An edited version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week as Boy Scouts Search for a New Path. With Michael Malone’s permission, we have posted the longer version here.

Having passed through the controversy over gay youth and adult members, the Boy Scouts of America now finds itself at a crossroads. The path it chooses may have a profound and enduring impact on our nation’s life.

For a century now, Scouting has been, and remains, the largest youth organization in the United States. There are 2.6 million Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Venturers and Explorers today (and 1 million adult volunteers) out of a total of 115 million Scouts of all types in the BSA’s 105 year history.

But Scouting’s membership numbers have been falling now for nearly 20 years. There are a number of explanations: declining birth rates, more distractions (from video games to other youth organizations), and busier lives for both 21st century kids and their parents. There is no question that during this period Scouting has also suffered, at least among certain populations, from the stigma of its membership policies. But worse than that, internally and in response to these public attacks, the BSA has increasingly withdrawn into a shell, devoting more time to talking to its current membership than to the outside world.

Now, with the recent changes, it sometimes resembles a hermit emerging into the bright sunlight after years in a darkened bunker, blinded by its new freedom and unsure which direction to go. Scouting has both strategies and a new leadership for just this moment; the question is whether it has the will, at the national and local levels, to execute those plans.

Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive BSA seated center with troop
Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive, seated center with Troop 380 chartered  by Emmanuel Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA

One thing is certain: this decline cannot go on forever. As the new Chief Scout Executive, Michael Surbaugh, who assumes his duties this month, told a gathering of the BSA’s top local executives last month, Scouting needs to decide whether it is going to continue as a national organization or become a boutique organization. That is, will Scouting continue its century-long program of reaching out to all American boys (and many girls) with an encyclopedic program of outdoor experiences, career education and leadership training? Or will it narrow its target audience to just those boys and young men interested in traditional Scouting?

This is a monumental decision, because it will not only impact Scouting, but the rest of American life. More is at stake than just how many merit badges Scouts will be able to earn in 2020.

Why? For one thing, there is no other program in this country that covers all of boyhood from age 6 to 21 that also runs the full gamut of training from traditional outdoor skills to STEM to graduate level management and leadership training. The Eagle Scout award, which is only earned after passing more than three hundred requirements in everything from First Aid to Robotics—as well as devising and leading a community service project that is the equivalent of a corporate new product development program—is rightly called “the PhD of Boyhood”. There is simply nothing else for boys its equal in our national life.

As I noted in Wall Street Journal several years ago, the Eagle Scout service project, at more than 150 million hours and counting, is the largest youth service initiative in history. There is likely not a public school, park, trail or charitable institution in this country that has not been positively impacted by an Eagle Scout project. What happens if that disappears, or shrinks away?

Those competing organizations that have sprung up in a negative reaction to the BSA’s new membership rulings may attempt to imitate Scouting, but they cannot duplicate a century of field testing and perfecting the program with more than one hundred million subjects.

At a time when the quality of public education is in question, when both parents are forced to work long hours, and when young men seem increasingly alienated from and unable to compete in the modern economy, this seems exactly the wrong moment for an organization like Scouting to recede from its long-standing national role. For thousands of boys and young men, many of them without fathers, Scouting fills an aching void. It remains the best youth training program ever devised.

There are other, less appreciated, reasons why Scouting needs to stay central in our national life. While researching my new book on the history of the BSA’s Honor Medal for Saving a Life, we did some statistical and demographic analysis on the medal’s 13,000 recipients…and determined to our amazement that there are as many as 5 million Americans living today because they, or one of their parents or grandparents, were saved by a Boy Scout. That’s the population of Los Angeles or Chicago. What if those young men hadn’t been there, hadn’t been properly trained, and hadn’t had the courage to run towards danger?

Scouting likes to talk about how it has helped give to America numerous Medal of Honor recipients, Nobel Laureates, astronauts, and one president of the United States. But the real question is what will Scouting give us if it chooses to retreat into a specialty organization?

And it just may do so. The sad truth is that the BSA is weary and wary. It has been under assault now for so long that few of even its adult members remember when the organization was triumphant. The President and his administration chose not to send a single representative when Scouting held its centennial march down Constitution Avenue in 2010—not far from where President Roosevelt once presided over the first BSA National Jamboree and used it as a symbol of hope during the Great Depression.

We live in our own dispiriting times—and we need Scouting now more than ever. But will America’s civic, corporate and government leaders once again take the program to heart? Will those millions of adult Americans who turned their backs on Scouting once again embrace it? And most of all, will the BSA have the courage to reassert its traditional role in American life?

Let us hope so. We need our own rescue.

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Michael S. Malone
Mr. Malone, a veteran journalist and Distinguished Eagle Scout, is the author of a new history of Eagle Scouting, "Four Percent" (WindRush Publishing) and a new book is "Running Towards Danger" (Windrush Press, 2015), a history of the Boy Scout Honor Medal. Michael is one of the world’s best-known technology writers. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. His articles and editorials have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Fortune, and The New York Times. He is an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University and also an associate fellow of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford and is a Distinguished Friend of Oxford.

29 comments

  1. Kelly P says:

    Seriously, how many of you writing in are actual adult leaders? People who have worked with a wide variety of boys, young men, and young women in Scouting? If so, do you have youth–of any gender, background, or identity–lined up to join? Do you have more than enough adult leaders to mentor kids and build an exciting program for them? Scouting is in the unit, not in Irvine.
    The “membership standards” don’t make a bit of difference to the youth. If the program is active, run by the boys (and in Venturing, the girls as well), and supported by adults who put the adventure first, then it will be a success. As a leader for 20+ years, I have had boys of all kinds, and I am proud to say that whether they stayed in Scouting for a month or 12 years, it made a difference. Not because I stood on a rock and preached, but because together we explored the world and learned from each other.
    The Scouting Movement is successful around the world wherever the emphasis is on building leaders and skills through inquiry and adventure. The program in the UK has been coed and focused on youth for a number of years–and is popular and growing.
    For those who are unhappy, I would recommend that you disconnect from message boards, put down the newspaper and turn off the TV. Then, put on your uniform, head out to your nearest Roundtable, and find a unit that needs an adult with your skills. Teach a merit badge, help at a camporee, volunteer as a commissioner. Practice the Golden Rule, and let God take care of the rest.
    Merry Christmas, and may the Master of all Scouts show you the trail.

    1. Mark says:

      Scouting is great and I have had many great years of adventure. The above article cites those who disagree with national policies have turned their backs on Scouting. It’s the other way around. However, it is true Scouting is at the cross roads. I am seeing many, many highly trained leaders leaving with the hundreds of years of tradition burnt into their souls, hearts and spirits – soon to disappear – as a result of making them choose between scouting and their faith.

      I too have come under fire. My comments have been heard and read by many national and local leaders and as expected, I have been asked or shown the door in various ways to “go quietly into the dark”. Nearly 10 years of “dedication” and I am labeled as mean spirited and unworthy.
      I am one who served hundreds and hundreds of Scouts and families. Who replaces me will have much to learn and must be willing to compromise their faith to do so.

      I too am writing a book, Baden Powell’s Last Eagle Scout.

  2. John says:

    BSA is really making a stand on ‘Duty to God’ and states emphatically that they are not ever going to change that. Have you seen their new unit application that states:
    The Boy Scouts of America requires that all chartered organizations, adult leaders, adult program participants, and youth members subscribe to the Declaration of Religious Principle, or “duty to God,” as set forth in the Bylaws of the Boy Scouts of America as follows.
    Clause 1. The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.

  3. Joe Diffy says:

    Any great organization stands rock solid against the changing winds of social trends. It stands bravely against the verbal attacks or even the legal attacks that attempt to undermine its core standards of purity and integrity. A scout is brave. Isn’t he?

  4. Dave Staheli says:

    I am an Eagle Scout of many years. I love the Scout Oath and Law and try to live them. I love all people regardless of their strengths or weaknesses. I believe in treating all people with love and respect. However I can never in the name of tolerance, accept or embrace lifestyles or practices which are offensive to God and which contradict the very laws of nature. For many years the Boy Scouts of America has held true to every point of the Scout Oath but with their decisions this year the BSA has abandoned two key points of these standards including the first, “On My Honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God . . . ” and the last, “to keep myself . . . morally straight.” These first and last standards of the Scout Oath are the walls of the fortress that have protected boys for many years from the intrusion of the evil and destructive forces of a decaying and sick society. It is a sad thing that these walls have been torn down from within by those who should have been the standard bearers but who have instead taken a wrecking ball to the very foundations of a noble organization. Is there still good within the BSA? Of course there is right now, but the walls are down, so what will go down next in the BSA’s determination to seek the favor of and conform to the “new normals” of a degenerating world. The BSA may fall but there are many good people in this country and in the world who will grasp the falling standard of truth and morality and raise it up again to a world desperately in need of the Loyal, the Brave, the Clean, and the Reverent.

  5. ASM Will says:

    The decision comes down to values. Does Scouting compromise its values like every other organization? Or does it continue to help boys become men of virtue – morally straight, reverent and obedient? Scouting has been dedicated to teaching strong values and leadership skills through high adventure activities, the patrol method and the example set by the more than one million adult volunteers. If it gives in it becomes just another club with lose ideals and flavor of the month morality. I hope Scouting maintains its heritage and its virtue. A smaller but cohesive and committed organization we can be proud of. Mr. Gates had done considerable harm to Scouting with his blind obedience to the homosexual lobby. I think we need a new leader. I think we need to save Scouting.

  6. Bob Oleksy says:

    And so what’s next? When the atheists want the “reverent” point of the Scout Law stricken so that Scouting can become more inclusive, will the BSA roll over and remove it in order to placate another group?

  7. Angie K says:

    I completely agree that we need scouting more than ever to build those traditional core values and to help mold our upcoming generation with Eagle Scouts. I have been a scout leader for many years and hold true to its values! With an ever changing society we need to stay rooted in tradition and value!

    THAT is why scouting must also stay true to its traditions and values and must not change with society, which it did this summer! I am devastated at what is happening with scouting and still hope it can go back to its tradition and values and not adapt to society.

  8. Sherri Clark says:

    My sons are both Eagle Scouts as all three of my brothers are. We stand by the values of BSA. When they take God out I can no longer support it. Our nation was founded on one nation under God and these changing times will not and does not make it right. BSA has always stood for the good, right and nobel but now they compromise their standards at this juncture and I can no longer see it as the force for good it once was if it continues.

  9. Lonny Heaton says:

    When BSA tells us we can’t show up to support Mitt Romney when he gets off the plane, and yet they want us to allow gay leaders to be intimately involved with scouts – and let gay scouts sleep in the same tents with straight scouts “as if there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality” – I feel like it’s a mixed signal. What does BSA organization stand for? Are they for God and Country are they for increasing the size of BSA???

    No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. ~Matthew 6:24

    When they figure out what they stand for, then they can stand proud regardless of the numbers. To me, the BSA has put it’s goal of providing jobs and keeping up its numbers ahead of it’s principles. When it acts politically to vote while LDS leadership is not present, it becomes a house divided.

    And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. ~Mark 3:25

    I don’t want to see BSA fall, I just want it to stick to principals that support God & Country – and I’d like to see the BSA support all political parties per troop decision… and support the constitution and love all man kind (regardless of race, color, sex, or sexual preference)… but just not allow members and leaders that are extremely immoral in any manner to be participants.

    What is the moral code of the BSA? What are their standards? What sets them apart from the agnostics, athiests, and communists? I sure don’t know.

  10. VC Scott says:

    After over 30 years in Scouting as a youth and adult, I see what’s new.

    The NEW Scout oath: On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to the secular god of this country and to obey the Scout Law(?); to help other people at all times – especially sodomites; to keep myself physically strong, mentally duped and morally ambivalent.

    The NEW Scout law is truncated: Loyal, Obedient, Brave, Clean and Reverent. Dropped. They just don’t apply anymore.
    Loyal – not to Scouting.
    Obedient- to what and whom?
    Brave – how? By standing up for what is right?
    Clean – you mean morally?
    Reverent – by bowing down to political correctness!

    The NEW leadership may keep the old verbiage but people with eyes to see and ears to hear, clearly see through the smoke from the ashes of a formerly great organization and hear the resoundingly unsubstantiated words of the oath and law as mere platitudes.

  11. Phil Lammi says:

    All arguments aside, with the BSA caving in, I lost my respect for the BSA HQ folks. My church still supports it, so I will because I have trust in our leadership. But honestly, my enthusiasm for this great institution has gone flat. Sorry, the spark is gone.

  12. TJ says:

    I have a gay cousin. One of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Morally upright in every respect except for his sexual orientation. He’s a fantastic person. But I’ve met a few people in his social circle who are hedonistic monsters, I mean, so proud of their gayness that they do everything humanly possible to offend those around them, to make sure that straight people see their divergent sexuality in every move, in every gesture, in every glance. It literally gives me shivers and makes me sick just to look at that brand of “gay pride”.

    I’m not offended that my cousin is gay, or that he’s comfortable with who he is, but I’m offended that some homosexuals insist on forcing their gayness down everybody else’s throats, from how they dress, to how they think & act, to how they plot for the expansion of the homosexual revolution… some of these people are on a mission to promote homosexuality. That kind of a leader in a scout troop could be absolutely devastating to a group of young men. Some of them are overt homosexual predators.

    My cousin, on the other hand, would be a wonderful gay leader. The question is, how does the organization protect it’s youth from sexual predators, both homosexual and straight? There has to be a way to filter out purely immoral and evil men from the organization. There are some great rules you are required to learn while going through leadership training, but an immoral sexual predator will agree to the rules readily, and then break them without so much as a shrug or a pause… potentially destroying the lives of young men and women who are trying to become adults.

    The scouting organization caved to social pressure regarding homosexual leaders, and that’s understandable. But they need to have some more stringent rules in place for protecting against sexual predators, of both varieties. Perhaps an interview / vouching system combined with background checks, where district leaders interview potential new leaders, evaluate their personality and character before allowing them in, and get verbal and signed commitments to obey scout rules, including not saying or acting in any way that would promote homosexuality as a “social lifestyle”.

    If my cousin were to join scouting as a leader, I would wholeheartedly vouch for him, because he’s an awesome, moral, human being. But I’ve known enough people who are part of the “gay pride” movement who would literally be scouting’s worse nightmare. As a parent, if one of these truly evil men were to join my troop or crew as a leader, I would immediately withdraw my son and do everything possible to encourage other parents to do the same. There is no sense risking the well-being of your son or daughter on such a senseless thing.

    But the same can be said of “straight” men. There are plenty of evil straight men who would be a bad influence on scouts as well, and I’d just as readily pull my son or daughter from a scout group if a straight man of that sub-character were to become a leader. In all my years around scouting, I’ve never seen any such man choose to be a part of scouting. I’ve only seen upright and honorable people get involved as leaders, so I’m not terribly worried… because I think the scout law & oath are a natural filter for such men.

    One of the key differences between my cousin, and those other homosexuals I’ve described, is that my cousin believes in God and in the moral laws of God. He would support the scout oath and law, and encourage others to do the same. He’s homosexual, he was born that way, and has come to grips with that. If God wanted all people to be straight, he’d make that happen. The reality is, we have to deal with people on a one-by-one basis, make a decision as to whether the individual leaders will support the scout oath & law. The moment the leadership changes that law, removes God, removes the moral code of ethics, that is the moment scouting ceases to be scouting and becomes just one more inadequate social institution that has no power or authority to teach morality, ethics, and truth.

    Some would argue that God has no place in any institution, or in the world in general. But throughout the history of men, religious institutions have been the only consistent source of moral teaching, independent of rapidly changing government or constantly shifting social customs. The Boy Scouts was founded as a non-denominational religious institution that teaches morality, responsible ethics, & virtue and has done so in a consistent and fruitful fashion. Any attempt to change that would be akin to terrorists hijacking Islam. And what is happening today is very similar to social terrorists trying to hijack scouting.

    The leadership needs to be very careful and cautious how they proceed, for the future of scouting, and of mankind is at stake. This is just one of many battles being fought in the moral war of our time.

  13. Peregrinator says:

    “But Scouting’s membership numbers have been falling now for nearly 20 years.”

    Actually, if you consider only the traditional youth programs (boy scouts and cub scouts) and adult volunteers, membership in the BSA has been falling for over 40 years. For example, in 1970 membership stood at about 6.3 million (4.7 million youth, 1.6 million adult volunteers); by 1990 this had fallen to 5.1 million and by 2014, to 3.3 million. There were some gains in the mid-1990s but the overall trend is one of decline.

  14. Tom Greene says:

    Why the Scout Organization brought in Robert Gates after he had already demonstrated his lack of commitment to traditional American values is beyond understanding. He had just finished decimating the US Army. The man obviously has no morals that align with traditional American values. The National BSA leadership obviously had an agenda and knew Gates was a man without integrity who could get them where they wanted to go. I’m not just speaking of the decision to lift the ban on gay leadership but the manner in which they brought about the policy change, already mentioned in other comments on this page.

  15. David Ellett says:

    Our church has made many changes regarding how we view and act towards homosexuals, which seem to me to be wise and appropriate.

    Generally, homosexuals are treated the same as those of any other sexual immorality such as fornication and adultery. You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader or a scout, but you must acknowledge that such behavior is immoral and be working towards overcoming it and not be a threat to the influence of young men and women to those behaviors.

    Likewise, just as we do not knowingly appoint leaders who openly promote promiscuity of any other type, we do not make exceptions for homosexuality either.

    Notably, there are very few national groups that fight discrimination against other types of sexual immorality and of those that exist, none compare in numbers or public recognition. Why is that?

    It is also notable that, of prominent national rights organizations, none beside the LGBT are “more” demanding that we give individual, religious and legal deference to their proclivities while simultaneously condemning and diminishing all of the same in return.

  16. David Ellett says:

    Gen. Robert Gates initially pretended to support “Don’t ask, don’t tell” within the military, but then he quickly did an about face and led the way to it’s demise. So those affiliated with the military knew that the BSA policy against openly gay adults was going to be substantially diminished with his appointment as Commissioner in 2014.

    Even though the change in policy is no surprise, it’s still a bittersweet disappointment. I still had hope that the great strength of churches in the BSA would blunt the great leadership and esteem of Gen. Gates and others in their attempt terminate this policy against immorality. But alas, they were able to effect at least a partial prohibition of discrimination against immorality, but did not completely get their way.

    Interestingly, the thought that Gen. Gates may have been recruited for exactly this purpose never occurred to me until this moment. I wonder?

  17. SandyJ says:

    I saw a boy scout troop selling popcorn at a local grocery store, so I asked to speak to the adult in charge. I asked him point blank, “If the boy scouts cannot stand up to the gay mafia, how does it expect to stand up to a grizzly bear?” It has tarnished its reputation by bowing to political correctness. If you look closely, you will see that that same “gay mafia” has feels no obligation to allow religious differences of opinion or allow Christians to disapprove of their behavior, even in the privacy of their own home. When the Boy Scouts buckled under, they made themselves irrelevant.

    1. FormerScout says:

      Me and my dad quit scouts right as they let gay youths in the organization. We both knew all along what would happen next. Now we can see the kind of people that want to lead scouts. Atheists. People in it FOR THEIR OWN INTERESTS. You guys really don’t know what you’ve done to a great, Christian organization. If the BOY scouts…..this is no organization for girls….. die out it is because of those who are trying to destroy the basic principles of a Christian, God-loving organization in order that they can let themselves in. Great job guys….I’m sure Robert Baden-Powell is turning over in his grave in sorrow of what his Boy Scouts have become

  18. Darrell Keim says:

    Derek, yes they did. It has been a long standing policy that local chartered organizations determine who can join. The bsa only specifically began excluding gays in the early 90s. National has only specifically banned two groups in recent years. Gays and godless. They went to great lengths to maintain these bans. Including the Supreme Court, and hemorrhaging members. What more would you have them do? Die out for a cause their own youth (they took a survey) don’t support?
    To this day any local scout group can decide not to accept anyone. A local group could, for instance, decide they don’t like redheads-and none would be allowed to join.
    Thanks for sharing your history of volunteering with the bsa. Mine is similar, but includes ten years as a district director.

    1. Derek Ho says:

      Sorry Darrell but you’re flat out wrong, district director or not. National didn’t have to explicitly codify exclusions until the litigious 1990s. I remember being told in the 1970s that you had to believe in SOMETHING — it could be Jehovah, Allah, or Zoroaster but you had to have a belief. Likewise, homosexuals were kicked out when their activities were made known.
      Regardless, Robert Gates took the policy out of local organizations hands when he said ONLY troops chartered by religious organizations could deny a homosexual adult membership based on his or her practices. Reread the announcement — a troop chartered by an American Legion post or school or Joe Schmoe cannot exercise the right of association in this respect.
      BSA won its court case and continues to proclaim itself as a faith-based organization (see the latest Voice of Scouting). Contrary to the rewritten history being pushed, BSA has always been faith-based — in fact, adding “Reverent” to the BSA’s Scout Law was one thing that distinguished it from B-P’s original Scout Law. Robert Gates’ bow to the forces of political correctness serves only to burnish his political credentials; it will not open the flood gates of funding or membership. As I said before, my biggest problem with this is the out-and-out dishonesty and totalitarianism practiced by National in this “decision”.

  19. JerryD says:

    “That is, will Scouting continue its century-long program of reaching out to all American boys (and many girls)…” Truth it does’t now. While I am still a avid and active supporter of BSA, and I think Mr. Gates did some great things the past few years to move scouting away from it’s discriminatory past it still has a ways to go. Allowing gay youth and leaders (somewhat) to participate changed nothing for anyone. Truth is a lot of the youth simply don’t care, it’s the adults who make a big stink. Truth is until the BSA drops the requirement of a belief in a supreme being the numbers will likely continue to slide. If you believe, fantastic, go out an earn those religious awards, if not, great as well. It’s not about a god, it’s about aiding young men and women to be good citizens. Being reverent is not only about religion, it’s about being respectful, look it up.

    I love this program and what it has done for my son and daughters. Let’s just get the discrimination out of the program.

  20. Derek Ho says:

    Darrell, they did NOT let the chartering organization decide standards. They provided a waiver of this new policy ONLY to religious chartering organizations. This has been nothing but a panoply of deceit and untruths out of Irving.
    I for one not only object to the decision it self but to the manner in which it was decided and carried out. This was the most reprehensible unScoutlike behavior I’ve ever seen from National. Secretary Gates and the Board of Directors announced it as virtually a done deal to the Scout Executives with 1 hour notice in the middle of July when most units were concentrating on camping. They didn’t ask for feedback on a proposed policy, they simply TOLD the rest of us this is how it’s going to be.
    I stayed with Scouting up to charter renewal time but this marks the end for me of over 25 years as an adult Scouter, around 35 years if you include my time as a youth. Perhaps I’ll return when Gates is gone or perhaps I will have found a new home for my time, energy, and money by then.

      1. Ken Curtis says:

        I’m with you…. The scouts do not need more things to divert them from the scout oath. Law or motto. I think we’ll see a lot of very negative things happen within the program because of the liberalism demonstrated so far by the scout executives in the BSA.

  21. John Brown says:

    You know, we can not save or be everything for everyone and there are going to be a lot of youth that have other agendas and scouting may not be it. If we provide a solid program the ones who want to join will and will prosper. Those who do not want to participate will do other things. We can only hope those other things do not lead to bad things and they can still become part of our community in their own way. Sometimes scouting is not for everyone, have a solid program and they will come.

  22. Darrell Keim says:

    They tried that stance, Beverly. It didn’t work. They’ve since reverted to their traditional stance of letting the chartering organization decide those standards.

  23. Beverly Kingsford says:

    Too bad that the BSA has allowed gay men to be in leadership positions. I’m sure this is hurting the organization a lot. And, I think it will continue to hurt it. BSA has to stand up to what is right eventually. Might as well do it now.

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