In northern New Mexico, The Boy Scouts of America own the largest youth camp in the world. Philmont Scout Ranch covers 137,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo – the “blood of Christ” –Mountains. Every day this summer, approximately 300 Scouts, Explorers, and their leaders will arrive at Philmont. More than 18,000 participants will complete a 12-day Philmont trek, hiking at least 50 miles over mountains that reach up to 12,000 feet.
And there are at least that many more on a waiting list. It has been that way for 10 years. “We’ve never been stronger,” said Philmont’s Director of Programs, Mark Anderson.
Many organizations that celebrate such values as “duty to God and country” – words from the Scout oath – have either fallen on hard times or have abandoned these values in a quixotic attempt to stay relevant. The Girl Scouts, for example, no longer require members to believe in God and allow openly gay leaders.
The Boy Scouts, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, will have none of that. Atheists have sued the Scouts so they can be members without having to pledge duty to God, but the Scouts have defended themselves vigorously – and successfully – in the courts. In the 1990s, James Dale, an openly gay man, wanted to be a Scout leader and sued for the privilege. The case went to the Supreme Court in 2000. The Boy Scouts won, but barely; the decision was 5-4.
Though the Scouts have won virtually every case brought against them by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others, these battles have not been without their costs, which over several decades have amounted to tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. Robert Knight is an Eagle Scout, a senior writer with Coral Ridge Ministries, and a senior fellow with the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), a group that considers itself the conservative counterweight to the ACLU. The ACRU filed amicus briefs in several of the cases the ACLU has brought against the Scouts. Knight said, “The ACLU is trying to peck the Scouts to death, and even when they don’t win, they generate controversy and they intimidate.” Knight said that in some parts of the country, the United Way no longer funds the Boy Scouts because of the controversy the lawsuits have generated.
But these suits have also earned the Boy Scouts the admiration of social conservatives and many others because, as Knight said, “The Boy Scouts make it clear where moral authority comes from – from God. That’s controversial today, but most Americans still believe it’s true.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry, also an Eagle Scout, wrote “On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For.” Perry says the moral and ethical teachings of Scouting have been vital to maintaining the American social fabric. “As today’s culture increasingly tells young people that ‘moral values are relative,’ that ‘a person can be their own God,’ attacks have come in waves against the values and institutions we hold dear,” Perry said. “Yet the Boy Scouts have stood strong, unwavering in their conviction.”
That said, Scouting is pluralistic in the way that America is pluralistic. Tenderfoot Scouts must know the Scout Oath, which begins, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” So every Scout must believe in God – or at least say they do. But Scouting is not particular about which god. Indeed, the strongest religious influence in the Scout Movement today is that of the Mormons, the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The Mormons have used Scouting as one of their official programs for youth since 1913. Today, almost 25 percent of all Boy Scouts are Mormon (only about 2 percent of the US population is Mormon). Indeed, many observers believe it is the conservative stand of the LDS church on such issues as homosexuality that has put the backbone in the Boy Scouts.
Other youth organizations – and even many churches – say they must abandon traditional ways in order to remain relevant. However, the Scouts’ adherence to traditional values – and traditional activities such as camping, hiking, and canoeing – seems to be serving them well. Indeed, the Scouts tried “becoming more relevant” in the 70s, with near-disastrous results. A 70s era version of the Scout Handbook focused on urban survival skills, such as how to read a bus schedule. As it turns out, urban youth already know that. They want to know how to pitch a tent.
That doesn’t mean the Scouts are not adjusting. Recently added merit badges include “Geo-caching” and “Invention,” which teach innovation and entrepreneurship. Larry Pritchard, the director of this year’s National Scout Jamboree, which takes place every four years, said this year’s event will feature a Wi-Fi cloud over the entire jamboree location and 40 exhibitors –including NASA and the National Geographic Society – related to science and technology.
Alvin Townley says these adjustments are necessary if Scouting is to have a second century as great as its first. Townley has written two influential books in praise of Scouting. Townley said, “If we want a great next 100 years, we’ll have to overcome some significant challenges. That doesn’t mean abandoning our bedrock values, but it does mean getting smarter about how we communicate them to youth. Conservation, stewardship, adventure, entrepreneurship, leadership. Young people resonate with these ideas, and these ideas have always been what Scouting is all about. But we’ve got to sharpen our brand so that people understand that.”
The Scouts are also making adjustments in other ways. They recently acquired a 10,000-acre tract of land in West Virginia. The new high adventure base, called The Summit: The Bechtel Family National Scouting Reserve, will relieve pressure on Philmont and will provide a location for the National Scout Jamboree. Since 1981 – and again this year for the 100th anniversary – the jamboree has taken place at Ft. A.P. Hill. But protests from the ACLU that the Scouts shouldn’t be allowed to use the facility were a factor in the decision to find a permanent home for the jamboree.
With all this talk of change, though, many still believe that Scouting as it has always been is relevant and will remain relevant into the distant future. For example, Sammy L. Davis is sometimes known as the “real Forrest Gump.” In 1967, Private First Class Davis used an air mattress to ferry three of his wounded comrades across a river to safety while his unit was under heavy enemy mortar fire. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. Footage of Davis receiving the medal from President Lyndon Johnson was used in the movie Forrest Gump, with Tom Hanks’ face digitally inserted.
On July 4, the 63-year-old Davis celebrated Independence Day and the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts. Hundreds of admiring Boy Scouts gathered around him to hear him say that it was “what he learned in the Boy Scouts” that allowed him to do what he did in Vietnam and in the rest of his life. It’s a scene Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, would have relished.
To get involved or learn more aobut Boy Scouts contact your South Florida Council, Inc., 15255 NW 82nd Ave, Miami Lakes, FL 33016. Call 305-364-0020 or visit www.sfcbsa.org.