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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Mormon-American Boy Scout, 1913-2019. RIP.

[Cross-posted to on By Common Consent]

Today, the Mormon church officially ends its formal involvement with Boy Scouts of America. This change was announced more than a year and a half ago, but when you're looking at a form of social organization that has shaped the lives of millions of people, involved the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, and has more than 100 years of history and tradition and norm-building behind, change can be hard. While I have no direct knowledge of this, I am confident that in some Mormon congregation in the United States there is, right at this moment, some teen-age boy or weary Scoutmaster or desperate mother scrambling to get forms filled out for the last merit badge the boy in question will ever earn, or setting up the flags and rushing to get the tablecloths for that last Eagle Court ever to be held in the boy's Mormon church building, all with the aim of squeezing everything under the wire at the last possible second. I'd like to pay tribute to such folks, if I may. All of us Mormon believers and members who, one way or another, will get caught up in the church's new youth program owe them our respect. They're holding on, until the bitter end, to something that the church as a whole may very well be better off without--but which I am positive we're going to miss in a more than a few ways, all the same.

First of all, let me make it clear that I'm not kidding around with that "better off" line. Thanks to technology, thanks to globalization, thanks the evolution and diversification of social expectations and assumptions in America over the past century, and thanks most of all to how the Mormon Church itself is changing, the Boy Scouts of America and Mormonism--and at least 20% of all BSA members were there primarily because the latter tied its youth programs for boys to the former; check out this thread for a consideration of some of the demographic and financial implications of all this--aren't the fit they once were. Ending that tie will probably be a good thing for many thousands of young people (and not just males) throughout the Mormon church in America, all of whom were, for any number of physical, psychological, and spiritual reasons, never going to get kind of acceptance, support, and engagement their adolescent and teen-age bodies and minds desperately need from a tradition-bound organization like BSA, no matter how it evolved. So yes, let's create something new. But every change entails costs, and building a new thing without a long backward glance all the equally (if different) good things you're leaving behind is unwise, to say the least.

As with so much else, my grasp of all those good things which the folks I speculated about in the first paragraph are themselves grasping for goes back to my father, Jim Fox. If he were still alive, I wouldn't doubt for a minute that would be one of those faithful Mormons getting every last drop out of the Scouting program he officially could, right up until the end. It was with him throughout his entire life, after all. The Mormon American Scouting experience was probably at its strongest exactly when Scouting as a whole was at its strongest in America: namely, the 1950s through the 1970s, when suburbanization, the Cold War, rising middle-class wealth, fears about television, and a hundred other things combined to make Scouting a near-requirement for the healthy white male adolescent members of the Baby Boom. Layer on top of that the correlated organizational mentality of the post-WWII Mormon church in America, and a near-requirement becomes a total one. Mormon President David O. McKay organized an official Church-Scouts Relationship Committee in 1951; in 1963, the Mormon church started holding annual conferences for their general leadership at Philmont Scout Ranch. Dad, born in 1943, caught all of that and more. That he grew up surrounded by horses and fields and nature and camping and all sorts of general husbandry makes Scouting seem like a natural choice for him; that he was a dedicated member of the church, absolutely committed to following through on every rule the organization laid out for him, makes it seem not only natural that he would have embraced Scouting, but actually hard to imagine anything otherwise. Jim Fox, the paterfamilias, not a Scout? Impossible! Certain we Fox boys--that is: Daniel, me, Stuart, Abraham, Jesse, Philip, and Baden (you know, the whole gang)--can't imagine our father otherwise, and I know, when it comes to Mormon boys thinking about their own fathers, we're not alone.

