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Boy Scouts and God: Why must theology be mandatory?

Today, I got to thinking about a subject that has been troubling me for years. I don’t really know what brought it on or why I was suddenly pulled to write a blog post, something I haven’t done in over a month (oops) about it, but I’m here now. The subject is this: why is religion a requirement for being a Boy Scout?

Many people are familiar with the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” and almost as many are familiar with its slogan, “Do a good turn daily,” however if you are able to recite the Scout Oath by heart, it’s probably because you were once, like me, a card-carrying member of the Boy Scouts of America organization. For those of you that never were, here it is:

“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.”

Now there is a lot of strange language in here that deserves close reading (“physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” in particular stands out to me as potentially exclusive of many minorities like the wheelchair-bound, developmentally disabled, and homosexual), but what I want to focus on is this idea of doing your duty “to God.”

What if you don’t believe in god? What if you’re an atheist? Or a polytheist who can’t do a duty “to God,” because the word is not in plural? This oath presents problems for these individuals, problems that have been demonstrated again and again.

In 2002, an Eagle Scout was kicked out of the organization for his atheist beliefs and the case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale shows that this same principle has been used as a tenet to exclude homosexual teens from the Boy Scouts because of the all too commonly held belief that homosexuality is an abomination before God, and thus not in adherence to the oath, which insists that you “do [your] duty to God.”

I understand why this principle might be important to the BSA: the moral framework which religion can provide is an important part of being a Boy Scout. However, this moral framework sure seems redundant when pressed up against the Scout Law, which the Oath also insists you follow:

“A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent.”

Are these not the same standards that religion is supposed to bring? Why are both needed? What is the purpose? Adding this requirement simply turns the BSA into a believers-only country club instead of the once great organization it used to be.

Images, Scout Oath, and Scout Law courtesy of Boy Scouts of America.