On My Honor

"Based on more than 20 years of research and observation at a troop's summer encampment as well as extensive interviews with generations of scouts, this study investigates the effects of the complex, lived realities of scouting on boys as they struggle to define themselves. . . . Measured in its criticism, and ultimately supportive of Scouting (while acknowledging the pain experienced by gay scouts), this is a smart book that combines fascinating research with a critique of contemporary politics."—Publishers Weekly

"More than just an affirmation that the Boy Scouts can still play a positive role in shepherding adolescents to manhood in the 21st century, Mechling's study offers many insights into the importance of gender in defining cultural practice."—Choice

"On My Honor is a wonderfully knowing and compelling social history that tells us so much about who we Americans are. The story of the Boy Scouts in this book becomes an important moral narrative—an exploration of our country's values as they become affirmed in the lives of our children."—Robert Coles, author of Lives of Moral Leadership

"This is everything you wanted to know, or didn't want to know, about the Boy Scouts of America from the bottom up. Mechling has written this book on his own Scout's honor to tell us the truth about the enormous gap between the central organization's conservative beliefs and the everyday disorderliness and creativity that help turn these boys into men."—Brian Sutton-Smith, author of The Ambiguity of Play



An excerpt from
On My Honor
Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth
by Jay Mechling

The "Problem" of God in the Boy Scouts

In April of 1985, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America ruled that a fifteen-year-old Scout, Paul Trout of Charlottesville, Virginia, "should be expelled from the Scouts because he doesn't believe in God." Apparently, Trout mentioned in his interview with the advancement committee for his promotion to Life that he does not believe in God (or maybe that he does not believe in God as a Supreme Being, a distinction that makes a difference). Carl Hunter, director of the Stonewall Jackson Area Council, was quoted in the press as saying, "The Scout Law requires a young man to be absolutely loyal to God and country and to be reverent toward God. You can't do that if you don't believe in a Supreme Being." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up Trout's case, but by October the national organization reversed itself and readmitted Trout. The organization's explanation was that Trout had said merely that he "did not believe in God as a supreme being," and they chose to interpret his views as a disagreement over the definition of God. "So the organization's national executive board decided to delete from its literature any definition of God . . . while reaffirming the Scout Oath's declaration of duty to God." I shall return to this issue of defining God, but let me move ahead to 1991.

By the summer of 1991, the BSA had two more lawsuits on its hands. The families of eight-year-old Mark Walsh of Chicago and of nine-year-old twins Michael and William Randall of Anaheim, California, had launched separate suits after their sons had been expelled from Cub Scout troops for saying they did not believe in God. The Cub Scouts is the organization created in 1930 by the BSA for younger boys, aged eight to eleven, with the young boys organized into "dens" supervised by a "den mother" and a larger unit, the "Cub Pack," usually led by a male pack leader.

The BSA had finessed the Trout case by framing it as a mere dispute over the meaning of the word "God," but these suits pitted avowed atheists against the BSA requirement that members believe in God. The National Council's stance was that the BSA is a private group that can admit and exclude members by criteria particular to the organization. "Also supporting the status quo," explained a New York Times story, "are the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, which formed the first Scouting council in America in 1913 and which remains the largest single Scout sponsor, and the Roman Catholic Church, the fourth-largest Scout sponsor. The two churches, which together support more than a quarter of all Scout troops, contend that the Boy Scouts has every right to keep certain people out, whether as Scouts, volunteers, or staff members."

Public schools, it seems, sponsor the largest number of Scouts, which provided fuel for the plaintiffs' view that the BSA is a public organization. But the public schools "do not speak with the unified voice of the Mormon or Catholic churches," notes the New York Times reporter, who also points to a basic contradiction in the BSA practices regarding religious belief. "Officials say the organization was founded for boys who believe in God and should remain true to those principles," he writes. "But while the organization accepts Buddhists, who do not believe in a Supreme Being, and Unitarians, who seek insight from many traditions but pointedly avoid setting a creed, it does not tolerate people who are openly atheist, agnostic, or unwilling to say in that Scout oath they will serve God."