While dad was never a professional Scouter, I strongly doubt anyone who didn't actually work for Boy Scouts of America could have organized his family's life--and, specifically, his sons' lives--more thoroughly around this program. From our expected beginning as Bobcats to our expected finish as Eagles, from day camps to World Jamborees, from his multiple stints as a Scoutmaster and Young Men's leader to his central role in two major LDS Boy Scout encampments (we got to go the first one; our children got to go to the second), Jim Fox worked to convey his commitment to his family and his church and his country all through this single church-approved organized program. To this day, as our own families grow and continue to change, as our church itself does, I suspect all of us would say, to one degree or another: his commitment worked. Again, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that. After all, among the many thousands of American Mormon boys raised by American Mormon Baby Boomers out there, how many would admit that it was Scouting experiences--good or bad, grand or small--which at least partly shaped the way they think about fatherhood responsibilities, or patriotic stories, or environmental history, or military service, or financial sacrifice, or personal goal-setting, or outdoor recreation, or religious authority, or civic duties, or natural spaces, or really the whole warp and woof of how we put ourselves together as American citizens and 20th-century Mormons? A huge percentage, I suspect.

Yes, there were always criticisms of the way in which Scouting shaped the priorities and practices (and budgets!) of how the education of males happened in the American Mormon environment, and rightly so. A lot of those criticisms were absolutely deserved. Completely aside from all the limitations of Scouting as an educational framework I mentioned above, none of us who went through the program can honestly deny just how much sometimes cruel, sometimes offensive, and sometimes just plain stupid stuff was built into all our activities and expectations: the night hikes, the Scout camps, the merit badges, the 50-milers, the Eagle projects, all of them, all too often, attended by hazing, by fakery, or by pointless nonsense. Every one of us can tell our stories. (Being tied to your cot in the middle of the night? Mocking the kid who slips and tumbles down the hiking path--or being that kid yourself? Counterfeiting a signature on a needed form, then lying about it when challenged? Yep, I was, at different times, all of that and more.) But beyond it all, at least from what I can see (and I am certain many hundreds of thousands of other American Mormons saw and still see much the same), there was the camaraderie and the joy in accomplishment, the sense of being incorporated into an ethos that carried with it a sense of place and progress, a whole worldview of struggle (however sometimes inauthentic) and honor (however sometimes patriarchal) and old-fashioned fun (however sometimes exclusive), all of it built into a set of books and rules and traditions which penetrated ordinary suburban families and whitebread Sunday school classrooms. Learning the Law of the Pack! Getting your Totin' Chip badge! Watching the torchlight Order of the Arrow ceremonies! Wood Badge and Eagle Palms and the Silver Beaver! Or just putting on that uniform, and taking responsibility for your class, coming up with games and plans and assignments so this weekend's camp-out won't be a bust. You sweated those responsibilities, but could righteously own their successes (when they came, and they often didn't) as your own. After all, you had a badge on your shirt that said they belonged to do.

Sure, it's all terribly easy to make fun of (the Mormon blog By Common Consent has done so many times). In our better moments, we all laughed at it ourselves--and then, hopefully, sometimes, also forgave both ourselves and others for all the ways the program might have caused some hurt. But I, at least, can't just snigger at all those neckerchiefs and beads and ranks. There was more to it than that; the very fact that Scouting was inextricably built into how Mormonism was realized in our very-male family made that very clear. Our father was utterly committed to defending the truth and value of every silly accoutrement of this worldview, of every symbol of everything it taught us and everything it allowed us to be. It was for him, like so many other American Mormon men of his generation, a component of America's civil religion, a religion of trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, friendliness, courtesy, etc. (you all know the rest), and a religion which he saw as perfectly aligned with both Mormon Christianity and the American nation. And whatever the faults of that worldview, it also allowed, however rarely, life-changing (or, given the ages of those involved, maybe it's better to say life-beginning) experiences that were more than the sum of its parts.

