Signs of waning evangelical power in the nation's culture wars and in Republican policy — and some unexpected challenges for GOP candidates — loom as the 103-year-old Boy Scouts of America gears up for a definitive vote this week on whether to welcome openly gay youths into the organization's ranks.
If the BSA delegates gathering just outside Dallas vote to admit gays, it will reinforce the growing notion that evangelical Protestants and their conservative Catholic allies no longer can muster their troops as they once did, in such battles as state referendums over same-sex marriage and the 1996 enactment of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
"There's no lobby more vicious than the homosexual lobby, and the 65 to 80 million-member evangelical constituency provides no troops for the fight against that lobby," said David Lane, president of Pastors & Pews and a leading religious right political organizer. "Evangelicals are playing checkers in a chess game."
A prominent Mormon and board member of a national conservative political organization said privately said that his church, bruised from public relations battles with gay-rights activist groups, has been left holding the financial bag after other denominations failed to come through with promised aid in the fight for Proposition 8, California's voter initiative against same-sex marriage. The Mormon church has moved on to other battles in the cultural wars rather than take on the gay-rights activists.
After floating a plan to end the 3.9 million-member group's ban on gays, BSA leaders have crafted a compromise that would allow openly gay Scouts to participate but maintain the ban on adult gay Scout leaders. Even that move sparked adamant opposition from some Christian leaders, especially those who ally with the Republican Party.
Reed's role in question
Fellow evangelicals aren't buying, for example, longtime evangelical political strategist Ralph Reed's explanation of why he is being paid by the BSA leadership to help resolve the issue.
Mr. Reed, the evangelical founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition who has been involved in Scouting for 43 years, said he took the job to build bridges between BSA officials and religious leaders who oppose changing the policy on homosexuality.
"My role was to facilitate a dialogue based on mutual understanding and respect, including respect for the deeply-held religious views of the evangelical community," Mr. Reed, an Eagle Scout, said in a statement. "At no time have I advocated to anyone that the Scouts should change their membership policy."
"Nice try," said a skeptical John Stemberger, founder of OnMyHonor.net, a coalition of Scout leaders and others fighting the proposed change.
"Ralph can issue all the statements on his opposition to the pro-gay resolution he wants, but he was paid money by the BSA to help them set up meetings to try and pass the resolution — and actions speak louder than words," said Mr. Stemberger, a constitutional lawyer, Eagle Scout and father of two boys in Scouting.
Mr. Reed has the support of Stu Epperson, chairman of the country's largest Christian radio network and an opponent of the proposed policy change. Mr. Epperson said in a statement that Mr. Reed's efforts "helped us more fully understand the enormous pressure the BSA is under to accommodate the gay agenda. Those Scout leaders (I'm told they are in the minority) opposed to the change need and deserve our support."
BSA officials say they fully understand the angst the proposed change engenders.
"The Boy Scouts of America respects the deeply held religious beliefs of the faith community," said Deron Smith, BSA public relations director. "Ralph Reed is a lifelong [Scout] and supporter of the program and has helped the Boy Scouts arrange conversations with the faith community."
From President Obama on down, Democrats almost universally support gay-rights claims for equal treatment, but Republicans are a different story.
If the BSA admits openly gay Scouts, some Republican candidates and officeholders will be in tight spots, whether they endorse or reject the change. Opponents of the proposed change have been unable to muster the big names or organizational muscle that supporters can boast.
Mr. Stemberger said he temporarily set aside his law practice and minimized his work with the Florida Family Policy Council "to focus full-time" on OnMyHonor.net, which aims to keep "sex and politics" out of Scouting. But there has been no visible nationwide massing of born-again Christians against the issue, even though polls and conversations with evangelicals show them to be intensely negative on easing the ban.
The political sensitivity of the issue for the national Scouting organization is evident not only from the hiring of Mr. Reed, who was the first director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in 1989, but also in the mostly tight-lipped stand on the issue by the BSA and its largest local unit, BSA's Utah National Parks Council, which last week sided with proponents of allowing gay Scouts to participate but declined to acknowledge publicly that it took a stand at all.
Opponents of the BSA resolution say it would require every Scout troop, regardless of its chartering organization's religious convictions, to accept "open and avowed homosexual" youths. The ban on adult gay leaders, they say, cannot survive long after that.
"Even though the proposed resolution would not apply to adults immediately, legal experts estimate the new rule will also extend to everyone in the BSA, including adults, within a couple of years after lawsuits are brought by gay activists under nondiscrimination clauses around the country," Mr. Stemberger said.
The issue may deepen the divide between many who are one with Mr. Reed's brand of Christianity and Mormons, the majority of whom are also on the religious right and supporters of the GOP.
The behind-the-scenes effectiveness of the Mormon Church, which sponsors more than a third of all Scout troops in America, is becoming more visible and appears to be nudging the GOP a bit toward a more libertarian stand on some social and cultural issues. Up to a point, Mormons and evangelicals think that the more libertarian the nation's political center of gravity, the lower the risk of government meddling in religious matters.
But overall, it's Mormonism that may be on the ascendancy. The nation's best-known Mormon politician — Mitt Romney — unequivocally endorsed gay equality in Scouting in 1994, long before his 2012 presidential race.
"I feel that all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts, regardless of their sexual orientation," Mr. Romney said at the time, adding that it's "the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue."
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