The sudden turnaround by the Boy Scouts of America on who is allowed to be a scout or scoutmaster is evidence of the new limits of religion-based conservative activism. Proof of the new boundaries can be found in what will change -- and what will not.
Bottom line: Gay boys and gay or lesbian scoutmasters may soon be welcome in some Boy Scout troops. Atheists and agnostics, not so much.
If you missed the news, the Boy Scouts headquarters issued a statement Monday that its leaders were rethinking the question of whether people who were openly gay or lesbian could be involved with the organization.
Excluding gays and lesbians has a long history in the Boy Scouts. The official polices once included this section (but does no longer):
"Boy Scouts of America believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed. Scouting's position with respect to homosexual conduct accords with the moral positions of many millions of Americans and with religious denominations to which a majority of Americans belong. Because of these views, Boy Scouts of America believes that a known or avowed homosexual is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys."
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the organization's right to maintain this policy.
And only six months ago, the organization ended a two-year examination of the long-standing policy excluding gays and lesbians with this:
"The committee's work and conclusion is that this policy reflects the beliefs and perspectives of the BSA's members, thereby allowing Scouting to remain focused on its mission and the work it is doing to serve more youth."
So Monday's announcement was a real head-turner:
"Currently, the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation. This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs. BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families."
Call it local option. (By the way, and not that I can find it on the Girl Scouts of America website, but other news sources say this has basically been that organization's policy since 1991 when it adopted a statement that says "there are no membership policies on sexual preference.")
Strictly by the numbers, the Boy Scouts aren't exactly a juggernaut: about 2.5 million scouts and almost a million scout leaders. That's a big crowd in one place but not much more than rounding error in a nation of more than 300 million people.
But the Boy Scouts have always represented something disproportionately significant in American culture: something conservative in the best use of that word. Where honorable values and ancient skills are maintained in ways that bond boys and men. Even people who have never been scouts can have a Norman Rockwell feeling toward those aspects of the organization, a feeling that it's good to have it around even if you don't actually want to join.
But then there are the conservative values that aren't nearly so universal, many of which are rooted in the historical twining of the Boy Scouts and religion. As the Boy Scout oath puts it right up front:
"On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country..."
Atheists and agnostics need not apply.
American conservatism has always had the libertarian "leave me alone and I'll do the same to you" strain and the "God has told me what's right so I need to carry that to the world" strain. The religion-linked conservatism has had the loudest megaphone in American culture for a while. But I'd suggest that the Boy Scouts' latest announcement is evidence that the libertarian strain, at least as supported by some of the organization's largest donors and supporters, is now in the ascendency.
The local options being discussed wouldn't require any scouting troop to take any particular position on homosexuality. What that means is that there will be troops that are known to be open and those not, so parents will have the ability to choose what they want for their boys. (I can imagine diversity creating some real issues at the Jamborees, however.)
But what about parents and kids whose attitude toward religion is not doctrinaire? I sent an email to the Boy Scouts' national spokesman, Deron Smith. Will there be a "local option" offered for atheists or agnostics?
From his answer, it appears that religious conservatism still holds the line there.
"It is the position of the Boy Scouts of America that the ideals and principles of 'Duty to God' and 'reverence' set forth in the Scout Oath and Law are central to teaching young people to make better choices over their lifetimes."
It's certainly the right of the Boy Scouts to take that position, and maybe history has made it impossible to extract religious faith from the Boy Scout mission.
Of course, the organization was just as unequivocal not so long ago about sexual orientation. So maybe the non-religious still do have a prayer of becoming Boy Scouts one day.