No Scouting? Mormon youth culture is about to change — big time

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America presented an original stage production about the history and values of Scouting. "A Century of Honor" commemorating the 100-year partnership between the LDS Church and the BSA, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2014, at the Conference Center. The program will featured multiple choirs, historical reenactment, dynamic set design, and multiple special effects drawing upon the skills and outdoor experiences that are hallmarks of Scouting.

Love it or hate it, Scouting was an inescapable part of Mormon boyhood in America.

Pinewood derbies. Blue and Gold Banquets. Merit badges. Pins and sashes. Eagle projects. Jamborees and High Adventure Camps. Old Glory planted on neighborhood lawns and Friends of Scouting’s seemingly endless pitches for money.

On Tuesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that, by 2020, it would be severing its centurylong relationship with the Boy Scouts of America.

Unless they choose otherwise, future generations of Mormon boys will not be repeating the Scout Oath, spending a week fighting bugs at Scout camps or earning that last merit badge.

The Utah-based faith is creating its own program for girls and boys, according to a news release, to help them “discover their eternal identity, build character and resilience, develop life skills and fulfill their divine roles as daughters and sons of God.”

Appropriate activities will be determined by “local leaders, families and even the young people themselves,” the statement said, “to customize their efforts, while providing service opportunities and activities, fostering healthy relationships and supporting communities.”

The new initiative, it said, will ‘replace all existing activity programs for girls and boys, young women and young men.”

Ironically, the church is bailing on Scouting just as the group is becoming more welcoming — first admitting gay boys, then gay adult leaders and, finally, girls.

“It’s sad [the break] comes so close to its inclusion of girls,” said Kendall Wilcox, a gay Mormon. That could make this “feel like yet another sexist decision.”

The fact that the church didn’t do this closer to when BSA opened its ranks to openly gay Scouts and leaders a few years ago, Wilcox said, makes it “less likely to be seen as yet another rejection of LGBT people.”

The split with Scouts was hardly unexpected — the church has said for several years it is working on a youth undertaking to “better meet its global needs” — but the finality did surprise some Mormons as well as trigger endless social media debates and reflections on positive and negative experiences with the historic organization.

Some called Scouting “life-changing” and “character-building” for teaching outdoor skills such as hiking, map reading and fire building, while others countered with tales of crushing self-esteem when they couldn’t pass a mandatory swim test or tie a clove hitch.

“I am an Eagle Scout, and I loved my years Scouting with my church-sponsored troop,” wrote Grant Emery of Arlington, Va. “It provided meaningful leadership training and expanded my interests substantially. It also challenged me in ways that school didn’t.”

Now, an “increasingly urban church population is not served,” Emery said, “in the same way earlier generations of rural/small town Latter-day Saints were.” Times have changed, he said, “and this change reflects it.”

Why jettison Scouts?

Though some see the change as driven by the BSA’s embrace of gays and girls, the catalyst for the split was more about Mormonism’s stepped-up globalization.

“The church has grown from a U.S.-centered institution to a worldwide organization, with a majority of its membership living outside the United States,” noted a joint statement from the BSA and the LDS Church. “That trend is accelerating. The church has increasingly felt the need to create and implement a uniform youth leadership and development program that serves its members globally.”

The church linked up with Scouting in the early 20th century at a time it had “a great deal of optimism about becoming part of America,” said Mormon historian Matthew Bowman.

The two groups shared “certain values like self-reliance, discipline, individualism and patriotism — values of the American West,” explained Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” These days, the LDS Church faces “growing internationalism, focused especially on the global South.”

In most of the world, Mormonism does not sponsor Scout troops so it needed “to develop a youth program not so tied to the U.S,” the historian said. This initiative will help the church move from a “fundamentally American church to one that can take root all over the world.”

It can also, he said, adopt a more evenhanded approach to raising up Mormon girls and boys.

April Young Bennett. Courtesy photo

A step toward gender equity

April Young Bennett, a writer and podcaster with Exponent II, a magazine for Mormon women, applauds the move.

“My daughter has been in both Girl Scouts and in church activities, and it’s worked out well to do them separately,” the South Jordan mom said. “I can see that working for boys, too.”

Bennett does hope the church’s new approach will provide more “funding and staffing” equity between the boys’ and girls’ activities.

In the past, Boy Scouts received a much larger portion of a congregation’s budget than the girls did. Now, minus its BSA financial obligations, the church should have more money to steer toward its youths.

The church paid to register all Mormon boys (even the inactive ones) in a troop as well as all adult leaders. It covered the cost of permits for some outings. Parents coughed up cash for pricey uniforms, badges and fundraisers.

Several LDS feminists were encouraged by the church’s statement about the new initiative, which lists the girls ahead of their male counterparts.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Author Carol Lynn Pearson, Sandy Aug 15, 2002.

Well-known writer and activist Carol Lynn Pearson noted especially the use of “daughters and sons of God,” with the girls coming first.

“Never before has the rhetoric consistently placed the reference to the females ahead of the reference to the males,” Pearson said. “The rhetoric we use is tremendously important in cementing the concept of equality that we often hear about and often do not see in evidence. Words are actually a big part of practicing what we preach.”

Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, agreed.

“This phrasing appeared in at least one General Conference address, too, and while it’s a small change, subtle shifts in language and thought are sometimes the first harbingers of revolution,” Haglund said. “The new program offers an opportunity to equitably develop skills for both girls and boys that will prepare them for citizenship in a world that looks very different than [Scouting founder] Sir [Robert] Baden-Powell’s.”

Bowman envisions another aspect of program parity going forward — “missionary prep.”

When the LDS Church dropped the minimum age for female missionaries from 21 to 19, a flood of Mormon women applied to go, dramatically boosting their percentage of the overall proselytizing force.

Future Mormon youth activities may be more similar than distinct, Bowman said. The rationale for training young women and men different “is declining.”

For her part, Haglund is cautiously optimistic.

“I can think of as many reasons for hope as for dread,” the Boston-based writer said. “It could mean girls going on High Adventure, or it could mean boys doing a lot more cookie-baking service projects.”