Meet Trail Life USA, Conservatism's Answer to the Boy Scouts

When the Boy Scouts let in openly gay boys, dissenting leaders formed their own group. Which raises the question: Is there a right way to get kids outdoors?
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When the Boy Scouts let in openly gay boys, dissenting leaders formed their own group. Which raises the question: Is there a right way to get kids outdoors?
 Illustration: Tim McDonagh

Illustration: Tim McDonagh

The boys were not invited.

Boy Scout Troop 452 has been meeting at Concord United Methodist Church in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, as long as there’s been a troop, nearly 70 years. But this isn’t the usual weekly gathering of the boys and their scoutmaster, Richard Greathouse. This meeting is just for their parents.

It’s the fall of 2013 and Greathouse, a 37-year-old electrician with glasses and a goatee, moves toward the front of the room. He’s not a big talker, but the boys like him and the parents have trusted him for the 16 years he’s been leading the group. As he calls the room to order, the parents quiet around him. The other leaders of the group know what’s coming, but the parents have no idea why they’ve been summoned here tonight.

Scouting in Beaver Falls, a small community 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, has gone more or less unchanged since a group of young men founded Troop 452 in the waning days of World War II. Generations of boys have grown up following the same path: They smile and march yearly in the town parade for the opening day of Little League, they serve pancakes at the Maple Syrup Festival, they camp and hike in the woods, work their way up to Eagle Scout, and then go forth to jobs, wives, and homes, and raise their sons in the same tradition. Some of 452’s members, in fact, are grandsons of the chartering members. The grandfather of Greathouse’s wife was an original member.

But six months earlier, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) declared a change in policy—accepting openly gay scouts for the first time in its 103-year history. Some, like the leaders of Troop 452, felt the shift represented a fundamental change in the Boy Scouts’ value system, that the organization no longer reflected their Christian faith.

There is a better option now, Greathouse explains. He outlines a new path for 452: They’d still take part in the parades, continue the fine traditions of scouting, and be sponsored by the same church, but they’d do so under a different flag. They’d join a nascent scouting organization called Trail Life USA.

Trail Life was launched by a group of former BSA leaders. It’s avowedly Christian, maintains that the only acceptable sexuality is between a married man and woman, grants local control to churches and parents, offers freedom from corporate money and the influence it comes with, and believes in adventure.

Trail Life promises a return to the values that it believes made the Boy Scouts an iconic American institution: bravery, obedience, and morality.

Greathouse understands, he says to the crowd, that it might not be right for everyone, and if anyone feels uncomfortable with the new group’s stances, he has brought along a list of contact information for other local Boy Scout troops.

The choice, he says, is up to you.

The Backstory

In church basements, back rooms, and fellowship halls across the country, a new conversation is taking place about scouting. Everyone, it seems, can agree that introducing boys to wilderness and outdoor skills is a worthwhile endeavor. More than 110 million boys have participated in the Boy Scouts of America since 1910, and for many, it was the first time they had an outdoors experience.

But that’s where the agreement ends. On one hand are the traditionalists, like Greathouse, who place importance on Christian values and independence. On the other hand are those who value social tolerance and inclusiveness—and their numbers seem to be increasing. Today, 69 percent of Americans believe same-sex relationships are acceptable, and the Supreme Court ruled in late June that marriage is a right that extends equally to same-sex couples.

BSA has struggled with social issues in the past; as late as the mid-1970s, it was dealing with lawsuits over racial discrimination. This latest schism in scouting began in 2012, when the national Boy Scouts of America organization reaffirmed its membership ban on openly gay boys and troop leaders, arguing, vaguely, that it was “in the best interest of the organization.” (The Girl Scouts of America, by contrast, has never made much fuss about the sexual orientation of its scouts or leaders). The backlash to the BSA’s decision was immediate. Scouts for Equality, an advocacy group, gathered 1.8 million signatures protesting the policy, while some Fortune 500 companies—important BSA donors—threatened to withhold cash. OnMyHonor.net cranked up its own protest machine, generating stories in conservative media in support of the BSA ban.