In fact, it was precisely this contradiction that the twins' father, James Grafton Randall, acting as their attorney in the case, hammered as he cross-examined witnesses for the organization. In a decision with significant implications, Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard O. Frazee Sr. ruled in June of 1992 that the Boy Scouts could not exclude the twins "because of their beliefs, or lack of them." More shocking still, the state supreme court refused to hear a petition from the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts of America faced a similar challenge. In November of 1992, James Randall filed a suit against the Girl Scouts on behalf of a six-year-old San Diego area girl and her father, challenging the Girl Scouts' pledge to "serve God" as a "religious test oath" that violates the Constitution. Within a year, the Girl Scouts had changed their pledge, permitting girls to replace "God" with "words they deem more appropriate" while reciting the Girl Scout Promise. "The group's leaders said the measure . . . acknowledges growing religious and ethnic diversity among the nation's 2.6 million Girl Scouts," explained a newspaper account of the national convention that voted overwhelmingly for the new policy. "In regions with large Asian and American Indian populations, the group has had trouble recruiting girls whose religious tradition does not include a Judeo-Christian concept of God. . . ."

The Girl Scouts found a comfortable solution to the dilemmas of religious diversity, choosing a route that would make the organization open to every girl. What kept the Boy Scouts from doing the same thing? When reporters bothered asking boys themselves what they thought about excluding boys from the organization because they didn't believe in God, the reporters found "mild to strong support for changes." And this is what I would expect from my long association with the Scouts, both as a Scout and as a researcher observing a troop for over twenty years. The "professional Scouters," the bureaucrats who work for the national office of the Boy Scouts of America, feel compelled to speak authoritatively about what is good or bad for children and adolescents without actually asking any young people what they think about it.

So why did the National Council dig in its heels on this issue? What was so much at stake that the Boy Scouts could not follow the example of the Girl Scouts and move to accommodate religious diversity?

Part of the answer lies in the historical connection between Christianity and an aggressive version of masculinity. It is useful to examine a bit of history on this connection. And perhaps the best way to get at this history is to look briefly at the five main figures who came together to create the Boy Scouts of America—Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter Beard, Edgar M. Robinson, John L. Alexander, and James E. West—for these men embodied much of the ambivalence and tension that connected Christianity with masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Born in Victorian England (1860) and raised in Canada, Seton established himself as an artist, naturalist, and author of animal stories before he embarked on his boys' work near the end of the century. In the 1890s, Seton began to formulate his "Woodcraft Idea," a theory for youth work based on the Darwinian instinct psychology of G. Stanley Hall. The model woodcrafter, thought Seton, was the American Indian, and in 1898 Seton (at the urging of Rudyard Kipling) began casting his Woodcraft Idea into the form of a novel. Over the next few years, Seton worked simultaneously on the novel, Two Little Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned (1903), and on a handbook for the organization he envisioned. In 1902, Ladies Home Journal agreed to establish a new Department of American Woodcraft for Boys, helping Seton launch his organization by publishing a Seton article each month. The appearance of Two Little Savages in 1903 and The Red Book, or How to Play Indian in 1904 cemented Seton's national reputation as a leader in youth work, and he was asked to chair the committee that met in 1910 to found the Boy Scouts of America. Seton was made the first Chief Scout of the organization, and he wrote large portions of the first Handbook for Boys (1911), a manual that resembles the Birch Bark Roll as much as or more than it does the first British handbook written by Lord Robert Baden-Powell. Seton increasingly felt alienated from the Boy Scout leadership, accusing the New York businessmen and bankers in their numbers of abandoning the Woodcraft Idea he had in mind as the ideological foundation for the movement and as the feature that distinguished it so well from Baden-Powell's militaristic model. In 1915, the conflict came to a head over the fact that Seton had never become an American citizen. The position of Chief Scout was abolished, and amid very bitter public exchanges Seton left the Boy Scouts to redevote himself to his Woodcraft Indians.

