Untying the Mormon Knot with the Boy Scouts: the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons, and What “Honor” Entails

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The LDS Church announced on May 8, 2018 that it is ending its long affiliation with the Boy Scouts.  The announcement was a big story, and was carried by most major news outlets.  The story can be read here.  Many Mormons expressed dismay, reciting all the essential contributions to the lives of Mormon boys that Scouting had long provided.  Another group lamented the situation because they approved of recent changes in the Boy Scouts’ stated mission and philosophy.  So far, however, I haven’t read anyone else express the views I express in this essay.  I write what I write, not out of a desire to be different or controversial, or to lose every last friend, but because I sincerely believe the views expressed below need to be expressed.

Since the time when I was a fifteen-year-old Senior Patrol Leader, I have felt that the LDS Church’s affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America (hereafter “BSA”) was significantly less beneficial than the Church thought it to be.  Because the many scout troops I’ve been affiliated with have been LDS Church-sponsored troops, I am only intimately familiar with how the Boy Scout program has been run within Mormonism; I can’t speak of non-LDS Church sponsored troops with the same level of experience.  Therefore, it’s hard to say whether the problems I’ll identify in this essay are more the fault of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Boy Scouts of America.  But what I can say with confidence is that, whether Mormons acknowledge it or not, the LDS Church’s adoption of the Boy Scouts as its “activity arm” for young men has made it more difficult to teach with integrity the tenets of Christianity to its young men.

But I didn’t start out that way.  I had begun at age eight as an eager Cub Scout, attracted by the future prospect of doing all that hiking, camping and fishing that I thought older Boy Scouts did, and most of all, wearing those ever-so-impressive uniforms.  The uniforms back then were spectacular, especially those of the Explorer Scouts, effectively designed to make the wearers resemble high-ranking military officers whom all people would want to salute if they walked by.  (The short pants version didn’t exist yet, thank goodness; it would have ruined the dignified effect.)

Seven years later, I’d been around for a while and become aware of trends that wouldn’t have concerned me previously.  The fact that I became disenchanted with the Boy Scouts in my early teenage years was unrelated to the fact that the military itself, and the idea of wearing a uniform like that of a decorated soldier, had become less popular during that same time (the Vietnam War era).  Nor was I particularly bothered by the fact most Boy Scouts didn’t do much, or any, rugged hiking or camping; my dad still took my brothers and me on such excursions, so I didn’t miss out.  What bothered me about scouting was the overly heavy emphasis on rank advancement, and more so, the blatant, unapologetic cheating conducted in order to bring that about.   (For those unfamiliar with Scouting, rank advancement is obtained by passing off skills requirements for Tenderfoot, Second Class and First Class ranks, and thereafter, by earning merit badges, each of which requires the passing off of additional requirements.) As I will explain below, over the years as an adult I have concluded from personal experience that the cheating problem I witnessed as a youth was, and is, church-wide.  Not only are boys taught to be dishonest, they’re also taught to not even recognize their dishonesty for what it is, or perceive the harm that comes from it.

In my California ward troop in the late 1960s, if we went to a pool to pass off the Lifesaving merit badge, but a boy couldn’t stay afloat while shedding his pants and converting them into a flotation device, that requirement was waived. At least he tried; some kids just don’t float very well, or they get too tired treading water.  If he couldn’t really explain the difference between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government for the  Citizenship in the Nation merit badge, that failure was ignored.  He’ll probably learn it in school anyway, and besides, not everyone plans to become a senator.  If he couldn’t recite, much less explain, the meaning of the Scout Oath, he’d be passed anyway.  He said he’d go home and read up on it, so we’ll take his word for it.  Adult scout leaders, anxious to show parents and church leaders the great job they were doing, habitually waived hard or inconvenient requirements in order to achieve impressive rank advancements for each boy.  The goal, of course, was to become an Eagle  Scout, the pinnacle of success within Scouting’s pantheon of honors.  Naturally,  the boys themselves were just as loathe to object to cutting corners on merit badges as they were to complain of not enough homework to their school teachers.

Adult leaders were motivated by another consideration apart from keeping the ward boys and their parents happy with the apparent progress.  Competition with other Scout troops was a heavy motivator as well.  At Monterey Bay Stake Courts of Honor, each ward’s tally of merit badges and rank advancements were compared against each other, and a crossbow was awarded to the victorious ward.  Nothing was more tangible proof of a Scout leaders’ prowess in making men out of boys than bringing home that red-painted crossbow from these big events.  Even today in 2018, this BSA motto is printed in boldface on every merit badge pamphlet:  “Enhancing our youths’ competitive edge through merit badges.”

My first scoutmaster, a junior high school science teacher, had been a stickler for fulfilling all the requirements in the Boy Scout Handbook.  Accordingly, rank advancement wasn’t rapid for anyone in our troop.  When the first scoutmaster was replaced by a friendly, easygoing man who’d never been known as a stickler for anything, the practice of cheating one’s way to merit badges blossomed almost overnight.

I’d previously learned that skipping the required steps to earn merit badges was a concern in at least one other troop in our town when I attended scout camp at Pico Blanco scout camp north of  Big Sur, California in about 1967.  There I found out that in a troop that many of my non-Mormon schoolmates belonged to, merit badges were distributed as promiscuously as taffy kisses tossed out by a smiling parade clown.  An obese friend of mine, whose dad was the scoutmaster of that troop, was being touted as the youngest Eagle Scout in town.  One of his 30 or so merit badges was for athletics, the rigorous requirements for which made it challenging even for better-than-average athletes to earn.  When I mentioned to another friend in that troop that there was no way my friend had honestly earned the Personal Fitness merit badge, much less the Athletics merit badge (he had both), my friends in the non-LDS troop assumed me to be jealous.

