praying in public

My name is Angela Bartlett. I am a Cub Scout leader. And I do not believe in God.

I enrolled Ben in the Cub Scouts in August because I wanted him to have a group of friends his age, and his own thing separate from Elliott’s therapy and activities. In addition to making new friends, he was most interested in the uniform and patches.

The thing is, I’m an atheist, and I vaguely knew that the Cub Scouts would not approve. But I wasn’t planning on being a leader or anything. I thought maybe Ben could learn to fold a flag and pitch a tent (which I don’t even know how to do) and I could just opt out of the God stuff. So I showed up to a recruitment night in an upstairs classroom at a local church. When I stepped into the room, a slide show of photographs of boys engaged in fun activities was playing, set to the song “Proud to Be an American.” Alarmed, I began to slowly back up out of that room, and had to remind myself that I was there for Ben and not for myself. It isn’t that I’m not proud to be an American. I am. But I have some serious concerns about contemporary country music. I listened to the presentation and I found myself filling out a form and writing out a check and, suddenly, agreeing to become a co-den leader. Before I filled out the application, I pulled one of the veteran leaders aside, and quietly informed her that I was not religious, just to verify if this was acceptable. She assured me it was.

But it isn’t. Here is what the Boy Scouts of America say: “The BSA believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God, and encourages both youth and adult leaders to be faithful in their religious duties.”  According to the BSA, then, my non-belief in God makes it impossible for me to be the best kind of citizen.

I have ignored all of this for the past year. When we say the pledge at pack meetings, I simply leave out “under God” as I always do. When our den did the flag ceremony, we let one of our kids read the prayer. Most of the year has been spent hiking, tying knots, learning what to say and what not to say when a stranger calls. And Benjamin has made some incredible new friends, as have I. I will say this: the BSA has a lot of good to offer.

But then they go and do things like “fire” people–loving, dedicated parents who are working for free to help the pack–for being atheist or homosexual. Sure, they might have a legal right to do that. But it is unethical. And it is embarrassing. And it is sooooooo 1952.

I know that I am a good mother and a good person. The BSA has codified in their policies that this cannot be true. And if Ben decides that he does not believe in God, they will think that Ben, one of the finest little guys I’ve ever known, is also incapable of being the “best kind” of person.

I get asked to pray in public all of the time. At the Cub Scout meetings. But also at graduation ceremonies. At piano recitals. At weddings. Anywhere the pledge is being recited. I am respectful. I fold my hands or place my right one over my heart and remain quiet, and listen to the prayer. I do not participate, but I do not complain. It is not an act of defiance as much as it is a simple choice to opt out of something in which I do not believe.

In the past year, I have worked to be a good Cub Scout leader, despite my various additional obligations. However,  no matter what I do, I am not praying, and that means that it can never be enough. For the time being, the BSA have kindly overlooked my inherent lack of goodness, but I don’t need them to do me any favors. I can’t ignore this ridiculous policy any longer.

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2 thoughts on “praying in public

  1. Jennifer says:

    Your letter was brought to my attention by an old friend who posted it on her Facebook page. I was raised agnostic and became a Christian in my 20s; therefore I identify with what you wrote — having lived much of my life resenting the idea that I fell into a second class [heathen citizens] despite whatever “good” I set out to do. My response to you is to say: Thank you for serving kids, for volunteering — and loving people. Even though I have been a Christian for 18 years, I still struggle with the dichotomy between patriotism and Christianity. I won’t go on about people being incapable of “goodness” apart from God — as it is a theological argument (though I agree with it — in the sense that no good deeds can make a person “good”). What I mean to convey by bringing it up — is that most Christians should regard themselves as sinners/needing grace and regard all people graciously. There is a conflict with people having a humble disposition and the message of patriotic pride that exists in so many circles [I wish the message was more like “grateful to be an American”]. I doubt I’ll ever reconcile it personally; however, I show my faith by trying to continue serving and responding graciously even when I feel slighted by others for my non-conformist beliefs. You are displaying a tremendous amount of faith in your service. If you don’t feel resolved about it anytime soon…please take comfort in the idea that the feeling is mutual (on both sides of the coin). -JL

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