Two aspects of Seton's thought in this period are relevant to our understanding his conception of God. First, Seton looked primarily to American Indian religions as the model for spirituality and ethics. Seton consulted written documents and live informants to distill "The Indian's Creed." Whereas "the redman" believed in many gods, he accepted "one Supreme Spirit." To prove his thesis that the "redman's religion" could revitalize twentieth-century white society, Seton described in detail the "redman's" traits: he was reverent, clean, chaste, brave, thrifty, cheerful, obedient, kind, hospitable, truthful, honorable, and temperate, the model of physical excellence. In short, Seton embraced American Indian religions more than traditional European faiths, and he was as likely to hold up the famed Shawnee chief Tecumseh as a model of spiritual manhood as he was Christ. So, while it is accurate to say that Seton believed in God, he believed in a Supreme Being far from the one portrayed by most Western religions, and I think it is unlikely that he would have wanted to exclude from the Boy Scouts any boy or man who expressed doubts about the traditional understanding of God required by the present organization.

But Seton left the organization. What of Beard and the other founders? Daniel Carter Beard was no more conventional in his religious views than was Seton. Beard's childhood in Cincinnati prepared him for the same wedding of art and nature we see in Seton's thought. His father, James N. Beard, was a prominent artist, and his mother's family (the Carters) enjoyed great entrepreneurial success in the Ohio Valley. The Swedenborgian theology of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, provided the moral canopy over the artistic and entrepreneurial values that Beard learned in his childhood home, as both the Beards and the Carters had converted to this faith early in the nineteenth century. After formal training in both engineering and art, Beard gained his fame in New York as an illustrator for St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, and compiled a series of articles he wrote and illustrated into his first book, the classic American Boys' Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It.

In 1886, Beard joined Henry George's single-tax movement and wrote his own single-tax novel, Moonblight. By 1889, Beard's fame led Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, to seek him out to illustrate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, an assignment Beard relished. The politics and morality of the novel appealed to Beard, and he was especially attracted to Twain's theme of sham and the relationship between appearance and character. Beard's illustrations for the novel became controversial because of his use of contemporary public figures (such as Jay Gould) as models for his characters as well as his explicit attacks on the church and the capitalists. Twain was pleased with Beard's Connecticut Yankee illustrations, but many critics saw the illustrations as propaganda, and Beard was blacklisted as an illustrator.

Frustrated with the political and economic arenas of reform, Beard returned to boys' work in 1905. William E. Annis, the new owner and publisher of Recreation, hired Beard as the magazine's editor. In addition to the conservationist agenda they shared, including the conservation of American Indian cultures, Beard and Annis wanted to use the monthly magazine to launch a youth movement. The July 1905 issue introduced The Sons of Daniel Boone, a new department of the magazine. One purpose of the new organization was to enlist young people in the magazine's conservation work. But equally important to Beard was the movement's promise to promote "manliness" through democratic organization (boys would create local chapters called "forts"), outdoor fun, woodcraft (the study of nature), and handicraft (the making of things as first illustrated in his Handy Book). There was no central bureaucracy for the movement, and Beard's monthly articles and the other material he wrote were all that linked the local chapters. By 1908, however, twenty thousand boys were members of the Sons of Daniel Boone.

Conflicts within the organization led Beard to sever his ties with Recreation in 1906 and join Woman's Home Companion, where he continued writing for The Sons of Daniel Boone. Beard's clashes with the women editors of the magazine led him to resign in 1909 and use Pictorial Review as the new magazine for promotion of his youth-movement ideas. A legal battle ensued with Woman's Home Companion over the rights to the name "The Sons of Daniel Boone," and when the parties finally settled, the magazine kept the name and Beard kept the rights to his articles. Beard chose Young Pioneers as the name for his new movement and filled the movement's handbook with stories of pioneer heroes like Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed. These movements were in place in 1910 when Beard joined Seton and others to establish the Boy Scouts of America.