What went on later within our little corner of Mormondom was more troubling to me, however.  The first time I grasped the extent of the problem under the new scoutmaster was when a ward member who owned a local restaurant showed up to Mutual one night and announced that all who wanted their cooking merit badge should follow him into the church kitchen, where they would earn the badge within an hour.  The cooking merit badge was one of the hardest of all, as it required multiple trips into the wild where multi-course meals were to be prepared, some without pans or utensils and some with a mess kit, and eaten on the spot.  No physical part of the merit badge could be passed inside a kitchen, and not without prior planning.  Nevertheless, my objections were ignored that night.  The restaurant owner was the cooking merit badge counselor, I was told, and it was his prerogative to decide what was required and what wasn’t.  I refused to participate, as did my brother and one of our friends.  But the seven boys who followed the restaurateur into the kitchen that night emerged with the cooking merit badge signed off.  I had just starting working on mine, but in one night I had become one of the slackers holding the troop back from winning the crossbow.

A more shocking experience occurred shortly thereafter, when the scoutmaster asked me after church one Sunday what merit badges I had earned since the last court of honor.  None, I told him; I was still working on my fishing and cooking badges, which would both require more trips to catch the multiple varieties of fish required, and to cook additional meals.  Two nights later, at the stake court of honor, I was shocked to hear the scoutmaster announce to the stake, while reading our troop’s list of accomplishments, that I had earned my cooking and fishing merit badges.  This wasn’t just cheating.  It was conscienceless cheating.  No explanation was given me as to why I was announced as having earned a merit badge I hadn’t actually earned.  None was thought necessary.  I was bothered by this.  I had tried to take Boy Scouts seriously.  Was this how we taught our “youth of the noble birthright” to carry on, carry on, carry on?

A third experience I had as a teenage Boy Scout was so shameful, it’s now affirmatively cathartic to write about it.  Some readers who experienced the same ordeal (a word I use intentionally because of its special significance here) may be able to identify with what I’m about to express.  When I was about fifteen, several area Boy Scouts units, including my own, gathered to a park one evening for some competitive activities and lectures.  After dark, while seated in groups around a large campfire, suddenly a bunch of older youths from other troops, dressed like Indian warriors of yesteryear, came running up to us, yelling and screeching like the attacking braves in old TV westerns.  They grabbed me and my brother, who was a year younger than I, blindfolded us, and roughly hauled us off to some place away from the main group.  I had recently been injured in a fall from a tree onto an adjacent tree stump, and being forced to run with the Indian braves away from the campfire was painful.  We were then informed that we’d been tapped out as new inductees into Order of the Arrow.  Unknown to us, we’d been secretly selected to receive this privilege by a vote of some person or persons connected to our troop.  We were instructed not to speak to anyone for the next 24 hours, and told that in the future we would be contacted and further informed as to the “ordeal” we would undergo to complete our admission into this exclusive and secret order.  My brother took it all seriously, and refused to utter a word for the next 24 hours.  I ignored the instruction to keep silent as soon as the faux Indians left us, and when my dad arrived at the park to pick us up and drive us home, I actively tried to get my brother to speak.  My brother treated my efforts as if I were urging him to worship idols, or deny God’s existence, and with a look of valiant integrity fixed on his face, he ignored me.

Weeks later, when the instructional packet from Order of the Arrow arrived, we were told to purchase, at our own expense, the materials to make loincloths.  I had already decided a few seconds after being tapped out that I wasn’t going to participate in Order of the Arrow, but my brother did as he was instructed.  On the appointed day, what he learned was that the “ordeal,” as it is called by the Boy Scouts, consisted of being driven to Pico Blanco after the close of the scout camp season.  There he and all his fellow conscripts (I’m tempted to say “victims”) were told to shed their clothes and don only their loincloths and footwear.  They were then separated.  Each boy was assigned to work alone, cleaning up a separate area of the camp.  They did this for many hours, were paid nothing and fed nothing, and weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone.   At dinner time, they were rounded up by a taskmaster, allowed to reclothe themselves, and fed a dinner that consisted of nothing but a chicken breast.  They were then sent home.  They had been taught a few secret Indian words.  And of course, they were given a patch to sew onto their Boy Scout shirts, which evidenced  their membership in this supposedly hallowed order.

Even my brother, who had originally been enthralled by the mystery, exclusivity and honor of belonging to this secret band of Indian nobility, felt hoodwinked and used.  He had been slave labor, if only for a day, but in some ways, it was worse than that.  He had paid for his loincloth, and had been starved while doing maintenance work that the Boy Scouts were too cheap to pay others to do.  Worse, the fact that he was about to be used in this manner was kept hidden from him until it was too late to make an informed decision about whether he should participate.  Yes, he had rendered service, but he had never had the opportunity to knowingly choose to serve.  Instead, he’d been tricked into serving, as if not trusted to embrace service voluntarily.  It had been insulting and dishonest, from start to finish.  From this point on, my brother lost interest in Scouting.

Eventually, in LDS Church seminary class we studied the Book of Mormon.  When we read about the Gadianton robbers and all the other criminal groups  and their use of secret oaths to accomplish their evil designs, I couldn’t help thinking about the Order of the Arrow (admittedly much less nefarious) and its reliance on secrecy to hide from victims what they were getting into.  Moroni had placed special emphasis on avoiding “secret combinations” in his sermons to the latter-day reader (see Moroni 8:27, 40).  Why didn’t the Order of the Arrow methods raise any questions among LDS youth leaders back then?  Why don’t they now?

