In July, the Boy Scouts of America finally decided to allow gay adult leaders, heralding a burgeoning age of sexual equality. 40 years ago, something similar happened when they forced the Mormon Church to accept black kids into leadership roles in its scout troops.
African Americans In The Church Of Latter Day Saints
The brief version of the story is that Joseph Smith was cool with the idea of black church members. During his leadership, there were black priests and he promoted abolitionist doctrine.
Brigham Young, though, was a racist. He famously said, "The Lord had cursed Cain's seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood."
From Smith's death in 1847 onwards, African Americans were prohibited from obtaining priesthoods (leadership positions) in the church and therefore from entering the highest tier of heaven the church believes in.
This policy was rescinded in 1978 with a "revelation from god" stating, "…all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or colour."
As Elder Kevin price sings in "The Book of Mormon," "I BELIEVE that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people."
The actual motivations for this "revelation" appear to have been deeply rational. The church was trying to expand its presence in Brazil, a country with a large mixed-race population. Applying racist doctrines there was simply impractical.
The Mormon Church's Role In Scouting In The US
For the last 102 years, the Boy Scouts of America has played a vital role in the Mormon church, with the latter (har) essentially adopting the former as its de facto outside-of-church leadership program for its young men.
The Scouting program uses a de-centralised organizational structure, with the national organisation providing a framework for local programs that are organised, led and sponsored by local community organisations. Those troops each of their own, unique traditions and mores, defined by the culture of that sponsoring organisation. So, the experience a boy will have with a troop in Los Angeles will be very different from the one he might have in Salt Lake City.
But, this local influence is a two-way street. The LDS church sponsors 37,933 troops made up of 437,160 Scouts. So, the LDS church is responsible for over a third of the Boy Scouts of America's membership.
Anecdotally, this is the reason cited by friends and family currently involved in Scouting for the BSA's often too-conservative policies. It's also what the BSA risked when it voted to allow gay scouts, then gay adult leaders. And it's why the LDS church's announcement in August that it will stick with the BSA, rather than one of the ultra-conservative alternatives that have cropped up since July, was so important to the future of Scouting in America. What is good for the Scouts is probably also going to be good for the church's role in modern, secular society.
Four years before god changed her mind about allowing African Americans in the Mormon Church, a 12-year old kid wanted to become a Senior Patrol Leader -- the highest youth leadership position -- in his troop, but because he was black and his troop was sponsored by the LDS, he wasn't allowed to.
The NAACP sued on his behalf; an Observer-Reporter article from the time explains why:
"The legal action arises from a year-old Mormon directive -- since revised, but not to the NAACP's satisfaction -- which reserved top youth scout positions in church-sponsored troops for priesthood quorum leaders. Blacks are denied the priesthood and so were denied for scout positions."
The Church claimed that policy was never intended to foster discrimination in scouting and changed its policy to remove the requirement for priesthood quorum membership for senior patrol leaders. The suit was settled upon that change.
It was a small, but important victory against church discrimination that preceded a total change of policy. Young church members were now learning -- through Scouts -- to think of their black peers as equals, or even leaders.
Gays And The Mormon Church
Much like black people until 1978, homosexuals are tolerated in the LDS church, but barely. Forgive me if I explain this as a lay person and not as a church member, but it's my understanding that gays can only be a part of the church if they abstain from sex and the church teaches that gay can be prayed away.
They can join the priesthood, but again only if they don't act on their desire to sex up other same-sex types. Same-sex marriage is not accepted.
The BSA/LDS Compromise
The key wording that enabled the LDS church to accept the BSA's pro-gay vote appears to be:
"This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organisations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own."
The BSA is in no way forcing local troops to adopt gay adult leaders, it's simply removing its ban on doing so. So a small, but important victory for gay rights. And one that, given the number of LDS youth in the organisation, means some will invariably be exposed to gay adults being all good role models and stuff through Scouting.
Does that mean that god can be expected to issue a revelation that same-sex marriage is alright by her? Maybe not, but if you believe she lives on a planet named "Kolob," then you can probably acknowledge that stranger things have happened. And if it does, it will be partially due to an organisation devoted to teaching kids good leadership skills through the outdoors. Thanks Scouts.