this by placing tags on their vehicles which express the identities they've purchased from an array of consumerist options. These range from one's alma mater to anti-abortion "Choose Life" tags to the inevitable environmentalist tags appearing on the backs of environmentally destructive Hummers and SUVs. This purchased identity of the individualist can then join the thousands of other individuals on clogged expressways who are similarly disposed to display their individuality.

One of the options available to Florida drivers today is one which praises the Boy Scouts of America. "Scouting Teaches Values" the tags proclaim. But what kind of values?


The building contractor originally scheduled to repair our home from Hurricane Charley had long run boy scout troops out of his home. For years his trailers bearing canoes, tenting and other equipment had been parked along our residential street making passage nearly impossible. After weekend and vacation time scouting events were passed, we would pick up candy wrappers, citrus fruit which had been used as ammo and drink cans from our streetside yard. Even so, wanting to be good neighbors, we had regularly participated in food drives and bought the luminaries the scouts created for Christmas Eve.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, our builder decided he could make more money in a shorter period of time than our house reconstruction offered him. So, after a year of slow repairs, promises ("You're just going to love it when I'm done") and interminable waiting during which hope turned to despair, our contractor/scout master left town for Mississippi and the quick buck. In the process, he left our home with 2/3 of its roof removed, open to the elements where the remaining undamaged flooring and walls quickly became more damage to be removed and replaced.

The night he finally came back to town, we demanded to see him, to simply ask if he was going to finish the project. Sixteen months into the repairs, he simply said, "I just don't see how I can finish it" to which he added, "I appreciate your being so nice about this." I didn't know whether to feel relieved, angry or despondent. But I will never forget the image burned into my memory as he left that night. On the tag on his van was the fleur-de-lis of the Boy Scouts of America and the specialty tag proclaiming, "Scouting Teaches Values."


On my return home from visiting my father yesterday, I got back on the Florida Turnpike (I NEVER call it the Ronald Reagan Expressway and I never confuse National Airport in DC for Reagan International) headed south toward Orlando. After about 15 miles or so, a large green SUV in the left, passing lane had parked itself there, holding up a long line of traffic behind him and me. After a few minutes of hoping the man would catch a clue and pull to the right, I flashed my lights at him. No response. Finally the car in the right lane began to pass the man. I pulled to the right and passed him on the right.

His wife, sitting in the driver's seat, looked over at me just as I passed, shaking my head and comparing the driver, presumably her husband, to a rather detestable part of the human anatomy. It had not been my intent for either of them to see my assessment of the driver. But from the events that occurred next, I assume that at least the passenger - if not both of them - did.

Passing the SUV, I finally managed to return to the left passing lane. Suddenly. this SUV, which had been holding up traffic for five miles, its driver stodgily refusing to speed up or move out of the pass lane, roared into the right lane, cutting off cars which had followed me to get past the SUV. Given my own speed of 75 mph, the SUV must have been going 85 when the driver pulled up just to my right and shot me a bird. But before he slowed down to the speed limit, I caught a glimpse of his tag once more: "Scouting Teaches Values."


A few years ago, I agreed to give my brother and sister-in-law a night out by taking their boys to their scouting meeting. It was supposed to be a hamburger dinner at MacDonalds kind of outing of two local packs, one a full scouting troop, the other the up and coming Cub Scouts. But after supper, the scout master got out a book with pictures and began to tell the Christmas story from his own Southern Baptist perspective. "Jesus had to be born so he could die for our sins," he droned to the antsy group of boys from homes in this affluent suburb north of Orlando representing a number of Asian traditions as well as Judaism.

Turning to a page with a depiction of the manger scene, he began trying to engage the boys: "So, who's at the manger?" The first couple of boys gave innocuous answers: "Shepherds." "Sheep." Good, the man would proclaim, rewarding them for the obvious and expected answers. But things began to go haywire when they reached the child sitting next to my younger nephew. "Who else is at the manger?" the leader asked. "Tyler," the child said. "Tyler?" the puzzled leader asked to which the child pointed to a tow-headed boy with mischief written all over his face and responded, "Tyler. Tyler was there." "No, I don't think Tyler was there," the chagrinned leader continued, turning next to my nephew. "So who else is at the manger?" Knowing my nephew to be capable of just about anything, I caught my breath: "Tyler's butt!" he said. At this point all the boys began to roar with laughter - all except Tyler and the leader whose face had turned a brilliant shade of scarlet. Trying to regain his momentum, he moved on to my older nephew, "So, JD, who else was at the manger?" at which point this gifted middle school student launched into a dissertation on how it was not Christmas, it was actually Advent and he didn't understand why we were doing this in the first place. At that point, the book slammed closed and the leader moved on to talk about upcoming events for the pack.