For that matter, why do LDS leaders largely keep secret, to this very day, exactly where the money is going that LDS congregations voluntarily raise for the Boy Scouts of America?  Congregations are never told the full truth about this.  If they were, they would be told that Friends of Scouting funds go to fund the salaries of Boy Scout executives, some of whom appear to be already overpaid.  In 2007, when readers of the Deseret News were told that their donations were going to pay the local Boy Scout executive presiding over the Great Salt Lake Council, among others, who was already making over $214,000 per year, they were shocked.  The article can be read here.  Neither the precise purposes of their donated money, nor the salaries of local leaders, had ever been divulged when their local bishoprics announced the latest fundraising drive for the Boy Scouts.  They had always been told the money merely went to “support the Boy Scouts,” that it was separate from the dues each ward unit had to pay just to belong to the organization, and separate from the costs of buying patches, handbooks, uniforms, equipment, etc.  Adding to the disenchantment of many was the knowledge that virtually all of the actual get-your-hands-dirty work with the boys accomplished by the Boy Scouts is done by volunteer church members, who are given callings by ecclesiastical leaders to do just that.  Almost no one in the entire LDS church had any idea then, or has any idea today, how many Boy Scout executives he or she is funding, or what their names are, or what they actually do to help individual boys or groups of boys.  Predictably, the $214,000 Boy Scout executive, when asked for comment, cited his superior work ethic, stated he was sacrificing to make so little money, and that more lucrative BSA positions existed outside of Utah.

Ironically, there was one Boy Scout troop during my boyhood which was renowned  for practicing scouting by the book.  All requirements for Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life or Eagle, and for all merit badges, had to be strictly complied with or no recognition was allowed.  The boys from that troop were considered the Green Berets of our age group, the ones that really knew their stuff.  They were second generation Japanese boys sponsored by the local Buddhist church.  They took “on my honor” very seriously, just as Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting’s founder, intended.

The best LDS scout leader I ever knew didn’t actually hold a position in the Boy Scouts at the time I observed him.  He was our ward bishop when I was in my fifties, and he considered Mormonism’s and Scouting’s emphasis on teaching moral rectitude to be equal imperatives, almost indistinguishable from each other. Activities in the wild, including several weeklong 50-mile hikes through the mountains which he spearheaded, were opportunities for spiritual instruction, and he provided it well.  And if a boy wanted to receive a patch evidencing a 50-mile hike with a backpack, he had to hike 50 miles over mountains and through valleys carrying a loaded backpack to get it.  But the bishop was the bishop, not the scoutmaster or scout committee member, and even he couldn’t control the process of rank advancement going on outside his purview.

Dishonesty in the Boy Scouts organization is worse than dishonesty in organizations which don’t advertise their own moral rectitude and character-building prowess so heavily.  The Scout Law states:  “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”  The Scout Oath reads: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country,  and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  These founding ideals undoubtedly influenced the LDS church in the early 20th century to formally affiliate with the Boy Scouts of America.  And it’s because of those ideals that Scouting eventually became designed as part of the upbringing of every active Mormon boy in America.  Sadly, however, my experience has been that these ideals are not what Scouting is about.  The truth is, Mormons look to their own families and church meetings to teach religion and morality.  They look to Scouting to provide outdoor activities and the honors associated with rank advancement. A boy is urged to memorize the Scout Law and Oath, but it’s because those are requirements for rank advancement anyway.  Discussions about what it actually means to be a man of honor, or to help other people at all times, or to be courteous and kind, or morally straight, are left to churches.  The Boy Scouts’ concern with morality is superficial.  It helps attract sponsorship of local troops by church congregations.  But it is NOT intended to ever get in the way of rank advancement and that supposed resume-builder called the Eagle Scout Award.

Readers may wonder what experiences my opinions are based on, besides those boyhood ones from long ago.  I grew up in California, but have lived as an adult in Utah and Nevada for many years, and for brief stints in California, Idaho and Missouri.  My Scouting-related callings in the church since I returned from my mission have included  bishop, first or second counselor in a bishopric three times, Young Men’s President twice, Deacons’, Teachers’ or Priests’ Quorum advisor five times, Assistant Scoutmaster, Scouting Commissioner, and Webelos leader.  My three sons were Boy Scouts as well.  I have been a merit badge counselor in four different wards, and have participated in scores of campouts, hikes, and merit badge pow-wows.  I have talked frankly with others closely involved with these same activities.  Unless my acquaintances and I have been incredibly unlucky, and my experience in five states and dozens of church units has been, by coincidence, aberrational, I feel qualified to say that boys in our LDS ward scouting units are taught that they can–and consequently, they do–get away with cutting corners on the road toward advancement, honors and public recognition.

Boys are told in priesthood meetings, “We’re holding a merit badge pow-wow this coming Saturday at the stake center.  This will be a chance for you Scouts to earn three, four, maybe even five merit badges in one day.  So don’t miss this opportunity.”  It is not actually possible to earn that many merit badges in one day, if you actually perform each of the requirements as they’re written in the Boy Scout manual.  But their leaders probably don’t know their claims are false, because they have grown up in the same system of cheating themselves and don’t recognize cheating when they see it.  Nor do they care enough when they do recognize it to forbid it.  They think that if a boy sits through a lecture on the three branches of government, he has passed off the requirement that requires him to explain on his own what those branches are and what they do.  They think that if a boy sat through a demonstration of different ways to dress a wound or make a splint, he has passed off the requirement that he personally demonstrate his own ability to perform these skills.  They believe if the boy has stood up and welcomed class members to class and asked someone to give the opening prayer, that should be counted as a public speech for the public speaking merit badge.  These leaders want to produce Eagles as much as the boys and their parents do.  Insistence on the integrity of actually meriting honors has become less important to them than their boys being heralded as Eagle scouts, whether the awards were fraudulently obtained or not.  But this attitude stunts spiritual growth.  It is no different, conceptually speaking, from lying in a temple recommend interview in order to be seen attending ward temple night and be considered a good candidate for Elders Quorum President.  It is dishonoring oneself to accept such unearned honors.

I have longed for the opportunity to review a Boy Scout’s meritorious work and heartily commend him for it.  But hard as it may be to believe this, in all my experience as a merit badge counselor, I have never once had a boy come to me who had come anywhere near completing the written requirements for the merit badge he was working on.  And I’ve never had a boy come back a second time to try again.  Instead, they’ve either gone to a different counselor, or they’ve found some other way unknown to me to obtain the badge without actually improving their performance.

