I do not know of a cultural debate that reveals the profound differences among conservative Christians in America more than the recent decision of the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) to openly accept homosexual scouts. (A move to allow openly homosexual scoutmasters to serve Scout troops has been delayed.) This new policy clearly reveals the wide range of Christian responses that exist among Christian leaders and churches.
Ernest Easley, pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, who is the chairman of the Southern Baptist executive committee, says his church will shut down its scout troop at the end of 2013 because of this new policy to allow gay boys to be scouts. Other churches are following this lead in significant numbers.
One of America’s largest mega-churches, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, has announced its own plan to shut down their troop, effective January 1, 2014. Still other visible critics are taking more of a “wait and see attitude” (USA Today, May 31-June 2).
About 70% of Scout troops are chartered by faith-based groups. Southern Baptist churches alone sponsor 3,981 scout troops while Roman Catholics sponsor 8,397 troops according to the BSA. Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Scouts, said the BSA will help troops that have lost their church sponsors to find new homes. He says this new policy fits with the beliefs of most religious groups that sponsor troops. Smith adds, “This policy reaffirms that doing one’s ‘duty to God’ is absolutely explicit and one of the fundamental principles of Scouting states that sexual conduct by any Scout, heterosexual or homosexual, is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
The considerable differences that exist among Christians about how to engage with public policy, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, have again surfaced with this decision.
Here are but three examples of the wide-variety of views that exist within Christian churches:
- Kent Barnett, executive director of the Abilene (TX) Members of the Churches of Christ for Scouting expresses his wish that the BSA had not changed their policy but says that churches should not “take their ball and go home.” He adds, “These Boy Scouts still need godly men and women.” This is the view of most of the evangelicals that I know. It is what I would call an accepting of sexual differences without affirming the practice of all sexual activity. Ironically, the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (Mormon) favored the BSA change. This position is not based on Mormonism’s moral approval of same-sex practice but rather on their approach to inclusion, an approach that appears to not be deeply rooted in denying one’s sexual identity.
- Hundreds of pastors and Christian leaders, all seeming to be within very conservative churches, have said they intend to form a “alternative” to the BSA, a kind of Christian Boy Scouting program. Many have already withdrawn their support of local scout groups. Others, as I’ve noted, are making plans to pull the plug soon. A few months ago evangelical opponents of the new BSA policy met in Louisville to consider creating a gay-free scouting organization. Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God are openly considering leaving and forming a new scout-like program that they have more directy control over.
- Finally, there are Christians who recognize that this new policy does not endorse same-sex practice and who remain very clear that sexual behavior by scouts of any kind is not consistent with scouting. Bishop David Colby of the Nashville (TN) Catholic diocese says that there is no conflict between the new Scout policy and Catholic moral and social teaching. Says Bishop Colby, “The policy in its present form is not inconsistent with church teaching, which upholds the dignity of each and every human being, regardless of sexual orientation.”
This wide-range of responses reveals again that many Christians have not yet formed a consistent view of how they should, or will, respond to people who affirm that they are homosexuals or to other groups and organizations that allow membership to people who self-identify as gays.
The simple fact is that the clock is ticking every day on this issue. Far too few Christian leaders and groups are ready to respond to this issue with the kind of care and thought, controlled and informed by both love and holiness (moral theology), that it calls for in contemporary public statements.