As it happens, my wife and I have had only daughters--a fact of our family that not only led me to have 10 wonderful years at our church's Girls Camp, but has also been central to shifting my thinking about some of the most controversial issues of my adult life, in ways have tended to reinforce my already-existing tendencies towards intellectualism, criticism, and doubts in general. Those three descriptors aren't usually associated with Scouting, so for all the above reasons and more, I should say good riddance to Scouting in my church, right? Well, no. Again, I'm not sad to see it go--really, it should have been made optional decades ago. But maybe the uniformity of it, the forced discipline of it all (however wrongly it left some behind), was part of the appeal? To a boy in their elementary and middle-school years, that can't be ignored. I'm not that boy any longer, thank goodness--none of us are, and none of us should be. But there will always be more of us coming along, and the value of having something whose history and legends--and often you couldn't tell them apart--can allow, even empower, those Mormon boys to see themselves as having a place in a social order and a moral scheme that isn't just Mormonism can't be ignored either.

At the first of those two aforementioned LDS Scout encampments that my father helped to organize, I was touched by Boy Scout royalty--William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt, the author of The Boy Scout Handbook, or at least that version of it which I and most of my brothers carried to every church and Scout meeting every week between the ages of 10 and 14, through the 1980s and beyond. So maybe my affection for the program is wholly a product of a kind of defiant geekiness, of nerdy me being able to sit beside an 84-year-old man wearing green shorts who told us stories about Lord Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout of the World, himself? Could be. But think about that geekiness, that nerdiness, and about how many young suburban teen-age boys experience it, and how they experience it, both today and 30+ years ago. They've got the wrong shoes for the long-distance run, they're embarrassed at carrying their violin case around the halls of their school, they're stupidly terrified they'll get their hand caught in the lathe at wood shop. To the extent that school and social realities have so changed in America today that none of the above would likely weigh down any typical American boy, the country has become a better place. But no doubt other embarrassments, other humiliations, other confusions have taken their place. Thank goodness for any organization, any program, any arrangement, that can get grown, competent, responsible adults close to such kids, to run alongside them as they stumble along the race track, to praise them (but also instruct them) as they struggle with their bows, to show them the rules for operating machines to give them confidence and keep them safe. Parents do this, of course, and school teachers and church leaders as well. But so did Scoutmasters. And if, in doing those things, they did it while dressed in a particular way, and did it during a particular meeting, and rewarded you upon concluding your task or challenge with a particular emblem, all of it adding up to make you think that you were, in running that race or playing that song or building that rocket ship, also being enlisted in a particular national--nay, "civilizational"!--project, with a language and a style and set of moral expectations all its own? I can see a lot of power in that.

I have no idea if any of my brothers think, or ever thought, the same. But even if they don't, and never did, think like that, I nonetheless bet that they, at one time, felt the same, felt that the whole goofy, yet solemn, yet infectious aesthetic of Scouting added something deep to our late-20th-century white middle-class American Mormon lives. Dad certainly felt that, all his adult life. It would be ridiculous to pretend that such a fully lived feeling left no mark on all us boys, standing their in our rumbled uniforms, wearing our Scout badges, adjusting our neckerchief slides. And the same goes, I suspect, for many, many thousands of other formerly (and perhaps still) nerdy Mormon-American boys. Which is why, for all my awareness of the limitations inherent to Scouting, I come to its defense--and why, when the president of the United States treated one of its admittedly overblown and faintly ridiculous rituals as an occasion to show off his sleazy self, it really pissed me off.

I reach up onto my clothes closet shelf, dig past years of Girls Camp mementos, and pull down some old awards and books--either my own that I've packed up and taken with me through all the moves and changes over the decades, or gifts from my Dad. Ever read the original Scouting for Boys, written in 1908? It's a hoot. Lots of practical advice on building rope bridges, lots of games and songs, lots of half-baked history about legendary figures from England's past, lots of vaguely creepy invocations of "manliness," lots of prescient recommendations about physical health, lots of helpful fire-building diagrams, and lots of wacky stuff that, frankly, would have made for some brilliantly weird troop meetings (instructions on how to spot and capture escaped convicts, for example). Read this book, and you know you're in the presence of a powerfully smart, powerfully moralistic, and powerfully strange visionary.