Amid the controversy, the Boy Scouts backtracked, announcing in early 2013 that they would hold a vote on the policy at their national convention in May. They proceeded to conduct a series of studies with stakeholders, including scouts, parents, troop leaders, and corporate benefactors, that showed an organization divided. A majority of the parents and troop leaders opposed changing the membership policy, while corporate donors and the scouts themselves supported a more inclusive position.

At the convention in May, the Boy Scouts announced a compromise: The ban would remain on openly gay adults, but boys would not be excluded because of their sexual orientation. The measure passed by a vote of 61 to 38 percent.

For troop leaders like Greathouse, the decision didn’t sit right. But it wasn’t about gay scouts per se; it was about autonomy and a reaction to top-down pronouncements on how to act, how to think, how to raise their sons.

“They released a letter [in 2012] that they were standing strong [on the ban],” Greathouse says. “Then, one year later, they released a letter that said the exact opposite. You can take whatever you want from that, but their word from year to year had changed.” His leadership team agrees: “The reason they seemed to be changing—to me, personally—is that they were going to lose money and lose corporate donations,” says Dave Brown, a 452 troop committee member who has been involved in BSA for 36 years.

Greathouse’s former assistant scoutmaster, Tim Kroll, fell on the other side. “Some of the kids in the troop really wanted to stick with BSA,” Kroll says. “A couple kids had political beliefs, moral beliefs that it is acceptable to be gay, and I agreed with them. I think it’s great that BSA has a policy for everyone to have a chance.” About one-third of 452’s 30 members joined Kroll’s new BSA Troop 0420; the rest left for Trail Life USA with Greathouse, along with the legacy troop number.

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The Schism

Outdoor youth programs are far from the only area where there’s a fault line between two deeply held American values: social equality and freedom of religion. Many Catholic adoption services have even shut down rather than place children with gay couples. And now comes the conflict between BSA and TLUSA, which may not grab the headlines like marriage equality, but will have widespread repercussions. It’s a battle for youth, challenging how young people are introduced to the outdoors, who is welcome, and who decides.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that an American institution like the Boy Scouts would collide with gay rights. One of the first major dustups occurred in 1990, when the BSA fired an openly gay assistant scoutmaster in New Jersey. (Closeted scouts and leaders were generally accepted; several biographers, in fact, believe that scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell may have been gay.) The assistant scoutmaster sued, and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The BSA’s argument was simple: The First Amendment guarantees their right to “free association,” meaning they could include—or exclude—members who did not meet their standards. The Supreme Court agreed, and in 2000, upheld the group’s gay ban with a 5-4 ruling.

The victory was hollow. As an organization, the BSA’s main struggle has been getting members to join, not keeping them out. In 1972, 6.5 million boys were Scouts; today, that number is 2.4 million. From 2011 to 2014, youth membership dropped 15 percent. (The Boy Scouts declined an interview request, releasing a statement that said, “We believe every child deserves the opportunity to be a part of the Scouting experience, and we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting.”) But it’s not just the BSA membership that’s decreasing.

Today, only 6 percent of American 9- to 13-year-olds play outside on their own during a typical week, and kids spend half as much time outdoors as they did a generation ago.

There are a host of causes for the decline. TV, video games, and the Internet are easy to blame, but so are homework and longer school hours, and the push to specialize in a certain sport or activity. Or maybe kids just aren’t as interested anymore.

Seen in that context, it’s hard to argue with any organization with the stated mission to get more children involved in the outdoors. It’s an honorable goal—every kid who learns to build a fire and pitch a tent is more likely to believe in preserving wilderness and our state and national park systems, and is also more likely to be healthy and active. Around half of Trail Life’s members neverbelonged to the Boy Scouts, meaning the group is exposing a whole new population to the outdoors. But is it OK to exclude some kids if it means you’re opening a new door for others? And does it matter if these controversial policies provide a way for some families to stay in a scouting program rather than drop out?

Of course not, says Zach Wahls, the executive director of Scouts for Equality. Wahls says he was disappointed to see Trail Life break off from the Boy Scouts. “We would rather see a scouting movement with diverse religious and political members, a scouting movement that respects the dignity of all of its members.” As for Trail Life’s membership rules? “The policy teaches kids that discrimination is OK,” he says.

