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No Doubts, Boy Scouts

Is There a Gay God?


Gay or Not Gay? If you’re thinking of becoming a Boy Scout, as the movement celebrates its 100th anniversary, be sure that you are not gay and harbor not the slightest doubt that God exists.

And if you do get in, and you have a gay sexual orientation, or have any doubts whatsoever about the deity, make sure Scout leaders don’t find out, or you’re liable to be booted out.

Barney Brantingham

As the Scout organization made clear upon winning its 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000, which said that it’s a private organization and can ban gays, Scouting’s First Amendment-protected “expressive message” includes opposition to homosexuality.

Ironically, according to Tim Jeal’s biography, British war hero Lord Baden-Powell, who founded Scouting, was a repressed homosexual.

Scouting contends that among its main concepts, in building character in young men, is support for the concept of God; so it bans atheists and agnostics along with homosexuals.

So I got to pondering, what exactly is an agnostic? Just someone who doubts the existence of God? Not that simple, according to theologians and philosophers down through the ages.

If you’re a 12-year-old boy and find yourself confronting this question, you’re liable to find yourself digging through loads of lore, ranging from Greek philosophers to British thinker Thomas Huxley, who coined the term agnostic. As our boy gets deeper into the puzzle, he may learn that according to Wikipedia, there are a half-dozen or more degrees of agnosticism, including the belief that the existence of God is simply unknowable, as in, “I cannot know whether a deity exists or not and neither can you.”

Then there’s the “I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day when there is evidence we can find something out.”

Then there’s something called “apathetic agnosticism,” the view that there’s no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, and since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely moot.

There are also the agnostic atheists who don’t claim to know of the existence of any deity and don’t believe in any. Then there’s “spiritual agnosticism,” the view of theists who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity but still believe in such an existence.

There are still more variations on the theme. By then, our 12-year-old might either be thoroughly confused, or be able to say that he is some version of an agnostic, or that he harbors absolutely no doubts about the existence of God. (At least until he turns 13 and continues to ponder the question that has troubled thinkers for centuries.)

The high court agreed with Scouting in the 2000 case that accepting even one gay (specifically James Dale, the New Jersey Scout and Scout leader who made a federal case of it) “would derogate from the organization’s expressive message” of opposition to homosexuality.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, said that the mere presence of Assistant Scoutmaster Dale “would, at the very least, force the organization to send a message … that the Boy Scouts accept homosexual conduct as a legitimate form of behavior.”

But, critics of the court argued, the Supremes took a different tack in the 1980s when all-male organizations like the Rotary Club fought to keep women out as members. The clubs contended that they had a First Amendment right to exclude women, but lost. In the Dale case, by contrast, the court ruled that the Scouts had a First Amendment right to exclude gays.

Well, as we all know, when judges want to justify something that’s hard to justify, they can find a way. In the Dale case, the court said that opposition to women was not a prime aspect of being a Rotarian, but that opposition to homosexuality was key to Scouting. In response, one of Dale’s lawyers said the decision “requires [Scouting] to declare yourself an institution with an anti-gay message, and we don’t think there are many organizations in this day and age willing to declare themselves as that.”

In the decade since, society has changed so much that same-sex marriage has been legalized in some instances. The country has moved on, but Scouting has not.

As for me, my happy Scouting days back on the South Side of Chicago were untroubled by such issues. We were not grilled on our particular personal variation of agnosticism, if any, or whether we were obeying our “duty to God,” whatever that might be, as required by the Scout Oath. In it we promised to be “morally straight,” by which, I now learn, Scouting means “heterosexual.”

Despite all this, I know of Santa Barbara gays who sailed through Scouting as boys and loved it. Back in Chicago, we simply learned to tie knots and send and receive Morse code by flags, and went camping. Our scoutmaster was a stern commandant who taught us a lot. When he said the accusation that he exposed himself to a little neighbor girl who wandered into his basement was false, we believed him.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.



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