If neither Seton nor Beard was religious by the usual, mainstream standards in 1910, certainly we can say that Edgar M. Robinson, John L. Alexander, and James E. West embraced the Protestant "muscular Christianity" that linked physical fitness and moral rectitude at the end of the nineteenth century. Robinson and Alexander came from successful careers organizing youth work for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and West, the first chief executive of the BSA, also had YMCA experience as well as a law degree. But even in their most religious moments, Robinson and Alexander and West resembled Seton and Beard in their greater concern that boys acquire the virtues of manhood. Alexander wrote the "Chivalry" chapter for the first Handbook, and a long paragraph on "A Boy Scout's Religion" is the only mention of religion in the entire Handbook. "The Boy Scouts of America maintain that no boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship," explains Alexander,

without recognizing his obligation to God. . . . The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe, and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings is necessary to the best type of citizenship and is a wholesome thing in the education of the growing boy. . . . The Boy Scouts of America therefore recognize the religious element in the training of a boy, but it is absolutely non-sectarian in its attitude toward that religious training.
Alexander goes on to explain that the Boy Scouts leaves religious training to the boy's own religious organizations; that is not the work of the Boy Scouts.

A careful reader of Boy Scout Handbooks, Scoutmaster Handbooks, and other Scout literature from the founding through the 1940s would have to conclude, I think, that insisting upon an aggressive religious stance was not high on the BSA's agenda. Of course, it was true that the Boy Scout Oath created by the 1910 committee to "Americanize" elements borrowed from Baden-Powell's movement had boys promise to do their best to do their duty to God, but the first Handbook's rhetoric around religion is remarkably subdued. The explanation of the twelfth point of the Scout Law, "A Scout is Reverent," emphasizes both duty and tolerance: "He is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties and respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion." Nor does this rather relaxed approach change in the second (1911), third (1915), or fourth ("revised," 1927) editions.

It is only in the fifth edition (1948) that the authors of the Handbook began to expand their explanation of "duty to God" and "A Scout is Reverent." For example, "Your Duty to God":

You worship God regularly with your family in your church or synagogue. You try to follow the religious teachings that you have been taught, and you are faithful in your church school duties, and help in church activities. Above all you are faithful to Almighty God's Commandments.

Most great men in history have been men of deep religious faith. Washington knelt in the snow to pray at Valley Forge. Lincoln always sought Divine guidance before each important decision. Be proud of your religious faith.

Remember in doing your duty to God, to be grateful to Him. Whenever you succeed in doing something well, thank Him for it. Sometimes when you look up into the starlit sky on a quiet night, and feel close to Him—thank Him as the Giver of all good things.

One way to express your duty and your thankfulness to God is to help others, and this too, is a part of your Scout promise.

The expanded discussion of the twelfth point of the Scout Law also lays down much more explicit instructions on what it takes for a Scout to be "reverent":

Reverence is that respect, regard, consideration, courtesy, devotion, and affection you have for some person, place or thing because it is holy. The Scout shows true reverence in two principal ways. First, you pray to God, you love God and you serve Him. Secondly, in your everyday actions you help other people, because they are made by God to God's own likeness. You and all men are made by God to God's own likeness. You and all men are important in the sight of God because God made you. The "unalienable rights" in our historic Declaration of Independence, come from God.

That is why you respect others whose religion and customs may differ from yours. Some fellows think they are smart by telling stories or making fun of people of other religions or races. All your life you will be associating with people of other beliefs and customs. It is your duty to respect these people for their beliefs and customs, and to live your own.