I have sat through numerous courts of honor and watched as all current and former Eagle Scouts were asked to come to the front and sit in a section called the Eagle’s Nest reserved exclusively for them.  Unabashedly, many boys who cheated their way to their badges have sat there and looked piously out over the attendees, basking in the admiration.  Some have impregnated their girlfriends, some have falsely denied their sexual relations with girls, some have been arrested for disorderly conduct, or drunk driving, or shoplifting.  Some have been caught cheating at school.  Some are spoiled and disrespectful to adults.  Some are bullies; some abuse drugs.  Most are less responsible for their badges than their mothers, who throughout the process, have prodded their sons to meet with merit badge counselors or have scheduled the appointments themselves.  The problem with these boys is not they can’t be forgiven and prove themselves worthy of honor.  The problem is that they haven’t been taught what true honor requires.  Nor have they perceived any important connection between righteous living and receiving Scouting’s highest honor.  After all, righteous living is church stuff, not Scout stuff.

And of course, there are some who are boys of integrity, who have taken the ideals of Scouting seriously, and who are compelled by their own conscience to meritoriously develop the skills the badges are supposed to represent.  The parents of these boys care less about public recognition than inward character, and they have convinced their sons that personal integrity is the road less traveled, but still the right way.  These boys don’t ascribe to the philosophy expressed in Billy Crystal’s well-known comedic impersonation of Fernando Lamas interacting with friends:  ” You look mahvelous!  It is better to look good than to feel good, dahling.”  I wish these boys constituted the majority, but from what I’ve seen, they don’t.

One of my best friends is a former Eagle Scout, bishop, stake president and now serves as a mission president.  He recounted to me once how he was physically unable to pass his swimming and lifesaving merit badge requirements on the night when the boys in his troop were tested in a community pool.  He wasn’t a good enough swimmer.  His Scout leaders passed him anyway.  “I thought  they knew what they were doing,” he explained, so despite a nagging conscience, he didn’t complain.  He didn’t say whether corners were cut on any other of his merit badges, but he went on to receive his Eagle.  He admitted, however, that cheating was pervasive in Scouting, and that he had observed it as a youth and as an adult.  When a son of his was nearing the deadline for obtaining his Eagle award but had achieved only Life, my friend was far less concerned than his wife.  Ward Young Men leaders had offered to help his son reach the deadline, but my friend didn’t want their help.  But he found it difficult to explain to his spouse why the award really didn’t matter as much as she thought it did.  He confided to me, “[My son] doesn’t have enough time to pass off the remaining requirements without compromising his own integrity.  He’d have to cheat to get it.  He doesn’t want to do that.  Neither do I.  He’s a really good kid.  The Eagle is supposed to show you’re a really good kid.  But he’s already proved that in the way he’s lived his life.  God knows the truth about him.”

This point of what God knows and doesn’t know raises another issue of prime importance.  How on earth did the church that claims to be God’s only true church ever condone the granting of a military-type Duty to God Award, consisting of colorful ribbons and engraved metal, to be worn conspicuously on the shirt of a Boy Scout?  Did anyone ever wonder if the Lord wanted any teenager wearing a fancy medal proclaiming his chosenness before God?  Was not this practice, which existed until 2002, an obvious result of the Boy Scouts’ influence on Mormons?  Were the ribbons and metal evidence of God’s acceptance, or proof of spiritual maturity?  Currently, the Church issues two such awards–the On My Honor award, which simultaneously awards religious and scouting prowess, and the Duty to God medal, which recognizes LDS church involvement, and implicitly, righteousness.  If we’re oblivious enough of God’s teachings to award medals for outward completion of church checklists, might we not save money by conferring the title of “His Holiness” on each boy whose scout leader has signed his application card?

My friend recognized the danger that cheating on merit badges represents in the life of a boy.  It not only creates a tolerance for dishonesty, but it impedes the very perception of dishonesty.  Indeed, many may not recognize dishonesty in themselves unless someone else pointedly draws attention to it.  They’ve never thought of themselves as dishonest, because no one taught them to carefully scrutinize their own behavior.  They might also fail to see why they should pay taxes on cash tips they’ve received as a waiter, since no record has been kept of what they’ve received.  Maybe it’s okay to lie on a job application if it helps them obtain a higher-paying job, even if it means taking a job from an equally qualified person who responded truthfully.  A strong conscience is almost never something we’re born with.  It must be taught early in life, by precept and example, and by adult leaders.

The Boy Scouts’ practice of receiving and displaying merit badges, merely for gaining skills, expertise or knowledge, which are rightfully taught to be reward enough in and of themselves, will never enjoy a comfortable co-existence with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Or at least, it shouldn’t.  Jesus taught that even when doing the most righteous of deeds, we should not draw attention to ourselves.

Verily, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor; but take heed that ye do not your alms before men to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father who is in heaven.

Therefore, when ye shall do your alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as will hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

But when thou doest alms let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth;

That thine alms may be in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, himself shall reward thee openly.

(See 3 Nephi  13:1-4 or Matthew 6:1-4.)

If we’re not supposed to tout our own goodness towards others, we may reasonably infer that we’re not supposed to brag of deeds we’ve done only for ourselves.  The Lord would have us meek and humble.  But Scouting teaches boys to expect recognition for even trivial accomplishments, things which are routinely learned in school,  or part of everyday life, or are mere games or recreation which require very little discipline or skill from the participant.  Merit badges are now awarded for such activities as playing chess, reading, collecting (toys, rocks, baseball cards, dolls or whatever else you want to collect all qualify; stamp and coin collecting are two separate merit badges), caring for goldfish or cats or any other non-canine pets (dog care has its own merit badge), game design (any kind of game qualifies), salesmanship (where activities such as selling tickets to a scouting event, or fundraiser candy bars for  your Little League team qualify as the required sales experience), shotgun shooting, and probably the easiest of all, family life.  There are 137 available merit badges today, and the list is always growing.  But does the growing list mean Boy Scouts are becoming more and more meritorious?

