On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youthby Jay Mechling
In a timely contribution to current debates over the psychology of boys and the construction of their social lives, On My Honor explores the folk customs of adolescent males in the Boy Scouts of America during a summer encampment in California's Sierra Nevada. Drawing on more than twenty years of research and extensive visits and interviews with members of/i>
In a timely contribution to current debates over the psychology of boys and the construction of their social lives, On My Honor explores the folk customs of adolescent males in the Boy Scouts of America during a summer encampment in California's Sierra Nevada. Drawing on more than twenty years of research and extensive visits and interviews with members of the troop, Mechling uncovers the key rituals and play events through which the Boy Scouts shapes boys into men. He describes the campfire songs, initiation rites, games, and activities that are used to mold the Scouts into responsible adults.
The themes of honor and character alternate in this new study as we witness troop leaders offering examples in structure, discipline, and guidance, and teaching scouts the difficult balance between freedom and self-control. What results is a probing look into the inner lives of boys in our culture and their rocky transition into manhood. On My Honor provides a provocative, sometimes shocking glimpse into the sexual awakening and moral development of young men coming to grips with their nascent desires, their innate aggressions, their inclination toward peer pressure and violence, and their social acculturation.
On My Honor ultimately shows how the Boy Scouts of America continues to edify and mentor young men against the backdrop of controversies over freedom of religious expression, homosexuality, and the proposed inclusion of female members. While the organization's bureaucracy has taken an unyielding stance against gay men and atheists, real live Scouts are often more open to plurality than we might assume. In their embrace of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding, troop leaders at the local level have the power to shape boys into emotionally mature men.
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On My Honor
Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth
By Jay Mechling
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The "Problem" of God in the Boy Scouts
In April of 1985, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America ruled
that a fifteen-year-old Scout, Paul Trout of Charlottesville, Virginia,
"should be expelled from the Scouts because he doesn't believe in God."
Apparently, Trout mentioned in his interview with the advancement
committee for his promotion to Life that he does not believe in God (or
maybe that he does not believe in God as a Supreme Being, a distinction
that makes a difference). Carl Hunter, director of the Stonewall Jackson
Area Council, was quoted in the press as saying, "The Scout Law requires a
young man to be absolutely loyal to God and country and to be reverent
toward God. You can't do that if you don't believe in a Supreme Being."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up Trout's case, but by
October the national organization reversed itself and readmitted Trout.
The organization's explanation was that Trout had said merely that he "did
not believe in God as a supreme being," and they chose to interpret his
views as a disagreement over the definition ofGod. "So the organization's
national executive board decided to delete from its literature any
definition of God ... while reaffirming the Scout Oath's declaration of
duty to God." I shall return to this issue of defining God, but let me
move ahead to 1991.
By the summer of 1991, the BSA had two more lawsuits on its hands. The
families of eight-year-old Mark Walsh of Chicago and of nine-year-old
twins Michael and William Randall of Anaheim, California, had launched
separate suits after their sons had been expelled from Cub Scout troops
for saying they did not believe in God. The Cub Scouts is the organization
created in 1930 by the BSA for younger boys, aged eight to eleven, with
the young boys organized into "dens" supervised by a "den mother" and a
larger unit, the "Cub Pack," usually led by a male pack leader.
The BSA had finessed the Trout case by framing it as a mere dispute over
the meaning of the word "God," but these suits pitted avowed atheists
against the BSA requirement that members believe in God. The National
Council's stance was that the BSA is a private group that can admit and
exclude members by criteria particular to the organization. "Also
supporting the status quo," explained a New York Times story, "are the
Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, which formed the first Scouting
council in America in 1913 and which remains the largest single Scout
sponsor, and the Roman Catholic Church, the fourth-largest Scout sponsor.
The two churches, which together support more than a quarter of all Scout
troops, contend that the Boy Scouts has every right to keep certain people
out, whether as Scouts, volunteers, or staff members."
Public schools, it seems, sponsor the largest number of Scouts, which
provided fuel for the plaintiffs' view that the BSA is a public
organization. But the public schools "do not speak with the unified voice
of the Mormon or Catholic churches," notes the New York Times reporter,
who also points to a basic contradiction in the BSA practices regarding
religious belief. "Officials say the organization was founded for boys who
believe in God and should remain true to those principles," he writes.
"But while the organization accepts Buddhists, who do not believe in a
Supreme Being, and Unitarians, who seek insight from many traditions but
pointedly avoid setting a creed, it does not tolerate people who are
openly atheist, agnostic, or unwilling to say in that Scout oath they will
In fact, it was precisely this contradiction that the twins' father, James
Grafton Randall, acting as their attorney in the case, hammered as he
cross-examined witnesses for the organization. In a decision with
significant implications, Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard O.