Scouting was, back then, pretty obviously an almost cultic offering, as determinedly off-center a challenge to bourgeois society as any other 19th-century call for radical reform. Which, of course, is what Mormonism partly was also. So the unity they found in each other, back in 1913, was perhaps a match made in heaven--and heaven knows that's something my father, to say nothing of multiple presidents of the Mormon church (eight of whom were awarded the Silver Buffalo, the highest honor Boy Scouts of America offered), would have insisted was the gospel truth. I don't believe that myself--not quite, anyway. But the entwining of Scouting and Mormonism did mean that a perfectly ordinary American boy like me, just like millions of other perfectly ordinary, nerdy, middle-class American boys, could excel in, and even earn honors for being part of, something downright counter-cultural and weird. Just about nobody, least of all my Dad, would likely have ever recognized that claim. How would they, with us Scouts going about our flag ceremonies and essentially baptizing a handed-down series of colonialist, sometimes borderline racist, phrases and practices for our daily use? Still, the undercurrent remains. The "citizenship" Scouting originally--and still, hidden deep down, to this very day--calls for is one that is fundamentally sustainable, communal, participatory, and rural, all of which runs against our daily disposable, individualistic, remote and virtual, suburban and urban worlds. Mormonism, at its best, calls beyond all that. Scouting, even Mormon-American Scouting, at its best, sometimes did too.

The Mormon church will survive its separation from Scouting, of course. (And, just to be clear, that separation is institutional only; there is no prohibition whatsoever against us Mormons individually involving ourselves in Scouting, as a couple of families I know locally have already decided to do, enlisting their children in local Scouting units.) For all I know, the goal-oriented, family-centered youth program of the next century of Mormonism will be able to effectively recreate, in a more appropriate context, all of the leadership and traditions and aspirations and nerdiness which Scouting did. I hope so. But, as this century-long stage of my church's life comes to an end, I express gratitude to my Dad, and to thousands of other Mormon leaders like him, who put on the cook-outs (where everything was fried in bacon grease) and the camp-outs (where the tent caught fire in the middle of the snowstorm) and the Courts of Honor (where the little brother knocked over the painstakingly constructed Pinewood Derby race track). They did so with a humor befitting the inherent goofiness of it all, yet also respecting--sometimes because they believed it (as Dad did), and sometimes just because it was woven into the program itself--a vision that connected and challenged and situated innumerable Mormon-American boys in ways that sometimes actually taught them and inspired them and planted seeds inside their heads that made them, just maybe, a little bit different, a little bit geekier but also a little bit smarter and a little bit more capable than they would have been otherwise. Any and every parent and teacher and church leader ought to do the same, of course, and will no doubt continue to try to do so. Best of luck to us all! It does no harm to the truth, however, to admit that having a program with a hundred years of history, and the hard work and crazy ideas of many hundreds of thousands of others, to draw upon was, all things considered, a real asset. Losing that, if only formally, is not without its costs.


Anonymous said...

My son has been in his deacons quorum for 6 months. His activities have ranged from several video gaming nights, a show and tell night, an indoor soccer game, and family history nights. Every single one have been inside the classroom.

Not one outdoor activity. Not one campfire program. Not one life skill activity. Not one faith building activity. Not one activity that challenges him. Not one service project. Not once engaged in anything with the wider community.

I thought the new program would be better. But in my ward its right there next to a nothing going on here program.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I wish I could say that surprises me, Anonymous, but it doesn't. We could all blame covid, of course, but I suspect that even without the pandemic, your report would be mostly accurate.

Dave Cannon said...

Same here. Last night the kids played board games at the church. The drive is about 20 minutes each way. The leaders are just kind of scrounging for whatever ideas the parents have. There's no structure.

But to be honest, this is fairly close to how they did 11 year old scouts before the change.