Eagle-eyed Scouts and Scouters have noticed something new in the Scout rank requirements that took effect January 1, 2016: “tell how you have done your duty to God.”
To be clear, “duty to God” has been a part of the BSA from the start. The first BSA Handbook for Boys, published in 1911, says “no boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God.”
What’s new is that beginning Jan. 1, 2016, every rank from Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout (plus Eagle Scout palms) will include a “duty to God” requirement.
It’s important to know what that means — and what it doesn’t.
The new requirements do ask Scouts to reflect on their own belief. They don’t ask the Scout leader to have a two-way conversation about religion, to proselytize or to evaluate whether the Scout’s duty to God meets the Scout leader’s personal standard.
Look at the verb in the requirement: “Tell how you have done your duty to God.” Not demonstrate, discuss, show or prove. This is a monologue by the Scout. Not a dialogue between a Scout and their leader. The requirement is complete once the Scout has told how they have done their duty to God. With young Scouts, this could be a very brief statement. As Scouts get older and their beliefs mature, this “telling” will evolve. The troop leader is there to listen, not to evaluate a Scout’s expression against any standard. In many troops, the Scout leader and one or more of their Scouts will have different religious beliefs, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s healthy.
Faith is a complicated subject, but it’s an essential part of Scouting. I urge you to read the helpful FAQs document the BSA released in August 2015 that explains this further.
We've included the relevant section below.
Duty to God FAQs
Q. A new element of Scout spirit (“Tell how you have done your duty to God …”), is alongside the elements of “living the Scout Oath and Scout Law” in the new requirements. Does this mean troop leaders need to examine and evaluate a Scout’s duty to God, and then determine whether it is sufficient by some standard?
A. No, not at all. The troop leader is there to listen to the Scout tell about how they believe they has done their duty (the Scout’s duty) – that is the requirement. The idea is for the Scout to have a self-reflection about belief and reverence. The requirement does not indicate that a discussion or a two-way conversation should take place. For the purpose of the requirement, the scout is simply to tell their leader how they believe they have done their duty to God as defined by themself and their family. Nothing more is required. The telling might be a very brief statement, depending on the Scout and the family’s beliefs—and on where the Scout is in his development of understanding of such matters, which will evolve as the Scout matures.
Q. Does including “duty to God” as a part of Scout spirit put too much emphasis on religion? Does it create a requirement of belonging to a religion?
A. No, not as written. There is no requirement that a Scout identify a religious faith as part of their duty to God—although, if the Scout does have a religious faith, it is likely to be part of the self-reflection and expression. It is important to note that Scouting is nonsectarian and promotes no specific religion. In fact, a scout need not belong to any official religious institution - they could practice their beliefs privately at home. However, while membership in an organized religion is not necessary or implied, a Scout does have to ascribe to the declaration of religious principles, and express belief in a higher power. This condition of membership is acknowledged by the parent or guardian’s signature on the BSA Youth Application.
Q. A troop leader’s beliefs about God may be different from those of the Scout. With the requirement “tell how you have done your duty to God,” a troop leader might believe that the Scout should do more or do something differently to show duty to God. Can a scout be withheld from advancing for that reason?
A. No. The troop leader does not evaluate whether a Scout’s expression of how he shows duty to God is sufficient by any standard. In signing off the requirement, the leader simply acknowledges that the Scout has told how they have done their duty to God. The leader should make no judgment and the Scout should not be held to a standard of belief or activity in order to be signed off on the requirement. There will often be differences of belief among troop members and troop leadership—but the troop leader’s beliefs do not establish a standard for the Scout. The policy of the Boy Scouts of America is that “the home and the organization or group with which the member is connected shall give definite attention to religious life.” The troop leader is to respect those differences, with no attempt to impose his or her personal beliefs on the Scout.
Q. Can the Scout tell about their duty to God during the Scoutmaster conference?
A. Yes. That would be an appropriate place for this to happen, just as other Scout spirit actions like telling “how you have lived four different points of the Scout Law” may be covered in Scoutmaster conferences. There is no reason why both actions cannot be completed at the same time. Of course, the Scoutmaster may delegate responsibility for sign-off on Scout spirit requirements to another leader, just as with any other requirement.
Q. Should a board of review ask the Scout about this Duty to God requirement?
A. A board of review may ask - just as with any other requirement—but the board is not required to do so. It is not expected that every rank requirement will be individually covered during a board of review, and this requirement is no exception. However, as with the previous question, the Scout only needs to tell how they have done their duty to God. Board members are not to pass judgment or try to impose their individual beliefs. The situation is no different from what might currently be asked: “How have you lived the ‘duty to God’ part of the Scout Oath in your daily life?” or “How have you demonstrated ‘A Scout is reverent’ in your everyday life?”
Q. What if, during a Scoutmaster conference or board of review, a Scout says that they don't believe in God?
A. A Scout is called to do his duty to God by both the Scout Oath and Scout Law, and their belief in God should be acknowledged by their parent or guardian’s signature on the BSA Youth Application. A Scout’s declaration that they don't believe in God is grounds to deny rank advancement and could affect their continued membership in the troop. The situation should be approached with the utmost caution, recognizing that the Scout and his family are best served by a process in which the Scout remains positively engaged in his Scouting pursuits. Troop leadership should not attempt to counsel the Scout, but should contact the scout's parents or guardians and allow the family time to discuss the situation with the youth. If the issue arises at a board of review, the board should be adjourned and reconvened at a later date, giving the family an opportunity to conduct that discussion with their scout.