To be clear, I fully agree with the practice of encouraging youth to obtain skills, even if some of those skills are only intended to create fun.  But I do oppose being honored for simply improving your own prospects, and then displaying those honors to others lest they not appreciate how impressive you are.  That, unfortunately, is what the Boy Scouts organization causes us to do. As the merit badge program motto quoted in this essay’s fourth paragraph states, it’s all about enhancing a youth’s competitive edge.  As such, it stands in stark contrast with what Christ teaches:  “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:10)

For these reasons, maybe, if we would follow Christ, no mourning over the loss of the Boy Scouts is necessary.  Contrary to the current laments, losing scouting doesn’t mean we can’t still go hiking, camping, fishing, or learn outdoor skills.  Nor does it mean we can’t teach our youth how to organize themselves, or accept responsibility, or be self-sufficient.  Our youth can still learn knot tying, first aid, lifesaving and survival skills.  We can still promote patriotism and virtuous citizenship.    Believe it or not, we can still get together with youth from other faiths and build brotherhood through joint activities. We can even buy a Boy Scout handbook or any of the merit badge pamphlets, and avail ourselves of all the useful information there.   We can do anything we want.  The BSA has no monopoly on these practices and initiatives.  That we need Boy Scouts to teach these things is a grand misconception.  We should have been doing all these things anyway.

And while we do, we might also set an example for the Boy Scouts while we improve our own discipleship.  We might promote a new morality that scrupulously insists that cheating is never tolerated as an acceptable way to obtain the awards we seek.  We might also demonstrate that youth who value meekness and humility over self promotion and aggrandizement turn out to be more virtuous people, and  better examples for the rising generation.  In addition, we might usher in a new era of financial transparency both in our own church and in other organizations, where we not only require our leaders to show us exactly where each dollar is spent, but require that same transparency of every group who claims their own cause deserves our donations.

The LDS Church has not said precisely why it’s severing its ties with Scouting.  Most people suspect that recent inclusiveness initiatives within the Boy Scouts have made church leaders uncomfortable, convincing them that the two organizations’ goals and perspectives aren’t sufficiently compatible.  Whatever the case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should never have been joined at the hip with the Boy Scouts in the first place.  The separation should have been for other, more fundamental reasons.  It should have been obvious, long ago, that the Scouts’ headlong pursuit of self-exaltation was at cross purposes with Jesus’ philosophy of personal meekness and humility.  When the young reformer from Nazareth criticized the Pharisees for flaunting only outwardly upright lives, without teaching inward righteousness, and of seeking the chief seats in the synagogue, he was talking to the Boy Scouts.

18 thoughts on “Untying the Mormon Knot with the Boy Scouts: the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons, and What “Honor” Entails

  1. When you first announced this essay, of course I was intrigued. Unfortunately, I find most of your observations about cutting corners and diminishing the “honor” by doing so all too true. Having been a Boy Scout volunteer for 35+ years, I have some observations that I think relevant to this discussion:

    1) My experience with the Boy Scouts–as with your experience–has largely been colored by my experience with it through the Mormon church. I have been continually dismayed at the lack of integrity displayed by many called to leadership positions in the Boy Scouts/Church…almost as if “on my honor” was an impediment to rank advancement. My experience with non-Mormon troops has been that it appeared they took the notion of “on my honor” more seriously; consequently, I don’t believe the promiscuous corner-cutting was as prevalent among the non-LDS as it was among the LDS. Of course, this only relates to my own anecdotal experience.

    2) Most non-LDS units are composed of leaders and youths who “really want it” insofar as a Boy Scout experience is concerned. From a social perspective, many kids now days find affiliation with the Boy Scouts to be the “kiss of death” socially should their peers learn of it at school. (This notion is reinforced by numerous Hollywood movies and the like…). If one “really wants it”, the result is that the program is taken more seriously and cutting corners is discouraged. Not so with the LDS church, where adult leadership and youth participation is “mandatory” to the degree that everyone is expected to participate. This results in some of the same dysfunctions one gets with a conscript army as compared to an all-volunteer army–without that element of free-will, I believe it much more difficult to take the organization, the rank advancements and the skills which hopefully result seriously. Many acquaintances involved in non-LDS scouting hold the LDS scouting program in contempt because of this, and think the Mormon Church actually should be expelled from Boy Scouts.

    3) Believe it or not, the Boy Scouts has been over the years a very effective missionary tool for the church. I know of at least 10 people who were baptized into the church as a result of their interest in Boy Scouting. I know this contradicts 2) above to a degree, but none the less, it is true. Again, my anecdotal

    4) The salaries of Boy Scout executives has always been a flash-point of controversy in the Church/Boy Scout relationship. I’ve read articles from the 1920s where this was an issue…so nothing new here. What has changed now, of course, this concern is dwarfed by the issue of salaries to General Authorities from the tithing funds of the church….which also are a carefully kept secret. Which is more offensive…the salaries of executives in a secular non-profit organization…or the salary packages of leaders of the “only true church of Christ”??

    5) My perspective is that the Boy Scouts have long “kept the faith” insofar as the homosexual issue was concerned. The Scouts took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court in the 2000 Dale decision, which was 5-4 in favor of the Boy Scouts being able to exclude homosexuals from its organization. This policy was upheld until 2013, when the Mormon Church acquiesced to the corporate donors to the Boy Scouts who were urging greater inclusivity. Finally, when the Mormon Church in February, 2015 strongly endorsed passage of a non-discrimination bill before the Utah Legislature and it passed, the Boy Scouts had NO CHOICE but to accept homosexual volunteers and potential employees. My take is that despite the influence of corporate donors, the Boy Scouts kept the faith on this issue until the Mormon Church threw them under the bus.