So two years after Trail Life’s inception, after 20,000 boys joined 540 chapters nationwide, I wanted to see how its experiment was playing out, both locally and nationally. How was this breakaway group faring? And more immediately, how had the schism affected the boys of Troop 452?

Troop 452

As soon as a plate of bacon hits the ground, seven boys are on it.

It’s a cold morning in January and Troop 452 hunkers down in the woods of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Last night, the boys hiked down into this gully and made camp along the stream. They built an enormous lean-to and stoked a couple 55-gallon steel burn barrels for warmth, just like generations of Boy Scouts did before them. The temperature dipped into the 20s, leaving the boys ravenous.

Andy, a sandy-haired 13-year-old, stands before the grill, dishing out “dippy” eggs, which is Pittsburghese for over-easy. Laying waste to an egg in a pool of hot grease, he turns to Ben, a boisterous eighth-grader eagerly awaiting his breakfast. “You want bacon grease?”

“Yeah, I want bacon grease,” Ben tells him. “Bacon grease puts hair on your chest. It makes you a man.”

And there it is, served with bacon and eggs: the perfect teachable moment.

No doubt this is where troop leader Greathouse will reach into his bag of wisdom and pull forth a pearl—he’s about to tell them what makes a good Christian man.

“It also makes you take the shovel and tear off running,” Greathouse says, cracking the barest of smiles. The boys cackle, delighted.

After breakfast, the boys clean up, and Greathouse sets them on their mission for the day: They’re to build a camp gadget, a device to make life in the woods easier. There will be a competition, and the winners will be excused from their middle-of-the-night duty of stoking the burn barrels. The boys run off to start gathering wood.

If Troop 452 is suffering any hangover from the breakup, it’s not apparent. I chose this group because of its long history with BSA, and because, with its small-town sensibility and mix of denominations, it’s not some easily caricatured group from, well, the Bible Belt. Now, I wanted to see how Troop 452 aligned with the larger mission of the national Trail Life organization, which sees itself as the cradle for the very future of Christianity in America. It wants to mold these boys into Christ-like vessels of virtue, temperance, and strength and establish them as outdoorsy, godly men of the 21st century. “My hope,” says David Servin, a Trail Life founder, “is that we will have a battalion of young men graduating from our program that will be highly talented and highly motivated and will have the skills—the manly skills—that are necessary to go and take back our culture.”

Illustration: Tim McDonagh

Illustration: Tim McDonagh

The Trailmen

Trail Life USA’s national campground is in rural South Carolina on the grounds of a 127-acre former home for orphans, which was donated to the organization shortly after its inception. Last fall, I attended their first national training weekend for troop leaders.

After a freak autumn storm, the place is snowbound, but that doesn’t blunt the spirits of the men, who are swaddled in an assortment of camouflage, facial hair, and baseball hats. By mid-morning, we’ve sat through a few chilly classes on knot-tying and orienteering, as well as one on how to incorporate Christianity into troop meetings. One example: Put a $10 bill on a rat trap and ask the boys if they’d like to attempt to grab it. The lesson: Satan will tempt you, but there are dangerous repercussions to sin.

Trail Life’s program is broadly similar to the Boy Scouts’. As one member told me: “The Boy Scouts may own the trademark of ‘scouting,’ but they don’t own the idea.” Here, “Trailmen” replace “Boy Scouts”; instead of a second-grader earning the Wolf badge as a Cub Scout, he’s a Hawk in Trail Life. The oaths have strong overlap (see above, as do many of the skills, including a focus on survival, first aid, and being a good citizen. Trail Life also says it’s less badge-focused than BSA and more interested in adventures like caving and climbing. The summer 2015 national gathering for the boys was a paintball competition, an activity that has long been banned by the Boy Scouts.