We can see in this passage an elaboration of what was introduced first in Alexander's 1911 linking of belief in God with "the best type of citizenship." We see the wedding of religion and democratic ideology, of religion and patriotism. And we also see a continuation of tolerance and of what earlier Handbooks called "practical religion"—that is, the demonstration of duty and reverence to God by helping others.

It was also in this 1948 edition of the Handbook, used throughout the 1950s, that the Religious Awards Program appeared. The program required cooperation between the BSA and certain religious denominations, as it was the minister, priest, or rabbi who certified that the boy had performed the duties and service worthy of the award. The 1948 Handbook described religious medals for Roman Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Lutheran, and Buddhist boys and a general Protestant medal called the God and Country Award.

The Boy Scouts of America hit its golden age, both literally and figuratively, in the late 1950s; 1960 marked the golden anniversary of the organization. The demographics of the 1950s still have a lot to do with how the Boy Scouts thinks about itself. The baby boom was one feature of the 1950s, as the first wave of children born in that cohort (1946-62) pressed hard on the 1950s institutions aimed at serving children. I know because I am a member of that cohort. Born in July of 1945, I was eight years old when I joined the Cub Scouts in 1953. My third grade class had to meet in a one-room "portable" classroom because the South Florida school districts could not build new elementary schools fast enough to handle the suburban baby boomers. White, suburban, middle-class—these were the demographic features of the baby boom kids who flocked to Scouting in the 1950s. Being a good mother in the 1950s meant that you stayed home to raise the children, which included carting the kids to Scouts, dance lessons, Little League practice, and more. An organization that originally aspired to reach urban, working-class, and immigrant kids had become by 1960 predominantly white and middle-class.

The impact of the "symbolic demography" of the 1950s was just as significant. By symbolic demography, I mean the web of symbols and meanings that characterized the mainly mass-mediated narratives of American public culture. The rise of television in the 1950s had a profound effect on the symbolic demography of the period, as television generated for the middle-class audience a great number of narratives about "American life" and "the American way," from the family sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It to Beaver to Cold War narratives as obvious as I Led Three Lives and as subtly coded as Gunsmoke.

In many ways, the 1950s version of America and the 1950s version of the Boy Scouts of America are fixed in the minds of the white middle class, regardless of the realities of differences in the ways Americans experienced American life from 1945 to 1960. The mass media invented an American middle-class way of life, a way "we never were," as one historian puts it. But it is this fiction, the 1950s version of middle-class family life, that has become "normative," that has become the "traditional" way of life to which all subsequent experiences have been compared.

Now consider the role of religion in this public culture of the United States in the 1950s. By any measure, Americans in the 1950s were a "religious" people. Membership in organized churches and other sects grew from 64.5 million in 1940 to 114.6 million in 1960. Public opinion polls consistently showed that the vast majority of Americans believed in God and prayed to him daily. Religious leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Billy Graham became well-known figures in the public culture, and Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, captured the optimistic tone and style of much of the public religion.

Religion in the 1950s was tangled with national and international politics. Religion had become an important marker distinguishing between the Communists and the Western democracies. "They" were "godless communists," while we were religious. The World Council of Churches was founded in 1948, but Cold War politics soon disrupted that ecumenical move. The National Council of Churches was founded in the United States in 1950, and that coalition of mainly Protestant, mainline, and liberal denominations represented about thirty million church members. It is no accident that sociologist Robert Bellah published his first writings on "the American Civil Religion" in 1967. Although Bellah sees evidence of this particular blend of Protestant Christianity and Enlightenment political theory in earlier public narratives, such as Lincoln's second inaugural address, it was living in Eisenhower's America of the 1950s that made so clear to everyone the ways Protestant Christianity and Cold War ideology became tangled in the definitions of America. Even writers on Jews and Catholics, for example, noted how acculturation to the United States "protestantized" other religions. And this was the period when "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" was added to our money. The American flag, the civil religion, and patriotism entwined in the 1950s. The American Civil Religion enjoyed a powerful consensus in the public culture, even if people could not agree wholly on the political practices implied by that religion. Martin Luther King Jr. could invoke the Civil Religion as well as anyone, and the Civil Rights movement (which, in many ways, began with the Montgomery bus boycott late in 1955) drew upon religious energy from the start.

