The slow and tragic death of the Boy Scouts of America | WORLD
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The slow and tragic death of the Boy Scouts of America

The Boy Scouts have abandoned their role as a “morally straight” institution of civil society

A boy scout wears merit badges and a rainbow-colored neckerchief slider on a Boy Scout uniform. Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren, file

The slow and tragic death of the Boy Scouts of America
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This summer, the organization formerly known as the Boy Scouts of America (now rebranding as “Scouts BSA”) held its first National Jamboree since 2017, and by any number of measures, it was a new low for the beleaguered organization.

One key measure is attendance. This year’s Jamboree had about 15,000 attendees. It was the first time in Jamboree history, dating back to the 1930s, that the event attracted fewer than 20,000 people. The 2017 jamboree had 31,000 in attendance. The 1973 jamboree had more than 70,000.

This precipitous decline in attendance mirrors other declines for Scouting. Between 2019 and 2021, the Boy Scouts lost half its membership, which today stands at about 1 million. In the 1970s, Scouting membership topped 4 million. The organization declared bankruptcy in 2020, and it has sold or mortgaged virtually every asset it can to pay a $2.5 billion settlement over sex abuse claims.

These melancholy facts raise a couple of questions: How did this happen? And can this once venerable organization recover?

To answer these questions, it’s important to remember what made the Boy Scouts of America great in the first place. As John Stonestreet and Shane Morris wrote for The Colson Center:

Few voluntary associations in American history have had as deep and wide an influence as the Boy Scouts of America. The training ground of soldiers and senators, pastors and presidents, the organization effectively instilled values like trustworthiness, loyalty, courteousness, thrift, bravery, and reverence in many of the over 100 million young men who joined in its over 100-year history. In fact, for much of the 20th century at least, “Scout’s honor” was among the highest assurances one could give of their honesty and integrity.  

Scouting once went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend its right to pick its own leaders, effectively barring gay men as leaders for Scout Troops and Cub Scout Packs. That 2000 case, The Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, is a landmark that upheld the constitutional right to freedom of association. The Scouts spent millions of dollars to win this important case. It is one of the great ironies of this story that the Scouts would fight so hard to protect their rights only to see a new generation of Scout leadership voluntarily walk away from them by allowing gay leaders just a few years later—over the strong objections of many rank-and-file Scouts and their adult leaders.

They did so in large part because of the byzantine bureaucracy of the Scouting organization. Those at the top of the organization earned princely salaries—$1 million or more—and the board of the national organization was made up of dozens of corporate CEOs who often brought with them the politically correct values of the organizations they led.

In short, both the board and the national leadership lost touch with what had made Scouting great. Then, when rumors of the sex abuse scandal started circulating, leaders become more concerned with institutional preservation than in caring for the victims. By the time the courts and a class action lawsuit forced the Scouts to act, both the credibility and the finances of the organization were in shambles.

I am encouraged by the growth of Trail Life USA, but it is difficult not to lament the rapid implosion of the Boy Scouts.

The recently concluded Jamboree was something of a “dead cat bounce” for the organization. What little excitement the event generated came mostly from progressive circles. An article in The Washington Post by a self-identified gay reporter, Mike De Socio, described a large tent celebrating diversity. It had “LGBTQ Pride flags and a string of multicolored lights, … tables covered with bowls of rainbow bracelets, pronoun stickers and diversity patches.” He noted approvingly that the coveted Eagle Scout rank now requires a diversity merit badge—though in fact this requirement, while under review, is not yet official.

Philmont Scout Ranch, the Scouting movement’s premiere high adventure camp, employs about 1,000 mostly college students as seasonal staff members. This summer they included openly gay staff members, pronouns on the staff name tags, and an Inclusivity Forum promoted to staff with a poster that included the so-called “Progress Pride Flag,” featuring both rainbow and transgender (black, brown, blue, pink, and white) colors.

So the answer to our first question—how did this happen?—is this: Scouts have strayed from the values that made it great. That allows us to turn to our other question: Will the Boy Scouts survive?

A youth organization with 1 million members is still significant, but the speed of its decline, the fact that the decline continues virtually unabated, and the amount of its debt, all put survival in doubt. It is not clear that even a million members can generate enough income both to pay for a quality program and make its mortgage obligations.

One way the Scouts are trying to bolster revenue is by dramatically increasing membership dues. In 2009, it cost $10 to become a Boy Scout. Today, membership dues top $100—and that’s before uniform, camp, and other costs that can run into the hundreds of dollars per year. But these fee increases further shrink the number of kids who can afford to participate in the program. The net effect, ironically, is that as the Scouts become more progressive, they are becoming less diverse and inclusive.

In recent years, Christian alternatives to Scouting have emerged. Trail Life USA celebrated its 10th birthday this summer. Formed by former Scout leaders frustrated by the direction of the Scouting movement, it now has 1,000 troops in all 50 states. These troops include more than 50,000 boys.

I am encouraged by the growth of Trail Life USA, but it is difficult not to lament the rapid implosion of the Boy Scouts. A once great institution of civil society is—if not dead—at least impotent, lacking both the size, organizational credibility, and moral suasion to positively influence public life.

We are all the poorer for it.

The writer is an Eagle Scout and served seven summers on the staff of Philmont Scout Ranch. He served as president of the Philmont Staff Association, an association of former Philmont staffers, and he has co-written or edited four books about Philmont.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.


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