The True Spirit of Scouting

I derived a huge number of benefits from my participation in scouting, but at a time when it has morphed into something unrecognizable, I cannot help but want to muse on what scouting really means.

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The change from summer to autumn cannot help but make me think about the past and reminisce about days gone by. A very large element of my childhood and youth (1969-1978) was Boy Scouting. Starting out in Cub Scouts as a Bear (at nine years old, I was too old to become a Wolf cub), I eventually became a Webelo and then a proper Boy Scout. I went through the ranks until I became an Eagle Scout, graduated from High School, and went off to college in Roswell, New Mexico. As the noted years will make obvious, this was not only a time of immense change within my own life but that of the nation and the world as well.

Scouting took up a great deal of my time, as it had my brother’s—who earned his Eagle Scout the year I entered the program. My two years as a Cub were made up of weekly craft-filled den meetings, monthly pack meetings, pinewood derbies, and blue-and-gold dinners. When I became a Boy Scout at Troop 363, Blessed Sacrament Church, Hollywood, camping became a big part of my life. 

Once a month, we would camp out in Griffith Park, the Angeles National Forest, or the Circle X and Firestone Scout Camps. There were Scout-O-Ramas, camporees, Scout Sundays, annual Catholic Scout retreats, and occasional events like the El Camino Real hike or the 1973 National Boy Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park, Idaho. And there were pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners at the church hall to pay for it all. 

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Summer Camp meant Lake Arrowhead, Cherry Valley on Catalina Island, or—once—the Log Cabin Wilderness Camp in the High Sierras. Our uniforms and equipment came from the late, lamented May Company. It was always a treat to visit the store at the Council Headquarters on Scout Way, with its statue of the Unknown Scout, its Scouts shop, and its Norman Rockwell pictures of Scouting. Some of us joined the Order of the Arrow and/or went to leadership training at Philmont, New Mexico. 

All through this, I advanced from Tenderfoot, to Second Class, to First Class, to Star, to Life, and—at my Court of Honor—at long last Eagle. Alongside my rank progress, I went from Assistant Patrol Leader, to Patrol Leader, to Senior Patrol Leader, to Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. As ours was a Catholic troop, I earned successively the Ad Altare Dei and Pope Pius XII Catholic Scouting awards. Then I went to college, and that was the end of my Scouting career.

I derived a huge number of benefits from my participation in the program—and certainly it helped me immensely during my two years as a cadet at New Mexico Military Institute. But, at a time when the organization has morphed into something unrecognizable (the coed and LGBTQ+-accepting “Scouts BSA”), I cannot help but want to muse on what Scouting was, what it really meant, and what its significance—if any—might be today.

To begin with, the founder was Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell. Not surprisingly, his wife, Lady Olave, would eventually found the Girl Guides and Scouts. Baden-Powell was one of those heroic figures of the late British Empire, like Gordon of Khartoum, Lord Milner, or Cecil Rhodes. His actions in organizing boy runners during the Siege of Mafeking in the Boer War led directly to his writing Scouting for Boys and organizing the first scouting sessions at Gilwell Park and Brownsea Island in England. 

His good friend Rudyard Kipling contributed in various ways to the movement, and, in the beginning, it was very much a sort of junior ginger group for the Empire—a bit like Legion of Frontiersmen cadets. Baden-Powell wrote a second book to inspire the membership, Young Knights of the Empire. But there was much more to it. B-P instilled a sense of chivalry in his scouts, chose St. George as their patron, and referred to his charges as “modern knights.” Personal honor and patriotism were as much a part of it as woodcraft skills and references to The Jungle Book

Not surprisingly, it spread through Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. But its success soon spread beyond the British Empire. Even in my day, I encountered Lithuanian, Polish, Czech, Russian, and Armenian Scouts in exile. These were living testimonies to just how much Naziism and Communism hated the Scouting Movement—not least because of its religiosity (albeit in a non-specific way). Indeed, in continental Europe, Scouting split, with B-P’s permission, into Catholic, Protestant, and “Liberal” versions, all nevertheless recognizing each other as part of the World Wide Scouting movement.

When, in 1905, William D. Boyce encountered the “Unknown Scout” and resolved to bring the program to the United States, the Boy Scouts of America were well on their way to becoming a reality. Among those who joined Boyce in its founding were James E. West, Dan Beard, and Ernest Thompson Seton. Theodore Roosevelt also helped. Reflecting their varied interests—in addition to the Anglophile basis upon which B-P founded Scouting—were added American Patriotism, a reverence for both the pioneer tradition and Indian Lore, and a heavy emphasis on American conservation and naturalism. 