The Boy Scouts of America, that quintessential organization of 1950s America, proudly embraced this civil religion. The Boy Scouts was "nondenominational," to be sure, and there were religious badges representing each major religious group. But "nondenominational" could not include agnosticism or atheism in 1950s America, for "nondenominational" meant only that no one religious denomination could impose its theology and practices upon the organization. Boys from all faiths were free to join the organization, but "faith" was the key. A boy had to have a faith, for atheism—and probably agnosticism—was the characteristic of Communists, our sworn enemies.

The sixth edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, published in 1959, reflects the public religion of the 1950s in its revisions of the passages explaining "duty to God" and "reverent." "Your parents and religious leaders teach you to know and love God, and the ways in which you can serve him," explains the text about the Oath. "By following these teachings in your daily life you are doing your duty to God as a Scout." The passage on "A Scout is Reverent" states the Civil Religion perfectly and is worth quoting in full:

Take a Lincoln penny out of your pocket and look at it. What do you see on it? Just above Lincoln's head are the words "In God We Trust." Twelve little letters on our humblest coin. Not only as individuals, but as a nation, too, we are committed to live and work in harmony with God and His plan.

Most great men in history have been men of deep religious faith who have shown their convictions in deed. Washington knelt in the snow to pray at Valley Forge. Lincoln always sought divine guidance before making an important decision. Eisenhower prayed to God before taking his oath of office as President of the United States. These men had many things in common: love of the out-of-doors, human kindness, and an earnest vigor in working with God in helping make a better world.

You are reverent as you serve God in your everyday actions and are faithful in your religious obligations as taught you by your parents and spiritual leaders.

All your life you will be associated with people of different faiths. In America we believe in religious freedom. That is why we respect others whose religion may differ from ours, although for reason of conscience we do not agree with them.

This passage effectively conflates duty to God and country as a single duty, the individual's duty to both but also the nation's duty to God's plan. The authors of the Handbook link Washington, Lincoln, and Eisenhower as practitioners of the nation's public religion, while still urging tolerance for sectarian differences under the larger umbrella of a public religion. Tellingly, this passage also revives a 1950s version of "muscular Christianity." The talk about "love of the out-of-doors" and about "an earnest vigor in working with God" echoes the nineteenth-century belief that a physically vigorous, aggressive masculinity would nourish and strengthen the spiritual and moral dimension of the boy's character.

By 1960 the Boy Scouts had two powerful visual icons at work reinforcing the role of religious faith and reverence in the socialization of American boys. First was the artwork of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell began his association with the Boy Scouts very early. In 1912, the national office had acquired Boys' Life, a magazine that had been created by an eighteen-year-old in Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly thereafter, another eighteen-year-old, Norman Rockwell, began working for Boys' Life editor Edward Cave as illustrator for the magazine, for books, for Boy Scout calendars from 1925 into the 1970s, and for the covers of the 1927, 1959, and 1979 editions of the Handbook and the 1959 edition of the Handbook for Scoutmasters. William Hillcourt's generously illustrated book on Norman Rockwell's work on behalf of the Boy Scouts tells the details of this association, details I shall not recount here. My point is that through Saturday Evening Post covers, his numerous illustrations of the Boy Scouts, and especially his "Four Freedoms" paintings used to sell war bonds during World War II, Norman Rockwell had become by 1960 the definitive illustrator of the American Civil Religion. In his caption for Rockwell's 1950 painting "Our Heritage," Hillcourt writes that in this calendar painting "Norman combined 'duty to God' and 'duty to country' in a single picture. There was an extra significance to this painting: that year more than fifty thousand Scouts took part in the Second National Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where Washington has prayed during the dark days of the winter of 1777-78."