Around 10 a.m., a volunteer escorts me to a small house up the hill for an interview with Mark Hancock, the group’s CEO. We trudge our way through the snow, past a chapel and a pond with a large white cross at the far end. Hancock greets us at the door wearing a red T-shirt, black jeans, and gray sneakers, and leads us into the living room. He looks a bit like a dark-haired cousin of William H. Macy and exudes the slightly saccharine nature of a youth pastor and family counselor, which he once was. His sons had been involved with the Boy Scouts, and the 2013 decision to allow gay boys to join upset him. “We just couldn’t figure out how that was going to work for our family,” he tells me.

In June 2013, Hancock and a handful of dissident groups gathered for a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, where they began pounding out the guiding principles of a new organization. Two months later, the newly minted Trail Life USA held a national convention in Nashville, featuring a keynote by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. More than 1,200 men (and a few women) showed up, many of whom felt betrayed by the BSA’s decision. “There were stories of men who had left their troops—many had served for 30 years, and their fathers had been involved before them—and they were the only ones from the troop that stepped away,” Hancock says. “And then to show up and find a brotherhood who had also chosen to stand alone, to stand on their own convictions? It was pretty powerful.”

At the convention, Trail Life outlined its values, which were centered around evangelical Christianity. “At our core, we are unapologetically Christian,” Hancock says. “It is absolutely in our foundation—irretrievable, irreplaceable, irremovable.” All adults are required to take a vow asserting their Christianity, but boys of all faiths (or none) are accepted. The non-Christian among them, though, ought to be prepared for evangelism. As Stuart Michelson, a Trail Life board member, puts it,

“If a boy goes through our program and he doesn’t realize that he’s a sinner and that Christ is the Savior, we’ve failed.”

To prevent that Christian foundation from eroding, Trail Life has created an organization that is debt-averse, decentralized, and volunteer-driven. These principles are designed to prevent outside groups from applying societal pressure against the national organization and to let local troops adopt rules that work for them.

However, the official membership policy is strict when it comes to sexuality: “The basis for the program’s ethical and moral standards is found in the Bible,” it reads. “In terms of sexual identification and behavior, we affirm that any sexual activity outside the context of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is sinful before God and therefore inconsistent with the values and principles of the program.” Trail Life leaders have said publicly that it will accept boys who are “experiencing same-sex attractions or gender confusion,” but not openly gay or transgender boys. As Trail Life chairman John Stemberger, a conservative activist who runs the Florida chapter of Focus on the Family, says, “People have all kinds of sexual dysfunction. We hope they would work through that.”

Trail Life’s views on standing for faith are further underlined the evening of the training weekend, as the men move down the hill to a clearing in the woods lit by a raging bonfire. Many have replaced the old beat-up BSA hats and shirts they were wearing this morning with new TLUSA gear they picked up from the swag shop. Around the campfire, they share their findings from one of the day’s tasks, a “Standing Alone” scavenger hunt about persecuted Christians who stood for their faith against the prevailing notions of the day—like St. Sebastian, who was martyred by the Romans for preaching Christianity, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister killed by the Nazis.

With the bonfire burning bright, one man rises to talk about August Landmesser, who became famous for defying the Nazis; in a photograph, he stands with his arms crossed while dozens of men around him are doing the Nazi salute. “We’ve had a lot of Nazi and German flare tonight,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s a foreshadowing of where we think this country is headed.” The crowd laughs. “But that guy was definitely standing alone in a crowd of everybody doing like they were told.”

Culture Warriors?

By the time noon rolls around in Western Pennsylvania, the boys of Troop 452 are back around the burn barrels. Before a lunch of hot dogs and Doritos, 15-year-old Spencer, the troop’s chaplain, shouts for attention. “Take off all your hats and hoods and junk,” he says, bowing his head. “OK, dear Lord, we thank you very much for this awesome weekend we’re having. We thank you very much for the nice weather; it hasn’t snowed or rained on us yet. We ask that you would bless these foods and you would bless our lives as we go on to adventure into adulthood. Amen.”

“Amen.”

