Like millions of American men, I spent a good number of weeknights in my youth donning a goofy uniform and heading off to church. The meetings all began the same way—we would rise from our folding chairs, make an odd gesture with our hands, and say, “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.”
The decision this spring of the Mormon church to pull 185,000 older teens out of the Boy Scouts suggests that this quintessential American rite of passage has a very uncertain future. Anyone familiar with the Mormon church and the Boy Scouts will know how unthinkable this move would have been even a few years ago. The Boy Scouts have been a central part of the church’s youth program for 104 years. Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has been on the Boy Scouts of America executive board for 47 years. There are about 2.4 million Boy Scouts in this country; one out of every five belongs to a Mormon-sponsored troop.
The LDS church hasn’t been too specific about the reasons for the split, but they are obvious enough. The Boy Scouts of America have been buffeted by the same cultural revolution as the rest of the country. Two years ago, the BSA’s ban on homosexual leaders and employees was rescinded. In January of this year, the BSA opened boys-only troops to “transgender boys”—i.e., children born female who now “identify” as boys.
So it’s no coincidence that the church is being attacked by the Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights groups for the move to pull its teens out of the Boy Scouts. Never mind that the Mormon church displayed an initial willingness to accommodate working with gay scoutmasters, provided they were allowed to continue choosing their own leaders for the troops they sponsor.
In this time of cultural turmoil, it’s often noted that Mormons are one of the stronger civic and religious groups remaining in a country that’s coming apart. The church is developing its own youth program for boys to replace scouting, and it will no doubt be successful internally. Given cultural trends and the withdrawal of easily the largest supporter of the organization, financially and otherwise, the real question is whether the Boy Scouts as we have known them will continue to exist in a generation or two. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod severed its ties with scouting in 2015, and Franklin Graham, the influential evangelical pastor, reacted to the news of the Mormon decision by writing that “all churches” should “pull out of the Boy Scouts organization completely.”
It’s easy to take for granted the existence of an institution like the Boy Scouts, a venerable, hugely successful, voluntary social program whose benefits can reach far beyond the obvious opportunities to acquire friendships and skills and participate in camping trips and the like. Looking back now at my own boyhood experience in a rural Oregon troop, what I recall is how my father and other Mormon church elders were always swinging by the trailer parks and homes to pick up fatherless boys whose only examples of competent adult male leadership and attention came from scouting.
It’s facile to say that groups like the Boy Scouts simply must accommodate the latest cultural imperative. The future of the Boy Scouts, and that of the country, depends on the cultivation of decent and hardworking men—that, too, is a cultural imperative.
The country is currently facing a crisis of manhood—some seven million working-age men have inexplicably dropped out of the labor force, and nearly half of those are daily drug users. There are a lot of reasons for this depressing state of affairs, and no one has all the answers. But strong civic institutions are one answer. Unfortunately they cannot simply be willed into existence. All the more reason, then, to cherish the ones that we have. Not enough boys are growing up surrounded by men who take the time to instruct them in how to be “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard