Repeat after me . . .
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.
That, kids, is the Scout Oath, the words that every Boy Scout recites with two or three fingers pressed against his forehead.
The “morally straight” part almost got settled this year when the Scouts finally ruled that gay boys would henceforth be worthy of joining the club. I don’t think the founders of this organization ever intended “morally straight” to mean “morally heterosexual,” and now they’ve halfway straightened it all out. I say halfway because they still don’t allow gay adults to be Scout leaders. So now you can be gay and a Scout until you reach adulthood, at which time you must amazingly become straight or, more likely, take a hike. Them’s the rules.
But those rules are downright radical when compared to another part of their pledge. We’re talking “God and my country.”
In 2013, if you don’t happen to believe in God, then you’re still on the outside looking in. The Scouts make it very clear: We don’t want no stinkin’ atheists.
So what do you do when your kid wants to join the Scouts, and you happen not to believe in the Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky?
Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you about the day my son, Ben, wanted to be a Tiger Scout, and how a little clause in the signup form opened not only my eyes, but his.
The Tiger Scouts, in case you haven’t heard of them, are what boys (sorry, girls, you’re not invited to this party) can be when they’re too young to be Cub Scouts, who are too young to be Boy Scouts, who hope someday to be Eagle Scouts.
We’re talking first-graders here. Six-year-olds.
All the first-graders want to be Tiger Scouts, because conformity really matters to 6-year-old boys. And nobody wants to be the one who isn’t wearing a super-cool uniform with a super-cool bandanna with a super-cool bandanna clip.
And that included Ben. He wanted to be a Tiger Scout, like all his friends, so I took him to the signup meeting at his school one night.
And all was going well . . . all his friends were there . . . and the Cub Scouts were there in their dark blue uniforms and the Boy Scouts were there in their tan uniforms and the Boy Scout leaders were there with all their badges and stuff on their shirts . . . and everyone pledged allegiance to the flag and then all the Scouts recited their Scout Pledge and this all looked supercool to the 6-year-olds.
Ben wanted very much to be part of this. And he had every reason to presume that I’d be part of it, too.
After all, I participated in all of Ben’s activities. I was a T-Ball coach; I was a Little League coach; I took him to school every morning; I served on his PTA; I froze at every soccer game. I even ran the Good Humor truck at the Goosetown Bazaar, his school’s annual fundraising fair.
It stood to reason that I would volunteer to be the den leader of his Tiger Scout troop.
So I pulled out my pen and started filling out the signup form. First name, middle name, last name, date of birth, school attending, father’s name, mother’s name, siblings’ names, blah blah blah blah blah yadda yadda, and then we came to the part that I had to sign . . .
“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them. The Boy Scouts of America, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training. Its policy is that the home and the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life.”
On the Boy Scouts Legal site, this declaration comes soon after the following rules for Youth and Adult Volunteers:
Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. Accordingly, youth members and adult volunteer leaders of Boy Scouts of America obligate themselves to do their duty to God and be reverent as embodied in the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. Leaders also must subscribe to the Declaration of Religious Principle. Because of its views concerning the duty to God, Boy Scouts of America believes that an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys. Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders.
And now we have a problem. It appears that I have been designated as unfit to serve.
So I put a giant “X” through that part of the form, and I put my initials next to my giant “X,” and then I signed the form giving Ben my permission to be a Tiger Scout, and then I brought the form up to the Scout leader, Keir, who was a neighbor and friend of mine, and I said Keir, I’m not going to sign this part of the form. In fact, please observe that I’ve put a big X through it and I’ve initialed that X and if anyone wants to make a big deal about it, if anyone says that Ben can’t be a Tiger Scout, then we’ll just have to make a bigger deal out of all of this and bring in the lawyers.
And because I live in an enlightened part of the country, and because Keir was my friend and a fellow contributor to the well-being of all the kids in our village and town, and because, really, nobody wants to bring in the lawyers, Keir said don’t worry about it.
And, just like that, Ben was a Tiger Scout.
But it wasn’t quite over. Because now it was time to ask the grownups to volunteer to be the den leaders. And Ben looked at me, presuming that my hand would be the first to go up, as always.
Only it didn’t.
And Ben looked very disappointed, and he asked why I didn’t want to be a den leader.
And I explained to Ben that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to lead his pack, it was that I wasn’t allowed. You see, Ben, I don’t believe in god, and our family does not belong to any house of worship, and we don’t engage in religious training, and it says right here that people like me are not appropriate role models and that the Scouts do not allow people like me to be members or Scout leaders.
And Ben said, loudly and indignantly:
“THAT’S NOT FAIR.”
And he was goddam right. It wasn’t fair. And it still isn’t.
And Ben went to a few den meetings before he decided there were better things to do with his time, and with his dad. And he never even made it to Cub Scout.
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