An all-American pursuit.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Mormons' American Dream Includes the Boy Scouts

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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The upcoming decision by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on whether to break ties with the Boy Scouts of America over the admission of gay scoutmasters matters to the Scouts because, as of 2013, LDS-affiliates make up 17 percent of its membership. But the decision matters much more for the Mormon church itself.

Throughout its history, the church has striven to integrate into American society while simultaneously preserving its distinctness. Scouting has been an important vector for LDS integration into mainstream American life. Replacing it with a church-run global substitute would mark a watershed turn away from integration and toward separation.

The complicated relationship between Mormonism and Americanism began with founder Joseph Smith. Smith was a uniquely American figure, a nineteenth century American prophet whose scriptures reached the world in an American English that was inflected by the King James version of the Bible but was by no means identical to it. Smith found followers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, but most of them made their way to North America to join the growing faith community. To Mormons, the Garden of Eden was in America, and Smith himself began the process of moving his community westward, an American journey completed under his successor, Brigham Young. They ended up in Utah, the American promised land of Zion.

Politically, the fit between the early Mormon community and American values was complicated. The ideal of communal economic self-sufficiency was identifiably American. But LDS members were also harshly criticized for doing business among themselves, in apparent violation of the free-market ideal.

Further complicating matters, Smith saw himself as a quasi-monarchic leader within his community, albeit one who also pictured running democratically to be U.S. president.

The apex of conflict came when the broader public became aware of Smith’s dispensation of plural marriage. Nonmembers in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the first large Mormon community was based, had been critical of Mormonism before. But the emergence of plural marriage was met with sharp rejection, intense condemnation and ultimately violence. Smith was killed by a lynch mob.

Brigham Young’s search for a geographical solution to American rejection of the faith led to a unique, and uniquely American, solution. The intermountain West had not yet been settled by European Americans. On the shores of the Great Salt Lake, the Mormons hoped to find the opportunity to create their own state of the union. Because marriage laws were, then as now, determined by state legislatures, the idea was that a Mormon-dominated legislature would be able to permit polygamy.

The first self-created legislature of the new community of Deseret also established the LDS Church. At the time, before the passage of the 14th amendment, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution only applied the federal government, allowing such a blending of church and state.

Ultimately, the federal government wasn’t willing admit to the Union a state that permitted polygamy. In a series of statutes passed before Utah could become a state, the federal government essentially outlawed the Mormon religion, by prohibiting polygamy or membership in an association that allowed it. This was the most overt, legalized expression of religious persecution in U.S. history.

In response, the church evolved. Plural marriage went underground, and eventually new prophecies -- accepted by the mainstream Mormon church, though not by all its offshoots -- proclaimed that the time for such marriages had passed. Thus Mormonism proved able to integrate into American politics, and Utah became a state. Yet Utah wasn’t, and isn’t, a state like all the others: Its religious heritage continues in the form of state politics overwhelmingly dominated by committed LDS members.

The federal structure of the Boy Scouts has provided a means by which the church could further integrate into American life over the last century. Individual congregations may form troops, and all Mormon boys are enrolled in Cub Scouts through their local stakes. To be a Boy Scout is to be proudly American, to wear the national uniform and participate in activities that are structured roughly the same way throughout the country. Scouting also allows the LDS Church to maintain an active role in American civic life.

Severing that relationship would have important symbolic and practical consequences for the church. The Boy Scouts have tried to broker a federalist compromise, allowing church-connected troops to use their own religious criteria in choosing scoutmasters, which would allow LDS churches to exclude openly gay scoutmasters in their troops. Rejecting that proposed settlement amounts to a statement that the church cannot tolerate association with an organization that doesn’t share all of its values. After a century, this would be an act of secession for the church -- secession from the evolving American way.

It’s a mark of the church’s great success and rapidly increasing global reach that it could even contemplate making this break. In effect, those who favor breaking with the Scouts are saying that the church doesn’t need that tie to integrate itself into American life -- it’s already fully American.

Yet the truth is that for religious groups in America -- no matter how successful and well-entrenched -- it will always be necessary to have institutional ties and practices to the American mainstream in order to be accepted by it. Not every religious group wants to be part of the mainstream; the Amish are perhaps the most famous example. But for those that do, symbols of common membership matter tremendously.

No one can say with great confidence what the church leadership will decide. But viewed in the light of Mormon history, the leaders certainly should opt to accept the Scouts’ federalist solution, and continue the journey of the most distinct and distinctly American faith.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net