Indeed, Valley Forge was the site for both the 1950 and the 1957 National Jamborees, only the second and fourth giant gatherings of Boy Scouts from all over the United States. The national office chose as the visual image for these jamborees a profile of George Washington, kneeling in prayer and asking God's help for the soldiers huddled in the cold at Valley Forge. Of course, Washington was also praying for God's blessing on the whole enterprise of the American Revolution. The image brilliantly condensed both the religious and the political elements of the American Civil Religion in the 1950s and even contained what I imagine was an unintended pun on Cold War. This official logo of the jamboree appeared on patches, jackets, coffee mugs, and any number of other memorabilia available to Scouts.

The national office of the Boy Scouts of America has never shaken off the symbolic demography of the 1950s. In 1992, the Anaheim twins' agnostic lawyer father, James Randall, told a Los Angeles Times reporter: "It's like dealing with the 1950s all over again—or at least all the bad parts of the 1950s," and the same reporter found that many "Scout elders say their adolescent experiences with compasses, intricate knots and Scouting comrades left deep impressions on them. 'It was one of the most meaningful times of my life,' said Edward C. Jacobs, once a teen-age Scout in Missouri, now Scout executive in Los Angeles, the country's second-largest council." Here lies the significance of the actual and symbolic demographics of the 1950s—that so many adults running the organization were Scouts or young Scout leaders in the 1950s.

Repeated attempts to move the organization beyond the white middle class, many of them good-faith attempts, have met with little success and occasional scandal. The 1970s move of the national headquarters from New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Irving, Texas, a suburb lying between Dallas and Fort Worth, symbolizes the symbolic demography of the movement. The national organization has chosen sides in the culture wars.

Talk of the culture wars has entered public discourse and everyday conversations to such an extent that most Americans have a pretty good sense of what this phrase means. This is a war over values and moral authority. As James Davison Hunter, one of the best writers on the wars, puts it, we are witnessing "polarizing impulses" from two camps. For one group of Americans, the "orthodox," moral authority rests on "an external, definable, and transcendent authority," and this camp holds the cultural conservatives and moral traditionalists. For the other group, the "progressives," moral authority is not so fixed, as this camp tends "to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life." These are the "liberals" and "cultural progressives." These categories cross and confound faith traditions, including secularists, who can be found in both camps. For Hunter and a number of other commentators on the culture wars, it is this new element of identity—not gender, not race, not social class, not religious tradition—that becomes the best predictor of a person's politics.

So for all these reasons the Boy Scouts of America could not compromise on the atheists' challenge at the end of the twentieth century. It does not matter that the founders of the movement, including Baden-Powell himself, had little interest in promoting religion beyond a very generalized belief in a Supreme Being, a fact that should make it as easy for the Boy Scouts as the Girl Scouts to change the oath (in practice, if not in wording) from a belief in God to a belief in a Supreme Being. The religious conservatives who control the national office of the Boy Scouts see themselves as important troops in the culture wars. If religion, masculinity, and citizenship are as tangled as the rhetoric of the Boy Scouts and others seems to make them and if, as so many historians and social critics have suggested, there is evidence everywhere of a "crisis in white masculinity," a status revolution in which white males feel like the beleaguered class, then it makes sense that the men running the Boy Scouts see the atheists and their ACLU lawyers as agents of an assault upon masculinity and whiteness (symbolized by certain European religions and the very American religion of Mormonism). The link between white masculinity and religion at century's end explained why the Boy Scouts would not make this compromise, while the Girl Scouts would; the Girl Scouts, quite simply, have no stake in the masculinity part of the tangle.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 35-47 of On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth by Jay Mechling, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Jay Mechling
On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth
©2001, 348 pages, 11 halftones, 1 map, 1 chart
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-51704-7
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