At a basic level, I felt sorry for the man. He had bitten off way more than he could chew, probably with the best of intentions. But it was his obliviousness to the group, his perceived need to impose his religious views on them and all in the name of values and under the aegis of the Boy Scouts of America that I found more than a little irritating. He deserved what he got that night but I doubt he got the message. Indeed, I wondered if he could. "Scouting Teaches Values."


June 28, 2000, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision upholding the Boy Scouts of America in their policy of excluding homosexuals as leaders. The Scouts also exclude agnostics and atheists from leadership. In its ruling SCOTUS overturned a New Jersey statute which prohibited discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The BSA policies apply not just to scout leaders but to scouts themselves.

Not surprisingly, the Irving, Texas based Boy Scouts sounded an awful lot like Bible Belt fundamentalists when they defended their discriminatory policies:

  • "A homosexual is not a role model for traditional family values," says Scout spokesman Gregg Shields. (Newsweek, 8/17/98).
  • "We also think that men who are promiscuous and those with DWI convictions do not make good role models," said Gregg Shields, spokesman for the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas. (Kansas City Star, 3/21/01). Note the assumption that gay men are necessarily promiscuous. Note also the structure of this argument is essentially the same as the evangelical Protestant appropriation of Paul's epistles which, taken completely out of context, list homosexuality along with murder as sins of equal value.
  • Shields, like a good fundamentalist, also interprets the Scout's oath, in which Scouts pledge to keep physically strong, mentally awake and "morally straight," in a literalist, acontextual manner like that of religious fundamentalists. "The Boy Scouts of America have always taught traditional American values. An avowed homosexual is not a role model for those values," said Gregg Shields, a spokesman at the group's national headquarters near Dallas. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/22/01) Like chicken in which parts is parts, straight is straight, for the Boy Scouts.

Every group which expresses ideals and offers them as normative for the culture around them runs the risk of appearing hypocritical when they fall short of their own ideals. Just ask any college sophomore who can spell out with detail and specificity the hypocrisy they observe around them in the world. It's easy to see the examples in the scenarios above as the exceptions to the rule, the bad apple which should not spoil the whole barrel.

But when one looks at the pattern of overt and blatant discrimination, of the self-deception in legitimizing raw human bigotry by dressing it up as "traditional family values," it's hard not to wonder if this is not so much the exception as the rule. That becomes even more plausible when one looks at comparable groups to the Boy Scouts: "The Girls Scouts of America, the YMCA, 4-H clubs, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Jewish community groups, don't exclude gays." (USA Today, 10/10/00) Canada's Boy Scouts permit gay troops. (Toronto Globe and Mail, 6/19/00). So what is it the US Boy Scouts know that everyone else doesn't?

A good friend responded to the Boy Scout's defense of its homophobic policies by sending his uniform and merit badges earned attaining his Eagle Scout status back to the BSA with a letter explaining why he'd done that. My friend is gay but more importantly he felt his own values of tolerance, valuation of diversity and human dignity - values he felt he had learned in part from the Boy Scouts of America - were simply incompatible with those demonstrated by today's incarnation of the American Boy Scouts. It's probably not suprising that he never heard a word from the Scouts. Apparently one of the values Scouting teaches is denial and avoidance of anything which might draw the foregone conclusions of the tribe into question.

Increasingly I see the Boy Scouts as one of the last bastions of patriarchy along with all its less desirable traits: focus on power and status within hierarchy, aversion to critical thinking and social responsibility, tribal self-understanding, demonization of the other outside the tribal bounds. Scouting, as practiced by the Boy Scouts of America, might well be teaching values. But somehow, I wonder if these are values a responsible parent truly want their boys to learn.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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