The Mormon Church Is Dropping Boy Scout Programs In A Major Cultural Shift
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is abandoning scouting programs for older boys. But observers see even more drastic changes on the horizon.
The Mormon church is significantly scaling back its century-old relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, a move that reflects shifting cultural values and the church's increasing globalization.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — more commonly known as the LDS or Mormon church — announced the split with the Boy Scouts Thursday, abandoning scouting programs for boys ages 14 to 18, though the church will continue to participate in scouting for younger boys.
The Mormon church has a long relationship with the Boy Scouts. The two organizations first partnered in 1913, and the church eventually grew to become the largest single sponsor of Boy Scout troops. For many Mormon boys growing up in the US, becoming a scout was the default; Boy Scout meetings included prayers and spiritual messages, and time at church was often spent planning scouting activities.
Thursday's split, though limited, represents a major cultural shift for Mormonism, and one that is still currently unfolding.
The most notable rift between the LDS church and the Boy Scouts opened over the organization's evolving positions on LGBT issues. After the Boy Scouts' decision in 2015 to allow gay leaders, the church issued a stern statement saying it was "deeply troubled" and that "the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined."
In the wake of that ordeal, a poll found that 63% of "very active" Mormons in Utah — where the religion is headquartered — wanted the church to end its relationship with the Boy Scouts.
The Scouts opened their ranks to gay boys in 2013 and to transgender boys in 2017.
Experts who spoke with BuzzFeed News said LGBT issues likely played a role in the church's decision, though not an exclusive one. When the church first partnered with the Boy Scouts it had only recently abandoned polygamy. The partnership gave the church "a vehicle for promoting gender norms and particularly masculinity," Matt Bowman, a Mormon and history professor at Henderson State University told BuzzFeed News.
"For most of the 20th century, the church and the [Boy Scouts of America] walked pretty much hand and hand," Bowman said. "As the BSA has been taking steps to alter that vision they have broken paths a little bit."
Patrick Mason, professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a Mormon himself, said the partnership between the Scouts and the church was a bid for respectability in the early 20th century. But as the Boy Scouts have embraced LGBT youth and leaders, Mason said, some Mormons have begun to feel that the organization "doesn't represent their values any more."
"It’d be foolish to say they aren’t contributing factors," Mason said of the impact the Scouts' LGBT inclusivity had on the split with the church.
For its part, the church released a fact sheet Thursday anticipating questions about the Boy Scouts' LGBT policies. It downplays the importance of those policies, saying that the Scouts "always allowed the Church to operate its programs in ways that are consistent with our standards and beliefs, and they have been very supportive."
However, Ryan Cragun, a former Mormon and sociology professor at the University of Tampa, noted that the fact sheet doesn't actually rule out the Scouts' LGBT policies as a factor in Thursday's announcement.
"They didn’t actually say 'no,' which to me says 'yes,'" he told BuzzFeed News. "It's an implicit yes. But I think that’s kind of a very obvious factor that’s going into it."
But the partial breakup between the LDS church and the Boy Scouts was also a long time coming and likely had as much to do with the church's growing overseas membership as anything else. The church claims nearly 16 million members worldwide, and more than half of them live outside the US. Youth in non-American congregations didn't participate in scouting, and the church has been open about its desire for a globally-oriented program.
According to Mason, the move away from the Boy Scouts is an example of overseas congregations, which don't have the program, "impacting the American church."
"This is a case where in the name of uniformity, the American church is going to change," he said.
Bowman agreed, saying that the split with the Boy Scouts represents an increasing willingness to accommodate international Mormons, many of whom live in Latin America and Africa.
"I think that the BSA promotes this sort of correlated set of Mormon virtues which are also the virtues of the American white middle class," he said. "So paradoxically this could be a move toward greater diversity."
Referring to globalization, the church described Thursday's split with scouting as "an important step" and added that a worldwide program is in the works.
Another factor that appears to have prompted the split is the growing trend within the church to put Mormon men and women on somewhat more equal footing. The church acknowledged Thursday a "disparity of funding and activities that exists" between boys and girls programs, and said that new scout-free programs for older boys will "balance" spending "for youth ages 14 through 18."
Mason said the decision on the Boy Scouts fits into a larger narrative about gender equality. Though the church has thus far rejected calls to ordain women to its lay priesthood, Mason pointed out that it has retooled its missionary program to include more women, as well as changed meeting practices so more women are involved. Thursday's announcement is another one of those shifts.
Cragun expressed surprise over the mention of gender equality in the church's announcement, saying that it suggests "somewhere in the leadership hierarchy someone is beginning to recognize that there is inequality. Someone has begun to say 'that’s not fair.'"
"That’s mind boggling because basically what that says is there has been enough pressure on these gender issues in the church that they’re conceding one of them," he said.
For now though the split remains limited, but Bowman said he sees the church's decision as "the first step in a broader disengagement" with the Boy Scouts.
"It certainly makes more sense culturally as the church wants to be in charge of its own messaging," he said.
Mason — who like many members was "not surprised at all" by Thursday's announcement — also sees the LDS church moving away from the Boy Scouts in the future.
"I wouldn’t be surprised," he said, "if in the next few years we see the whole thing go."