Frazee Sr. ruled in June of 1992 that the Boy Scouts could not exclude the
twins "because of their beliefs, or lack of them." More shocking still,
the state supreme court refused to hear a petition from the Orange County
Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts of America faced a similar challenge. In
November of 1992, James Randall filed a suit against the Girl Scouts on
behalf of a six-year-old San Diego area girl and her father, challenging
the Girl Scouts' pledge to "serve God" as a "religious test oath" that
violates the Constitution. Within a year, the Girl Scouts had changed
their pledge, permitting girls to replace "God" with "words they deem more
appropriate" while reciting the Girl Scout Promise. "The group's leaders
said the measure ... acknowledges growing religious and ethnic diversity
among the nation's 2.6 million Girl Scouts," explained a newspaper account
of the national convention that voted overwhelmingly for the new policy.
"In regions with large Asian and American Indian populations, the group
has had trouble recruiting girls whose religious tradition does not
include a Judeo-Christian concept of God...."
The Girl Scouts found a comfortable solution to the dilemmas of religious
diversity, choosing a route that would make the organization open to every
girl. What kept the Boy Scouts from doing the same thing? When reporters
bothered asking boys themselves what they thought about excluding boys
from the organization because they didn't believe in God, the reporters
found "mild to strong support for changes." And this is what I would
expect from my long association with the Scouts, both as a Scout and as a
researcher observing a troop for over twenty years. The "professional
Scouters," the bureaucrats who work for the national office of the Boy
Scouts of America, feel compelled to speak authoritatively about what is
good or bad for children and adolescents without actually asking any young
people what they think about it.
So why did the National Council dig in its heels on this issue? What was
so much at stake that the Boy Scouts could not follow the example of the
Girl Scouts and move to accommodate religious diversity?
Part of the answer lies in the historical connection between Christianity
and an aggressive version of masculinity. It is useful to examine a bit of
history on this connection. And perhaps the best way to get at this
history is to look briefly at the five main figures who came together to
create the Boy Scouts of America-Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter
Beard, Edgar M. Robinson, John L. Alexander, and James E. West-for these
men embodied much of the ambivalence and tension that connected
Christianity with masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century.
Born in Victorian England (1860) and raised in Canada, Seton established
himself as an artist, naturalist, and author of animal stories before he
embarked on his boys' work near the end of the century. In the 1890s,
Seton began to formulate his "Woodcraft Idea," a theory for youth work
based on the Darwinian instinct psychology of G. Stanley Hall. The model
woodcrafter, thought Seton, was the American Indian, and in 1898 Seton (at
the urging of Rudyard Kipling) began casting his Woodcraft Idea into the
form of a novel. Over the next few years, Seton worked simultaneously on
the novel, Two Little Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived
as Indians and What They Learned (1903), and on a handbook for the
organization he envisioned. In 1902, Ladies Home Journal agreed to
establish a new Department of American Woodcraft for Boys, helping Seton
launch his organization by publishing a Seton article each month. The
appearance of Two Little Savages in 1903 and The Red Book, or How to Play
Indian in 1904 cemented Seton's national reputation as a leader in youth
work, and he was asked to chair the committee that met in 1910 to found
the Boy Scouts of America. Seton was made the first Chief Scout of the
organization, and he wrote large portions of the first Handbook for Boys
(1911), a manual that resembles the Birch Bark Roll as much as or more
than it does the first British handbook written by Lord Robert
Baden-Powell. Seton increasingly felt alienated from the Boy Scout
leadership, accusing the New York businessmen and bankers in their numbers
of abandoning the Woodcraft Idea he had in mind as the ideological
foundation for the movement and as the feature that distinguished it so
well from Baden-Powell's militaristic model. In 1915, the conflict came to
a head over the fact that Seton had never become an American citizen. The
position of Chief Scout was abolished, and amid very bitter public
exchanges Seton left the Boy Scouts to redevote himself to his Woodcraft
Two aspects of Seton's thought in this period are relevant to our
understanding his conception of God. First, Seton looked primarily to
American Indian religions as the model for spirituality and ethics. Seton
consulted written documents and live informants to distill "The Indian's
Creed." Whereas "the redman" believed in many gods, he accepted "one
Supreme Spirit." To prove his thesis that the "redman's religion" could
revitalize twentieth-century white society, Seton described in detail the
"redman's" traits: he was reverent, clean, chaste, brave, thrifty,
cheerful, obedient, kind, hospitable, truthful, honorable, and temperate,
the model of physical excellence. In short, Seton embraced American Indian
religions more than traditional European faiths, and he was as likely to
hold up the famed Shawnee chief Tecumseh as a model of spiritual manhood
as he was Christ. So, while it is accurate to say that Seton believed in
God, he believed in a Supreme Being far from the one portrayed by most
Western religions, and I think it is unlikely that he would have wanted to
exclude from the Boy Scouts any boy or man who expressed doubts about the
traditional understanding of God required by the present organization.
