Gehrke: The divorce of Scouting and the Mormon church was a long time coming, and both can be better for it

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

I wasn’t much of a Boy Scout, but my time wearing the khakis taught me some valuable life lessons: Six teenagers stuck in a tent will make a godawful smell; a neckerchief can stanch the gushing blood that comes with whittling a Pinewood Derby car; and fish don’t bite on gummy worms.

And, as a Scout in Utah, my troop was inextricably tied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scout leader was a church “calling,” aka penance, and we met in the ward house. It never occurred to me things could be any different.

But anyone who has been paying attention over the past several years has seen the fissure between the church and the Boy Scouts growing over The Three G’s: Girls, Gays and Godlessness.

The church’s announcement Tuesday night that it was severing ties, then, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

On the surface, it looks like a peevish move by a church unwilling to bend, an implicit statement that its own policies were incompatible with Scouting’s begrudging steps toward inclusivity and acceptance.

But, really, it was essentially the divorce filing in a relationship that was already very publicly on the rocks — and both Scouting and the church may ultimately be better for the breakup.

The church has been developing its own programs for young people with a decidedly religious focus. With the recent passing of the church’s ultimate Eagle Scout, LDS President Thomas Monson, the timing was probably right to venture in a different direction.

The new program gives the church something it never really had before: total control.

Control over the teachings, control over the religious message and control over who is allowed in and who is not.

The future for the Boy Scouts is more complicated. Upwards of 95 percent of Scouts in Utah are affiliated with an LDS ward, and tens of thousands of Scouts will certainly drop out. The easy infrastructure that was there for the past century, with meetinghouses and troop leaders, will become harder to assemble.

But the various camps — Camp Tracy in Mill Creek Canyon and the campsites in the Uintas and near Bear Lake — still belong to the Scouts, and the youth who remain will get to experience Scouting as an experience apart from the LDS faith.

And a lot of the growth in Scouting and the best stories the Scouts have to offer are completely apart from the church.

Bruce Hough, president of the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts, says the council has 65 Latino troops, hundreds of young refugees participating in programs, and troops from every religious denomination, from Methodist to Muslim.

“We’re very optimistic,” he said. “Is it going to be at the same magnitude as it has always been? No. By no means. You can’t take out that number of LDS Scouts and not have an impact. But we are going to be able to conduct Scouting for all those who wish to be involved. And it will be very inclusive and a very open opportunity for all youth to be engaged.”

Hopefully, the Scouts will continue the slow process of extending opportunities to even more youth — like Peter Brownstein’s efforts to have a troop of gay Scouts recognized in Utah.

In 2013, Brownstein led a troop affiliated with a Jewish foundation, but it was dissolved after Brownstein and another troop leader marched in the Utah Pride Parade. Since then, Brownstein has petitioned again and again to have his troop recognized, and each time he has been rejected. Now, he plans to try again.

If nothing else, perhaps the church’s departure will serve as a wake-up call to the Scouts, forcing the organization to be proactive in reaching out to a more diverse population and inclusive of different faiths and viewpoints. And the church can run its own program that caters to its own mission.

Perhaps, in that regard, earning the merit badge in divorce is the best thing they could have done.