Richard J. Mouw on Who Will Fill the Civic Hole Left by the Boy Scouts?

Richard J. Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. | (Photo: Fuller Theological Seminary)

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).

The Boy Scouts are in trouble. The organization, as we have been learning from the headlines, has filed for bankruptcy. But even if the Scouts find a way to survive financially, the Scouting movement has to deal with a serious loss of public confidence. Critics have been alleging a shocking lack of transparency over the decades in dealing with cases of sexual abuse. If the organization is to recover, it has much work to convince us that it has dealt with past injustices.

I have been following all of this with a sense of sadness. Scouting was a key influence for me in my younger days. Before I joined the Scouts my social world was pretty much defined by an evangelical home and congregation, and daily attendance at a Christian school. Then I joined a Scout troop at a local Episcopal church, and my relationships expanded. I worked on merit badge projects with Latino and African American peers, and I formed a close friendship with Bobby Silverstein, the only Jewish kid in the troop. At every meeting we pledged allegiance to the flag together and heard little homilies from our Scoutmaster about doing a good deed daily.

So, those good memories account for my sadness about the current crisis. But I have a bigger concern. The Boy Scouts in the past performed an important function in the broader culture.  We can call it formation for citizenship. “Formation” has become a kind of buzzword these days. In Christian circles we talk about the importance of “spiritual formation” and ethicists have been attending in recent years to “moral formation.”

The Boy Scout program combined a bit of both kinds. Take the ten-point “Scout Law” that many of us former Scouts can still rattle off  on command: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” Not exactly the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but I think we all sensed that this “Law” was important for our shared lives as citizens, whatever else we believed as members of different churches and temples.

A friend of mine, in commenting on the present Boy Scout troubles, said: “I hope they don’t survive. It has always just been a bunch of civil religion!” Well, that  Boy Scout  Law is certainly quite civil, but it does not come across as overtly religious. The one exception in the Law’s list of ten virtues is “reverent,” but even that has a broad application. Christians and Jews certainly have compelling theological reasons for valuing reverence, since being reverent toward God is crucial to our faith. But one of the New Testament writers also sees reverence as mandatory in how we treat people with whom we strongly disagree about matters of faith: The Apostle Peter urged first century Christians to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” — and then this important piece of counsel: “yet with gentleness and]reverence” (I Peter 3: 15). Being reverent toward those with whom we disagree on serious matters is clearly grounded in the biblical teaching that all human beings bear the image of the divine Creator.

Here is my main point, though. The Boy Scout Law gives us a list of attitudes and dispositions that can serve as a check list for assessing the strength of the social bond. For example, I have spent a good part of my adult life advocating for racial equality, and I have rejoiced when laws have been passed preventing racial discrimination.  But the patterns supported by those pieces of legislation are — as should be obvious these days — increasingly fragile. What we are missing these days are a spirit of kindness, a desire to come to the aid of persons in distress, courage in speaking out against instances of injustice. In short, we are missing a clear commitment to the virtues listed in the Scout Law.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Richard J. Mouw