Scouting the Wrong Side of History

May 27, 2015

Robert Gates, one-time Secretary of Defense and now the leader of the Boy Scouts of America, wants the Scouts to change course and reverse their (very long standing) ban on openly homosexual leaders. His reasoning is straightforward: The Scouts will likely be forced to do so anyway by either legislation or (more likely) a court ruling. “We can act on our own or we can be forced to act,” Gates reportedly told the Scouts, before adding: “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”

This is, quite plainly, the “wrong side of history” argument. Gates is warning his fellow Scouts that standing athwart culture in this issue is just too high a price; for the sake of the survival of the BSA, the old ways should be scrapped and the “world as it is” be embraced.

This isn’t surprising logic. “You’ll be on the wrong side of history” is practically anthemic to the same-sex marriage crusade. As a political device, it’s a fairly effective line, for two reasons. One, it appeals to most everyone’s basest desire to be thought well of, especially by strangers; and two, because it doesn’t actually advance any sort of moral or philosophical argument whatsoever, it’s almost impossible to shoot down.

It’s not hard to see why politicians and pundits relish the wrong side of history zinger. It’s a bit tougher though to see why the leader of the Boy Scouts would think that this sort of thinking comports with the traditions and character training of Scouting.

This point is made brilliantly by Kevin Williamson in his recent piece on the Gates speech. Williamson notes that those who believe that homosexuality is immoral will of course not be persuaded in the least by Gates’s call to submission. On the other hand, says Williamson, Americans who support the inclusion of gay leaders in the Scouts should likewise be unimpressed with Gates’s evasive pragmatism:

For those who take the more contemporary view of homosexuality, Gates’s position is arguably even more distasteful. If the Scouts have been wrong about the moral and social status of homosexuals, then they have been wrong about something important. If their exclusion of gays from leadership positions was based on error or malice, then they owe it to those they have excluded to admit as much, freely and openly. Perhaps more important, if the exclusion of homosexuals has been wrongful, then the Boy Scouts’ leadership owes it to the young men whose moral development is in part entrusted to it to be forthright about that fact.

In other words, preserving the Scouts from legal or political headwinds isn’t a sufficient motivation. The problem with Gates’s plea isn’t that he’s wrong about what would face the Scouts if they held onto their policy (he’s probably right, actually), it’s that Gates is calling for an (massive) ethical transformation with an explicitly non-ethical reason. Imagine if a politician plead for the cessation of human trafficking on the grounds that traffickers just face too many risks and too much scrutiny from international governments. Not only is such an argument ridiculous, it is morally repugnant.

Why do more people not sense the repugnance of the “wrong side of history” meme? One answer is that sexual revolutionaries have done an admirably ruthless job of enforcing conscientious conformity through weaponized politics. To be on the wrong side of history is, in many cases today, to be on the wrong end of law enforcement and civil courts. Everyone is born a pragmatist, and if legal trouble and social hostility await those who hold on to antiquated views, isn’t it safer to just jump ship?

The more fundamental answer to why the “wrong side of history” line doesn’t get the enthusiastic derision it deserves is that, for many average, working-class people in this culture, WSOH really IS a moral argument. The amazingly pervasive infantilization of American culture has rendered many Americans unable to distinguish the feeling of having done the right thing from the feeling of being liked. A person on the wrong side of daytime TV hosts and the local PTA must havereasons for rebuffing cultural conformity that are transcendent and say more than “This is just how I’ve chosen to live.” If those reasons aren’t there—if a person’s intellectual and moral formation is really nothing more than the sum of their learned social decorum and interpersonal skills—conformity wins.

People will always disagree about what is true and right. But something that every person who values honesty at all should believe is that doing the right thing—regardless of what “right thing” means—isn’t a matter of preserving one’s own reputation. Integrity often demands more than taking the road less traveled; it means taking the road that other travelers mock. The Boy Scouts have, historically, been stalwart in teaching this lesson. Will they keep that honor?

Samuel James
Samuel James serves as Communications Specialist in the Office of the President for ERLC. He holds a degree in Christian philosophy from Boyce College. Samuel blogs at and tweets at samueljamesblog .