The Boy Scouts Handbook, from its first edition to the one I started with, was the bible. Such figures as John Muir, William Hornaday, Louis Agassiz, Johnny Appleseed, and John James Audubon became heroes in the Scouting pantheon. In time, the organization became closely associated with such organizations as the Elks, the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society. It’s hard to imagine all of those groups being aligned today (although local chapters of the last two still sometimes work with Scouts, especially on Eagle projects). Walt Disney, too, was a great supporter—his movie Follow Me Boys! was a love letter to the program. 

The religious aspects attracted the sponsorship of Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other Protestant churches. The good citizenship aspects brought assistance from the presidency (since the founding of the BSA in 1910, the President of the United States has served as the organization’s honorary president during his term in office; former presidents serve as honorary vice presidents for their lifetimes), as well as the armed forces, national parks and forests, and state, county, and local governments across the country—including the various public school systems. In a word, Scouting was thought to be a way of making good Americans—as that era conceived of such—willing and able to fulfill their personal, religious, and civic obligations. In large part, it succeeded.

But as we are all aware, the country into which both the Boy Scouts and I were born is now “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” Many of their longtime partnering organizations and government bodies pressured the Scouts for years to give up their refusal to admit atheists and openly LGBTQ+ folk. At length, the bloated national bureaucracy in Dallas crumbled, and we have what we have. Is the history of Scouting in America, then, merely another sad story to be forgotten and filed away with the Ivy League and other national institutions that have succumbed to insanity?

By no means. Scouting gave me and literally thousands of other American men a wide-ranging interest in preserving everything of value—natural and man-made—in our communities and nation. It instilled in us a deep love of God and Country, as well as instructing us in a great many practical skills in various things. Its Achilles’ heel was, of course, the indifferentism implicit in such things as Scouts’ Own

But the work of Ven. Fr. Jacques Sevin, S.J.—whom B-P once declared understood Scouting better than any other man he had ever known—is important here. On the one hand, ever since Scouting in Britain began to turn away from B-P’s values, believers in the original program formed the Baden-Powell Scouts, who have affiliates around the world. In a more specifically Catholic sense, there is the Federation of North-American Explorers, which is affiliated with Catholic Scouts overseas. Doubtless, there are other alternatives available.

But why should this be of interest to average Catholic parents? Quite a number of reasons. Firstly, and especially if a family homeschools, it is very important for both children and parents to network with other people: this shall inculcate social skills in the children and help keep the parents sane through getting to know other parents who have many of the same difficulties.

Boys, in particular, need to get out of the house, away from the computer, and live in the real world. Cooperation with and competition against other boys, as well as learning and exercising leadership skills with them—both leading and following—are essential things that most boys today have no access to. Everything from learning about wild plants and animals, to cooking in the wild, to stargazing are experiences that—even if never used again—will expand their horizons and build their self-confidence. It will also teach them the all-important lesson that the world is far bigger and more wondrous than they had imagined. Boys, in particular, need to get out of the house, away from the computer, and live in the real world. Tweet This

A good Catholic program will teach them that the Faith is not something merely for home and church but for everywhere—one is always a Catholic whatever the place and whenever the time. The same God who made the stars and the woods also comes to us at Mass, and He wishes to save us and keep us with Him forever.

A program that makes effective use of local historical and natural sites of interest will inspire him with love of place. This, too, is an important thing most young men miss out on today. It is from this love of one’s locale that true patriotism ultimately derives. From love of place comes love of State and, ultimately, love of country. For the Catholic in the non-Catholic country, of course, evangelization is the most patriotic thing he can do—but you cannot evangelize what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know. 

One thing Scouting taught me is that the United States is not an abstraction but a real, living place which I must love as it gave me life. What the Scouting of my era could not, would not, and did not teach me was that, this being the case, I have an obligation to share with my countrymen the greatest thing I possess—my Catholic Faith. A Scouting program that does this will have provided an inestimable service to Church and State—as well as the culture. Such a program will engage the interest and indeed the delight of any young lad, and it will help mold him into a true patriot—that is to say, a real apostle.

Another societal change that had a bad effect on Scouting was the crumbling of the family. In the beginning, Scouting was very much a father and son thing. Fathers were active in the committee each troop had, came on camping trips, and often were assistant scoutmasters. As the number of broken homes exploded, the number of available fathers correspondingly decreased, and mothers and other women became ever more a part of the program. This, in turn, had the inevitable effect of demasculinizing it to some degree. For a Scout troop based upon Traditional Catholicism, this should be much less of a problem.

If such a program does not exist today, it is a thing much needed. It is not enough simply to tell boys what is wrong and what to stay away from; they need something good and decent to embrace. The reason why Scouting spread so quickly and was so popular for so long was that it answered a pressing need. 

So, any of my readers who are young parents—especially fathers—and are members of Latin Mass, Ordinariate, Eastern Catholic, or orthodox Novus Ordo communities, or have sons in the new classical or Catholic academies, or are members of homeschooling groups—see what is available. If nothing already exists, see about getting together with other fathers to see what might be done. If you can manage it, your sons will profit immensely.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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