    6) As a youth, my father at one point was very involved as a Boy Scout leader and consequently, my older brother became an Eagle Scout. It appeared to me he didn’t “cut any corners”…at least any that I could perceive. When the Church pulled the rug from underneath my dad continuing as a scoutmaster because of personal issues, my dad simply quit. I had absolutely no support in doing anything pertaining to Scouting after that occurred. My friends and I actually organized our own hikes to get the hiking merit badges…because the majority in our ward was more concerned with “basketball scouting” than to do anything at all related to scouting. In this manner and with hardly any support from family or the Ward, I was slowly able to make my way up to the Life Scout award. But with Eagle, I hit the wall…and could not even come close to doing that by myself without family and/or Ward support. I therefore look at my youth experience with the Boy Scouts as being quite positive…there were no “cutting corners” in my experience up to that point. It is when clashes occurred with Stake Presidents and others who chose not to take “on my honor” seriously that much of what you say in your essay became apparent to me.

    Boy Scouting to me at once is a noble cause in concept but hollow in the way it has been implemented–particularly within the Mormon Church. For the past several decades, the Boy Scouts was willing to put up with the dilution of its honor by the Mormon Church largely because of the huge financial contribution it made to it. Now that this financial support has been diminishing while more secular corporate funding has become more pronouced, the Boy Scouts have found the freedom to go in their own direction…including proposals to admit girls into the organization. With the passing of President Monson, who was a very dedicated Scouter, it comes with little surprise that the Church is departing from being a chartered organization with the Boy Scouts. I suppose this amicable divorce has been a long time coming.


    • Alan, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think both the Boy Scouts and the LDS Church should be more financially transparent, as I said in the essay, but as to which of the two is more blameworthy for their opaqueness, that’s a question that’s more complicated. I would note that the highest paid Boy Scouts officials make three to eight times as much as LDS general authorities, depending on how high up the Boy Scout corporate ladder they are. But I doubt they do more work; in fact, I affirmatively believe they do less work. We all know who does all the most important work in the BSA, and it isn’t the corporate suits. And though it’s true the BSA is a secular organization, it has always touted itself as a quasi-religious movement dedicated. One’s duty to God, and moral straightness, is mentioned in the Scout oath, and reverence is part of the Scout law. By portraying itself this way, the BSA has successfully obtained the sponsorship of church organizations everywhere. Transparency should be an imperative for both the church and the Scouts, but at least in the Church, the leaked salaries are low enough that no one could suspect leaders are in it for the money.
      Regarding the question of how much influence the LDS Church’s change of tune had on the Boy Scouts’ subsequent change to their sexual orientation policies, I think it’s kind of hard to measure. The Boy Scouts haven’t alleged they were influenced by the Mormon Church’s decisions, as far as I know. I think they know that they would receive even more criticism from gays if they did allege that, because it would suggest they wanted to continue the discrimination. But both of us agree strongly on the main point, which is the need in both organizations to be scrupulously honest in word and deed.


      • I specifically remember Robert Gates speech in Nashville in May, 2015 directly after the Utah Legislature passed the LDS-Church endorsed homosexual anti-discrimination bill. Gates in his speech cited this move as the catalyst for his position, noting that it was now illegal for the Boy Scouts to discriminate in hiring in Utah. I have spent some time looking for that speech on the internet, but so far have only come up with press summaries of his speech. In the full text of the speech, there is direct reference to Utah and the Mormon Church’s support for the anti-discrimination legislation.

        Given the murky nature of the question regarding leadership compensation in both the Mormon Church and Boy Scouts, I don’t think it accurate to be able to definitively state that Boy Scout leadership makes “three to eight times” the salary of Church General Authorities. Where do you get this information? My understanding is that the compensation package for General Authorities includes, household help, cars, purchasing of homes of their choice, very generous health insurance, etc, on top of a very healthy salary. Comparing compensation here requires that apples be compared to apples.

        My point is that the Church is extravagant with leadership compensation all the while touting it has an unpaid clergy. The compensation for mission presidents alone is substantial. Though I think the large BSA salaries are a slap in the face to those who contribute, I think the LDS practice even more vile because they hide behind that “unpaid clergy” canard, plus they represent that they are mouthpieces of the Lord Jesus Christ.


        • I was going off the published article on salaries for general authorities, which was $120K in 2014. That is very low, compared to any other religious officials in other churches, and compared to Boy Scouts leaders. The CEO of the BSA made $1.6 million in 2009 the year he retired, but the Scouts have stopped publishing their top officials salaries, so I can’t find any current information on the topic. The Deseret News article I linked to in the article has some salary info in it, and the head of the Los Angeles area council makes three times what a general authority does. By the way, where are you getting your information on general authorities’ salaries and benefits? I’ve found no corroboration for your claims on that point.


  2. Scott, you make it plain that the vener of “on my honor” in Boy Scouts was greatly diminished to you even when you were a scouting aged boy yourself. Knowing you played football throughout high school and on into college, I find the irony of the situation noteworthy.

    I attempted to play football for Rancho High School my senior year in which our team lost the State Championship game for the biggest Nevada high schools. My recollection of my experience on that team is that of horror. I have never before that time nor since experienced a more abusive, degrading, mind-numbing experience than that. For example, throughout the season, I had occasion to miss one practice because of a family conflict. Sure enough, the sadistic coaches called the entire team to line up and in quick succession “hit” me as though I was in the midst of combat in the interior line. Needless to say, I took the worst physical beating of my life on that ocassion. I later heard Frank Kush of Arizona State had been fired for punching a kicker, and I thought “so what else is new?”

