The recent wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Boy Scouts’ interest in changing its policies about excluding homosexuals reminded me that long before social conservatives considered turning on the Boy Scouts for tolerating gays, confessional Protestants were giving the troops a thumbs down for very different reasons. They had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the civil religion the Scouts wove through their materials and self-identity.
Case in point, the OPC in the 1950s appointed a committee to study whether its congregations might well sponsor Scout’s troops. What these confessional Presbyterians discovered was that the Boy Scouts’ understanding of God was a good bit off from the historic Christian view:
Scouting 1). Holds to a belief in a God. 2). Describes this God as the ruling and leading power in the universe, and the giver of favors and blessings. 3). Maintains that boys must learn to recognize this God, to admit their obligations to him, and to acknowledge gratefully his favors and blessings, if they are to grow into the best of citizens. 4). Requires all Scouts to promise on their honor to do their duty to this God, and feels that in so doing it does no violence to anyone’s religious convictions. 5). Desires to remain strictly non-sectarian in its attitude toward the religious training of the boys. 6). Requires mutual respect of religious convictions among the boys in carrying on Scouting activities. 7). Requires sponsor organizations to attend to the religious life of the boys. 8). Forbids sponsor organizations to force their religious practices on any boy contrary to his faith, because of his membership in a Unit.
Scouting evidently is anxious to insist upon religious training for the boys without telling the boys what religious training they should have. In attempting to do this, it runs into difficulties. To justify religious training it has to speak of a God. But to avoid offence to any religious group it tries to describe God in terms that all will approve. Then it proceeds to require general submission to this God. Since the aim of the movement is to develop the best kind of citizens, it really erects this policy as the ideal for the model citizen.
It might be too much to say that Scouting IS a religion. But it is clear that Scouting HAS a religion. And at the heart of that religion is the acceptance of a God supposedly recognized by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and accepted by them all. If this conclusion be correct, then it must be said that Scouting teaches a religion that is distinctly unbiblical and unchristian. A God acceptable to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews does not exist. Those who do not honor the Son do not honor the Father. And the Jews do not honor the Son. (John 5:23, I John 2:23, Luke 10: 16). In requiring the boys to promise to do their duty to a God understood to be acceptable to adherents of these three faiths, the Scout movement seems clearly to require submission to a God that does not exist. This is to teach a form of idolatry.
What the OPC’s report indicates is that social conservatives have a very different understanding from confessional Protestants about when the Scouts went (or may go) wrong. For the former, the issue is mainly about sex, which is not an insignificant consideration but hardly the first sign that the Scouts may not be on the side of the God of the Bible. Confessional Protestants, less hung up over sex (maybe), actually take God-language seriously and inspect an organizations claim’s on behalf of religion. For them, faith is even more important than sex.
In which case, contrary to James Davison Hunter’s argument about the Culture Wars, the “orthodox” party in the United States is actually divided. It is not the case that conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews represent an orthodox counterpart to the liberal party in the culture wars. In point of fact, the believers for whom religion matters most, the truly orthodox, take issue with the sham orthodoxy that informs questions about marriage, homosexuality, and the family. Again, sex and families are important. But they are part of the common culture, not matters of religious orthodoxy.
To fail to see this difference is to have confused the politics of the civil kingdom with the politics of the eternal one. Put differently, civil religion is a poor imitation of ecclesiastical religion.