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Former Fuller president: Boy Scouts helped me. Who will fill civic hole?

Former Fuller president: Boy Scouts helped me. Who will fill civic hole?

The Boy Scouts are in trouble. The organization, as we have been learning from the headlines, has filed for bankruptcy. But even if the Scouts find a way to survive financially, the Scouting movement has to deal with a serious loss of public confidence. Critics have been alleging a shocking lack of transparency over the decades in dealing with cases of sexual abuse. If the organization is to recover, it has much work to convince us that it has dealt with past injustices.

Richard J. Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. | (Photo: Fuller Theological Seminary)

I have been following all of this with a sense of sadness. Scouting was a key influence for me in my younger days. Before I joined the Scouts my social world was pretty much defined by an evangelical home and congregation, and daily attendance at a Christian school. Then I joined a Scout troop at a local Episcopal church, and my relationships expanded. I worked on merit badge projects with Latino and African American peers, and I formed a close friendship with Bobby Silverstein, the only Jewish kid in the troop. At every meeting we pledged allegiance to the flag together and heard little homilies from our Scoutmaster about doing a good deed daily.

So, those good memories account for my sadness about the current crisis. But I have a bigger concern. The Boy Scouts in the past performed an important function in the broader culture.  We can call it formation for citizenship. “Formation” has become a kind of buzzword these days. In Christian circles we talk about the importance of “spiritual formation” and ethicists have been attending in recent years to “moral formation.”

The Boy Scout program combined a bit of both kinds. Take the ten-point “Scout Law” that many of us former Scouts can still rattle off  on command: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” Not exactly the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but I think we all sensed that this “Law” was important for our shared lives as citizens, whatever else we believed as members of different churches and temples.

A friend of mine, in commenting on the present Boy Scout troubles, said: “I hope they don’t survive. It has always just been a bunch of civil religion!” Well, that  Boy Scout  Law is certainly quite civil, but it does not come across as overtly religious. The one exception in the Law’s list of ten virtues is “reverent,” but even that has a broad application. Christians and Jews certainly have compelling theological reasons for valuing reverence, since being reverent toward God is crucial to our faith. But one of the New Testament writers also sees reverence as mandatory in how we treat people with whom we strongly disagree about matters of faith: The Apostle Peter urged first century Christians to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” — and then this important piece of counsel: “yet with gentleness and]reverence” (I Peter 3: 15). Being reverent toward those with whom we disagree on serious matters is clearly grounded in the biblical teaching that all human beings bear the image of the divine Creator.

Here is my main point, though. The Boy Scout Law gives us a list of attitudes and dispositions that can serve as a check list for assessing the strength of the social bond. For example, I have spent a good part of my adult life advocating for racial equality, and I have rejoiced when laws have been passed preventing racial discrimination.  But the patterns supported by those pieces of legislation are — as should be obvious these days — increasingly fragile. What we are missing these days are a spirit of kindness, a desire to come to the aid of persons in distress, courage in speaking out against instances of injustice. In short, we are missing a clear commitment to the virtues listed in the Scout Law.

In the evangelical world, of course, we have alternatives to the Boy Scouts these days — scouting type movements for boys and for girls that are based on explicitly biblical convictions. I understand the benefits of groups of that sort, and we can hope that their kind will increase as the Boy Scout and Girl Scout movements increasingly move away from their founding values. But I have to emphasize what was so important for me in joining the Scouts: actually getting to know kids who were not evangelical Christians. As Christian schools and home-schooling have increased we need to think about how the face-to-face dimensions of civic formation can be carried on. Where today are young people being formed for actually living out in a public way the virtues prescribed in the Scout Law?

Worshiping communities can do some of this. The theologian Ronald Thiemann made this point nicely when he wrote about the need for congregations to serve as "schools of public virtue" that help to form "the kind of character necessary for public life." Unfortunately, though, local churches often fail seriously in this kind of formation. Indeed, church is sometimes the place where suspicions of folks who are not like us — even open hostility toward them — is cultivated.

The philosopher Aristotle paid a lot of attention to the importance of friendship in moral development. Our earliest lessons in learning what it means to be bonded to other human beings happen in kinship relations, beginning with Mommy and Baby. But we soon form bonds with people outside our immediate families: friendships in our neighborhoods and schools. For Aristotle, these stages of development are necessary for the very adult bonding that happens in public life, where we experience the civic friendships with people whom we do not know individually, but with whom we share a common humanity. What we learn in families and friendships is necessary preparation for become good adult citizens.

Can we really deny that the bonds of civic friendship are increasingly fragile in contemporary life? Much of this has to do with changing patterns in the earlier stages of formation for citizenship:  The geographic spread of the extended family; the impact of social media; increasing diversity of religious and non-religious identities; and awareness of alternative life-styles.

To counter the fragmentation in all of this, we need to be working on face-to-face encounters and engagement in shared projects — as well as an awareness of the actual virtues that go into,  using Thiemann’s phrase, “the kind of character necessary for public life." The Boy Scouts program served many of us well in all of that in the past. The current troubles of the Scouting movement are an important occasion for reflecting on what we desperately need these days for the crucial process of formation of citizenship.

I am deeply sympathetic to concerns of parents and grandparents who worry about their offspring being exposed to corrupting influences in our culture. But irreverence toward people who are created in God’s image is also a corrupting influence in our culture.  And in our increasingly polarized society we Christians have often been a part of the problem. Can we think of creative ways to equip our young people to become agents of civic friendship?

Richard Mouw is professor of Faith and Public Life and president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.  

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