Troop 452 would have a prayer service with Concord United’s minister later that evening— same as they did when they were affiliated with the BSA—but in the time I spent with the boys, Spencer’s prayer was as religious as it got. Other groups might be more actively religious, but by leaving rules up to the local leaders, Trail Life has only provided broad outlines for its brand of Christianity. In fact, if the boys of Troop 452 are aware of the fact that they’re supposed to be cultural warriors, they don’t show it. They spend almost the entire time talking about food, candy, movies, music, and TV. And making fart jokes.

The leaders, for their part, haven’t made any distinct changes in how they run their group. “It’s a brand change,” says Brown, the troop committee member. “Restaurants serve Coke for years, then they switch to Pepsi. We went from a bigger brand to a smaller one, but our troop is our troop.” Greathouse concurs: “To build a fire, you light a match—it’s all the same, it don’t matter what [group] you’re in.” Neither have the boys noticed much of a difference: Andy says he really likes “the camping, and not working on all the badges.”

After lunch, the boys show off their morning projects. Spencer demonstrates the catapult he’s built, which launches a snowball about 10 feet. Another teenager has jury-rigged a pretty impressive toilet chair out of twine and logs, complete with a cupholder.

The group trudges over to Trevor, one of the youngest boys, who has made snowshoes by winding a quarter-mile of twine around a handful of branches.

“Can you go across snow on them?” someone asks.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Trevor says. “You stay on top of the snow!”

The group waits as he struggles to tie them to his boots. The other boys begin ramping up his challenges, telling him that after the snow, he has to go across the frozen creek.

“We have to see you walk across water!” Andy suggests, laughing.

“I don’t think they’re that special,” Greathouse deadpans, adding, “You’ll be the winner if you walk across the water.”

Greathouse clearly isn’t leading a backcountry Bible study here. Troop 452 is only one example, but it seems to be offering a setting in which these boys can learn outdoor skills against a backdrop of Christianity, not the other way around.

Time will tell if Trail Life will flourish where the Boy Scouts has not. Despite all the fuss over a mass defection over the policy of acceptance, the Boy Scouts’ losses were not catastrophic. Today, though Trail Life counts around 20,000 members, that’s still less than 1 percent of BSA’s membership. (Some Trail Life leaders also intimated to me they might get a bump if the Scouts decide to officially start admitting openly gay leaders, a public goal of BSA president Robert Gates that could occur as soon as this fall.happened on July 27, 2015.) But acceptance of gay rights continues to sweep across the country. Forty-three percent of young white evangelical Christians—the same type of boys enrolled in Trail Life—now support same-sex marriage, compared to just 22 percent of evangelical baby boomers. It seems likely that at least some, if not many, of the young Trailmen will join their ranks in the future, too. Who knows, maybe Trail Life will have a schism of its own in the years to come.

If there’s one idea we can all agree on, it’s this: Americans get to disagree with each other on how they want to live and what they want to believe. It’s a fundamental tension that unfolds everywhere from schoolyards to the Supreme Court.

Should the outdoors be any different?

Patrick Doyle is a freelance journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.

6 MORE WAYS TO SCOUT

Adventure Scouts USA refers to itself as “the only fully nondiscriminatory Scout Program in the United States.” The organization prioritizes affordability, inclusivity, and a commitment to being scout-led with adults present only to guide scouts in identifying their passions and aspirations. 

American Heritage Girls was founded in 1995 to “build women of integrity through service to God, family, community and country.” The organization now has 512 troops in 48 states. 

Camp Fire started out as girls-only, but has been co-ed for 40 years now. The group has included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy since 1993. It serveskids in 28 states with afterschool and summer camp programs. 

Earth Champs, formerly known as the Earth Scouts, focuses on environmental sustainability, social and economic justice, democracy, and human rights. Founded in 2002, the program fosters environmental stewardship in children ages 3 to 13. 

Navigators USA declares that “the greatest challenge for the future of our planet is whether we will learn how to get along with people different than ourselves.” Founders launched this co-ed scouting program in 2003 in direct response to BSA’s decision to enforce “exclusionary” membership policies. 

Royal Rangerswas born in northern Texas as a boys-only, faith-based scouting program in 1962. They currently have about 81,000 scouts and reported an increase in membership inquiries right after the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to permit gay scouts.