I grew up in the 90's, better known to us Millennials as the good ‘ol days. Our summers were spent riding bikes to each other's houses to play street hockey and Super Nintendo. One summer, several of my friends put down the video games and joined the Boy Scouts. Naturally, I asked my Dad if I could join too. To my surprise, he refused to let me.
It took me a while to coax a reason from him, but he eventually told me. My dad was a Boy Scout. He told me stories of hazing, abuse, and even drug dealing that made me shudder. I elected to take a fossil hunting class at our local arboretum instead. I still have great memories of that summer.
Today, we watch the death of a once-great organization as it reckons with decades of sexual abuse and a loss of identity. From the stories my Dad told me, it seems as if the Boy Scouts, at least in some troops, lost their way many decades ago. Ask most people today, and you will have a hard time finding someone on the outside who has any clue what Boy Scouts of America is all about, beyond selling caramel popcorn, wearing those quaint turn-of-the-century outfits, and building random park benches everywhere.
The current state of BSA is even more shocking when you consider where they began. They were originally started in England by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Scouting, according to Powell, was "nothing less than applied Christianity." In the 1908 edition of Scouting for Boys, he wrote:
"We aim for the practice of Christianity in their everyday life and dealings, and not merely the profession of its theology on Sundays. There is a vast reserve of loyal patriotism and Christian spirit lying dormant in our nation today, mainly because it sees no direct opportunity for expressing itself. In this joyous brotherhood, there is vast opportunity open to all ... It gives every man his chance of service for his fellow-men and for God."
The Boy Scouts began as an explicitly Christian organization for young men, meant to instill competence, patriotism, and Christian virtue. Over time, it lost touch with its founding principles. The idea of being "morally straight" always remained, but as the organization slowly left Christianity behind, it became detached from any meaningful standard by which to determine what was straight and what was moral.
The Boy Scouts are not alone. They are one of many cornerstone American institutions that have left their roots behind:
- The YWCA began as the Young Women's Christian Association. It was founded to house single rural women looking for work in the city, and provided Christian teaching and prayer. Their original motto was: "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty." Today, their stated goal sounds like it was written by a first-year gender-studies student: "Transforming power structures to create justice, gender equality and a world without violence and war; leading a sustainable YWCA movement, inclusive of all women." They donate to Planned Parenthood.
- Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S., began as a Puritan seminary. Its mission was that its students "be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ." Today, it's a church of secular humanism and critical race theory.
These are just a few examples. There are many more that share a similar story. I spent some time reading about the histories of these institutions and found that there was never a single, decisive point when they changed course. In each instance, it was a slow drift over centuries, made up of hundreds of seemingly tiny compromises.
It almost seems like there is a natural law, a law of thermodynamics, that governs human institutions. They all tend toward decay. Every time I see another Christian institution lose its way, or a church network go down in the flames of corruption and scandal, I marvel that Christianity still stands today in spite of all the hypocrisy and human imperfection we see among our own kind every day.
G.K. Chesterton famously said:
"I do believe in Christianity, and my impression is that a system must be divine which has survived so much insane mismanagement."
That is a comforting thought. Christ promised us that he would build his church, and that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it." As human institutions rise and fall under the weight of their own failures, God's invisible Kingdom is continuing to grow. The "good infection," as C.S. Lewis called it, continues to spread. Nothing, not even we, can stop it.
Someday the Kingdom will no longer be invisible, nor will it be attached to fallible human institutions. Someday, the world will see him face to face, and he will rule. I can't wait.
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