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Religion and the Boy Scouts

Pr. Larry Beane has an interesting post on a religious activity conducted within the Cub Scouts. Scouts of all ages and sexes (mostly Boy Scouts) participated in a Ten Commandments Hike, where scouts hiked to various houses of worship and listened to explanations of the Decalogue from various Christian and non-Christian traditions. Check it out; I think it is very cool.

It was a little while ago, but I recall very little about the role of religion in my experience as a Cub Scout. I was in a one-den pack for half of my “career”, and when that pack folded we moved to a pack sponsored by a school. I don’t remember wearing the Cub Scout uniform on Scout Sunday.

I do remember wearing the uniform as a Boy Scout, and there were more interactions with religion in an organization where one-twelfth of the Scout Law was “A scout is reverent.”

My Boy Scout troop was hosted by a Presbyterian church. We participated on Scout Sunday by going to that church and singing a simple praise chorus. On the monthly campout, we would report to a common area and hold a service which consistent of singing songs out of a pamphlet prepared by the Protestant Committee. I don’t remember much of the content of the “message” given by a Scoutmaster or Troop Committee member. I don’t think we did much else as a troop.

At scout camp, where I attended the 10-day camper course four times and staffed for four summers, we had worship services at a permanent chapel in the woods. This was where the divisions in religious services became apparent. There was the Protestant service, which the Lutherans attended; the Roman Catholic service, and the Jewish service. Mormon scout troops arranged to go during the same part of the year so they could have a larger Mormon service.

My last two years I was Chaplain’s Aide at the scout camp. It was an easy $15/week that went along with the $80/week I earned as a camp counselor the final year. I led songs, passed the offering plate, and introduced the pastor who would speak that day. I counted the offering and made sure the pamphlets returned to the lock box. Most of the time life was uneventful, except for the Sundays where large black troops attended the Protestant service. They were very patient with my leading “Amazing Grace.” I was quite counter-cultural to them, and there was no way for me to know “better.”

Again, I don’t remember much about the sermons, but at least the Chaplains did mention Jesus.

A controversy festered over religion over grace at meals. Camp counselors and instructors rotated saying grace for the entire dining hall. An 18-year-old counselor refused to say the grace without saying it in Jesus’ name. Knowing that person, I believe he was really taking the issue seriously rather than just being obnoxious. He ended up being excluded from saying grace at all. At that time most of us either followed the convention of not saying it or we tried to cloak it, saying “in your name we pray” or something similar: God knew whom we meant.

The Boy Scouts have several honor camping organizations that have customs that purport to follow the ways of the American Indian. Among these included common prayers and bowing upon entering and leaving council rings.

Most of the ceremonies and interfaith religious services were done in such a way that one could plug one’s God into the behavior model and not offend. Towards the end of my Scouting “career”, though, we were at a camporee where 20 or more scout troops attended a service in a large park. Instead of breaking along similar religious lines, there was a Muslim religious leader who read from the Koran, a rabbi who read from the Old Testament, and a pastor who read from the New Testament. I don’t remember any songs that were sung or any sermon material; this was when I was 15. I knew enough, then, to know that what I witnessed was not a good thing. There was an uproar about it later among the leaders, I never learned the results.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod discourages membership in Boy Scouts because Scouting contains “religious elements which imply that the Scout can do his duty to God regardless of what religion he belongs to. This contradicts the clear statements of Scripture that no one can perform works pleasing to God without faith in Christ.”

Especially in light of the polytheistic worship service above, I find this criticism to be valid. In the other settings, though, where Scouting tries to provide a way to plug in one’s religion without offense, Scouting (in my experience) doesn’t try to teach religion as much as it tries to use religion as a plank for building moral character in a person. It is more about developing people for practice in the civil arena. I don’t know of anyone who participated in the Indian ceremonies that actually believed in the Great Spirit. It seems a kind of Christian-freedom/confusion tension found in 1 Corinthians 8. Maybe this makes real shamen angry; maybe they like the publicity. I don’t know.

The LCMS leaves it up to the individual congregations to decide. I’m not sure I like this because scripture isn’t negotiable by congregation, but this gives flexibility to approve of certain activities and disapprove of others. It is possible to have Christian sermons and hymns in Scouting.

At this point in time I don’t have to worry about kids joining the Boy Scouts. I think the event that Father Hollywood participated in was a way to inform and give scouts additional information in order to discuss their own faith, without indoctrination. That would have been cool to see in my days as a scout.

Originally published at on December 11, 2006.

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