But Seton left the organization. What of Beard and the other founders?
Daniel Carter Beard was no more conventional in his religious views than
was Seton. Beard's childhood in Cincinnati prepared him for the same
wedding of art and nature we see in Seton's thought. His father, James N.
Beard, was a prominent artist, and his mother's family (the Carters)
enjoyed great entrepreneurial success in the Ohio Valley. The
Swedenborgian theology of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed,
provided the moral canopy over the artistic and entrepreneurial values
that Beard learned in his childhood home, as both the Beards and the
Carters had converted to this faith early in the nineteenth century. After
formal training in both engineering and art, Beard gained his fame in New
York as an illustrator for St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, and
compiled a series of articles he wrote and illustrated into his first
book, the classic American Boys' Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It.
In 1886, Beard joined Henry George's single-tax movement and wrote his own
single-tax novel, Moonblight. By 1889, Beard's fame led Samuel Clemens,
writing as Mark Twain, to seek him out to illustrate A Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur's Court, an assignment Beard relished. The politics and
morality of the novel appealed to Beard, and he was especially attracted
to Twain's theme of sham and the relationship between appearance and
character. Beard's illustrations for the novel became controversial
because of his use of contemporary public figures (such as Jay Gould) as
models for his characters as well as his explicit attacks on the church
and the capitalists. Twain was pleased with Beard's Connecticut Yankee
illustrations, but many critics saw the illustrations as propaganda, and
Beard was blacklisted as an illustrator.
Frustrated with the political and economic arenas of reform, Beard
returned to boys' work in 1905. William E. Annis, the new owner and
publisher of Recreation, hired Beard as the magazine's editor. In addition
to the conservationist agenda they shared, including the conservation of
American Indian cultures, Beard and Annis wanted to use the monthly
magazine to launch a youth movement. The July 1905 issue introduced The
Sons of Daniel Boone, a new department of the magazine. One purpose of the
new organization was to enlist young people in the magazine's conservation
work. But equally important to Beard was the movement's promise to promote
"manliness" through democratic organization (boys would create local
chapters called "forts"), outdoor fun, woodcraft (the study of nature),
and handicraft (the making of things as first illustrated in his Handy
Book). There was no central bureaucracy for the movement, and Beard's
monthly articles and the other material he wrote were all that linked the
local chapters. By 1908, however, twenty thousand boys were members of the
Sons of Daniel Boone.
Conflicts within the organization led Beard to sever his ties with
Recreation in 1906 and join Woman's Home Companion, where he continued
writing for The Sons of Daniel Boone. Beard's clashes with the women
editors of the magazine led him to resign in 1909 and use Pictorial Review
as the new magazine for promotion of his youth-movement ideas. A legal
battle ensued with Woman's Home Companion over the rights to the name "The
Sons of Daniel Boone," and when the parties finally settled, the magazine
kept the name and Beard kept the rights to his articles. Beard chose Young
Pioneers as the name for his new movement and filled the movement's
handbook with stories of pioneer heroes like Davy Crockett and Johnny
Appleseed. These movements were in place in 1910 when Beard joined Seton
and others to establish the Boy Scouts of America.
If neither Seton nor Beard was religious by the usual, mainstream
standards in 1910, certainly we can say that Edgar M. Robinson, John L.
Alexander, and James E. West embraced the Protestant "muscular
Christianity" that linked physical fitness and moral rectitude at the end
of the nineteenth century. Robinson and Alexander came from successful
careers organizing youth work for the Young Men's Christian Association
(YMCA), and West, the first chief executive of the BSA, also had YMCA
experience as well as a law degree. But even in their most religious
moments, Robinson and Alexander and West resembled Seton and Beard in
their greater concern that boys acquire the virtues of manhood. Alexander
wrote the "Chivalry" chapter for the first Handbook, and a long paragraph
on "A Boy Scout's Religion" is the only mention of religion in the entire
Handbook. "The Boy Scouts of America maintain that no boy can grow into
the best kind of citizenship," explains Alexander,
without recognizing his obligation to
God.... The recognition of God as the
ruling and leading power in the
universe, and the grateful
acknowledgment of His favors and
blessings is necessary to the best type of
citizenship and is a wholesome thing in
the education of the growing boy....
Excerpted from On My Honor
by Jay Mechling
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jay Mechling is professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis.
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