In a June 3 post about the BSA's decision to stop excluding gay Boy Scouts, I opined that some conservative churches that have traditionally sponsored BSA units may opt to start their own scouting organization. The Deseret News is reporting that this took place last Friday when "a group of Christians ... formed an alternative, faith-based scouting organization called Trail Life USA."
The Christian Post reports that "Trail Life USA is modeled after the American Heritage Girls." AHG was founded by a group of Christian moms in 1995 to offer a "Christ centered" alternative to what they saw as an increasingly secularized Girl Scouts program. Per Wikipedia AHG now has units throughout the United States with a total membership of just under 21,000 youth and adults.
The Christian Post reports that TLUSA was launched by more than "1,200 former BSA officials, parents and youth representing 44 U.S. states," and that the organization expects to have a nationwide program up and running by next January. But founder John Stemberger admits, "Most of us are coming from a highly-structured environment that has 103 years of culture and language and program and symbols … and we are starting from scratch."
The D-News article bears the attention grabbing headline, "End of Boy Scouts? Christian coalition creates new scouting group." That's more than a little over the top. Consider, for example, the fact that Girl Scouts of the USA boasts more than 3.16 million members (see Wikipedia article). If AHG is TLUSA's model, the BSA will see little competition, given that AHG's membership is less than 1% of GSUSA's membership.
Moreover, TLUSA will find tremendous recruiting challenges unless it can successfully differentiate itself from the BSA. TLUSA founders note that the organization was developed in response to the vote by the BSA this past June to drop its longtime ban on gay Boy Scouts. But TLUSA's admissions policy is almost the same as the new BSA policy. It admits gay youth as long as they refrain from engaging in sexual activity or promoting a homosexual agenda. It prohibits homosexual adult leaders.
So what can TLUSA offer to get churches to drop more than a century of tradition? Stemberger says that TLUSA will offer "a masculine outdoor program" that aims to be "stronger, safer and more principled in every way" than the BSA's program. Sounds great. But many are going to want more than mere promises before making the jump.
My understanding is that AHG gets support from evangelical churches by offering a program that is doctrinally structured to dovetail with evangelical teachings to which many non-members do not subscribe. The religious element of AHG would not seem to work well for non-evangelicals.
TLUSA's Stemberger says, "I want to have a prominent faith component that will be weaved in every fiber of the program. But at the same time, we are not going to become religious and churchy. This is not another church program." I could be wrong, but this sounds rather different from the AHG model. It will be interesting to see how the TLUSA program develops.
Although TLUSA may garner only a few thousand members, I think that competition in American scouting programs can serve to strengthen scouting in general. Offering alternative scouting programs for those that feel out of step with large scouting organizations will likely serve youth better than insisting on huge scouting monopolies. What do you think?