    Most of the attributes you abhor in your essay above about the Boy Scouts can also be found with High School Football. The letter jackets…the awards proudly displayed upon them…the status of a “resume” which might lead to a scholarship…the “big man on campus” swagger of the star athletes…etc. are all there in spades. Frankly at the time, I didn’t know any better and I endured the abuse as a nobody bench warmer. My only reward was that I was listed as a football player in the yearbook.

    I remember setting up an appointment with Assistant North Las Vegas Fire Chief Robert Mills to do my First Aid Merit Badge. I had to walk the 3.5 miles to the Fire Department Headquarters for the interview. I failed the first time, and returned two other times before it was finally signed off. Fortunately, I never got the crap kicked out of me on anything I ever did with the Boy Scouts.

    It is ironic you have the attitude you do about the Boy Scouts and a seemingly opposite attitude about high school and college football. My father lost his father when he was 6 years old, and I get the impression that much of the lessons he learned in life came from Boy Scout leaders in Bunkerville, Nevada when he was growing up. (Which is why it was so disappointing that he went AWOL regarding the Boy Scouts after my older brother achieved Eagle but he was banished as a Scoutmaster by the local church leaders.) Obviously, each of us have differing experiences. I think the lesson to be learned is that human institutions are fallible…even the Church and Boy Scouts. Which is why we must needs have faith in the Lord Jesus, the Rock of Heaven.


    • I don’t see the irony you see, Alan. Participants in high school or college athletics don’t purport their activities to be devoted to teaching young men or women their duty to God. They don’t even suggest that athletic champions or stars are superior in morals or character. But Scouts and religions do. They claim they bring us closer to God, so we hold them to the standard they themselves set. I have never made any bones about the fact that I played sports for recognition, for glory, to impress people and get a scholarship from it all. But I never pretended that whatever success I achieved improved my righteousness, or produced higher character, or made me a better citizen than if I’d not participated.


  3. This is all preaching to the choir for me of course, but well articulated none the less. I didn’t see cheating quite as blatant as you did, but the mindset of “let’s get this over with and get you your merit badges” seemed to be very much universal in the church. Perhaps even more offensive to me was the phrase “Scouting is the activity arm of the Aaronic Priesthood.” Whahhh? Regardless of how you feel about priesthood, I think everyone agrees that the Priesthood is SUPPOSED to be a holy thing, a sharing of God’s power with man. So it needs an “activity” “arm”??? What’s the activity arm of the Melchizedek Priesthood? I don’t know where it comes from, maybe it’s in a manual somewhere, but people have said it a lot. Sounds like blasphemy to me.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Hugh. I’ve heard the “activity arm” phrase you reference many times, too, and have had the same reaction to it that you’ve had. It’s also occurred to me that, given the nature of so many scouting activities, it’s really hard to see how they could possibly be thought to be priesthood related. “Okay boys, listen up. This Tuesday, we’ll magnify our priesthood by working on our shotgun shooting merit badge, and the week after, we’ll finish up on our game design and roller skating badges.”


  4. I think it was John Dillinger who is quoted as saying that the reason he robbed banks was because that is where the money was found. Regarding homosexuals and pedophiles, their interest in the Boy Scouts obviously is because that is where boys are found. I think it commendable that the Boy Scouts fought this cultural battle against the forces of perversion for as long as they did…only to have the LDS Church throw them under the bus in February, 2015. Consider how many parents would be confident with male homosexual leaders taking their boys out in the woods for an outing on an overnight or even a multi-day outing?? What kind of example is that?? What kind of opportunity to expand recruitment into that lifestyle?? Why would we want our tender young men to be sexualized any more than they already experience in the culture at large??

    I think there needs to be a macro perspective here, which is, that the leftist cultural “social justice warriors” have been at war with the Mormon Church, the Boy Scouts, or any other institution that might have declared values involving anything akin to the Scout Oath. Despite yours and my criticism, the Boy Scouts HAS been a force for good in our culture…which is why the forces of perversion have strived so hard to bring it down. As the Elf Lord Elrond in the Fellowship of the Ring sez to Gandalf…”our list of allies grows thin.” Therefore, how can we possibly applaud the breaking up and/or demise of such an institution?? Why would we permit the perfect to become the enemy of the good?? The Boy Scouts in Canada basically went belly up with the introduction of homosexuality into its ranks, by force of law. I expect the same to happen to an earnstwhile “ally” of the Boy Scouts as a result of these trends.

    By far, the bigger danger to our culture and values are the “bread and circuses” of the sports institutions which are vigorously subsidized by the taxpayers as well as the willing fans. I think it perverse that so much energy has been expended over the years tearing down the Boy Scouts all the while supporting the sports industrial Babylon complex that is perverting our society. I have consistently worked with my involvement to place honor into the Boy Scouts oath…rather than try to tear it down.


    • The essay you’re responding to was about the damage done by the Boy Scouts in two ways: First, encouraging boys to seek recognition for everyday accomplishments which are not meritorious enough to deserve such recognition (especially as a badge conspicuously worn on clothing). This runs counter to gospel teachings by Christ to the effect that we should not advertise ourselves in this way. Second, encouraging boys to cheat their way to said merit badges and chronically allowing them obtain honors they didn’t earn. This teaches dishonesty. I see nothing offered by the Boy Scouts that Christian church members can’t provide for themselves. Within Mormonism, I disagree that the net effect of the Boy Scouts has been positive. I view your comment as a changing of the subject, since the homosexual issue has nothing to do with the issues I wrote about.


  5. Interesting article and commentary. I am not a Mormon nor involved in the BSA. Actually am involved in Trail Life so I have heard a lot of this discussion by seasoned former BSA members. Too much of an emphasis on badges, not enough adventure. TLUSA made some specific changes, listed as core values, including “CHARACTER-FOCUSED, NOT AWARDS-FOCUSED”. I guess this is what you mean?

    Whether it’s BSA, TLUSA, or whater LDS has in store for its boys – it is counter cultural these days to get outside on a regular basis with other people (let alone dads) and work towards long-term goals.


    • Yes, David, that is what I mean. You understood perfectly the point of the essay. I’m unfamiliar with TLUSA, but with a name like that, the leaders are more likely to remember the focus of their organization than the Boy Scouts do. It’s very possible in the Boy Scouts these days to become an Eagle Scout without liking or doing much hiking or camping at all, and more importantly, without ever having been physically challenged to do something difficult. Can you tell what your TLUSA experience has been like?


  6. On MY honor.

    Not yours, not anyone else’s. The only person on Earth that knows and cares about my honor is me. Maybe you will eventually sense and measure my honor, but even then it will be measured by your yardstick rather than mine.

    18 years ago I was appointed to troop committee. Finding no other members of the committee, I began attending weekly meetings with the troop, got myself trained, possessed the books, started conducting boards of review. There was very little cheating on my watch and none in merit badges I signed off as a counselor of several. At that time the troop was a stake troop and ran according to Boy Scout program, which I later discovered is extremely unusual among Mormons. We had a boy-led troop, the boys elected their patrol leaders and their senior patrol leader and chose their activities. Fully half of them earned the rank of Eagle, and did it the hard way because when they presented themselves to me, by then I was on the district committee, I knew them.

    I don’t know why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quit the Boy Scouts; but not many units were in compliance with the program anyway, with “elections” being a very difficult sticking point for many volunteers that have decades of service in the program. I’ve met hundreds of adults that would love to volunteer for Scouting but they don’t know how, they don’t know they are permitted. They wait to be “called” (as was I) and those that are, often resent the calling but they dared not say “no”.

    I now register myself on the district. I pay my own fees. I obtain my own training. I’m also not alone! I work with a man having 60 years in Scouting and he’ll probably die before he puts away his uniform. He also has no problem with girls in Scouting provided they obtain the skills and demonstrate honor and leadership.


    • I’m glad, Michael, that Scouting has apparently been a decidedly positive experience for you. And I compliment you on maintaining your own honor and integrity intact. But I myself have extensive experience with Scouting in three different states, and have concluded regretfully that for the most part, Scouting itself was not building character among LDS boys.


  7. WOW ! Here all this time I’ve been angry with the BSA for “not keeping the faith”, and for abandoning their US Supreme Court “Dale Decision” association victory in 2000 ~which protected BSA, and the kids, from having to drop the protection from homosexuals. Thank you for exposing the role the LDS Church played in pulling the rug out from underneath the BSA, I had no idea. It’s very dismaying, and just added another item onto my already groaning “shelf”…

    I earned, and my 3 boys earned, and I mean earned, the Eagle rank, I was there with them thru all of their LDS Scouting experience, from camp to hikes to merit badges, & etc. One of my boys was a squeaker, with a lot of last minute help; the other 2 less closely. But I never detected the masked or massaged “cheating” that you documented, by way of watered down requirements. But in retrospect, I’ll bet there was more of it than I would have otherwise expected, or detected, if for no other reason than the phenomenon of the emphasis on rank advancements, the quasi-compulsory participation, that was the way it was done, LDS troops were markedly and noticeably less “scout-like”, etc.

    I was very glad for my own involvement in the late 1960’s, and my boy’s participation, even the programmed nature of it, it was a great aid as a parent. As a kid, I took it very seriously, and wanted that same underlayment and background for my boys. I know that at least 2 of them took it fairly seriously. But… as you say, there were a lot of aspects of it that I had never considered, in contrast to the doctrinal issues you raised. I hope the Church manages to come up with something better for a replacement than just more seminary and missionary prep… Thank you for your thought-provoking and eye-opening blog post !


    • And thank you for your comment, too. The Boy Scouts could be an excellent organization for those who took its ideals and principles seriously. It also taught excellent skills and knowledge for everyday use. However, the church, like they’ve done in many other areas, emphasized rank advancement and attaining one’s Eagle far too much, just like they emphasized statistical prowess way too much in the Home Teaching Program, and lost sight of the overall objective. I decided to write this essay only after I became convinced that the problems I’d seen in California and Utah with cutting corners to obtain rank advancement were widespread throughout the church. I’m glad you and your boys weren’t part of that; your boys will appreciate what integrity entails because of your conscientiousness.


  8. I stumbled upon this a few years late, clearly, after my daughter and son have both recently joined our scout troop in Virginia. We’re active LDS and I couldn’t be more thrilled that the Church finally cut ties with BSA. I grew up watching my dad as scoutmaster take the young men in our wards to all sorts of interesting activities that I never got to do. Now, my daughter is actually interested in getting her Eagle (she only has 2.5 years to do it and she’s just barely finishing her Scout and Tenderfoot ranks) and my son is obsessed with the program in its entirety. Our troop is simply phenomenal. It’s all youth-led, the leaders all want to be there, they are absolute sticklers for the youth protection training rules and so far, from what I’ve seen, this troop is run by the book. It is wildly popular, even in the school where the youth going through the program are some of the high caliber students. My son bridged with a huge den (made up of three others during COVID) that are nearly all from the same school. I have seen zero cutting of corners.

    As for why the Church cut ties, people can speculate all they want so here’s my speculation–I think it was just simply no longer scalable and sustainable as a program for a worldwide church that was, in many places, forced upon youth and leaders who really were not invested in it. Our troop’s leaders are nearly 95% parents of the youth. Merit badge counselors and specialty leaders are holdouts from when their own children were in the troop. They are committed, as are the parents. This is how it should be.


    • That’s wonderful! I think your “speculation” is at least one of the major reasons, and probably THE major reason, the Church cut ties with the Boy Scouts. But there were other salutary effects of this move, though they might not have been intended by the Church. Best of luck to you and your kids as they learn from and enjoy Scouting the way it was meant to be appreciated and enjoyed.


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