Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The Gospel of the Redman
This past week while attending Boy Scout camp, I came across a book in the camp's "Trading Post" that caught my eye. I also discovered that it is featured on the ScoutStuff.org site, the BSA's online store for scouting material. Entitled The Gospel of the Redman, such a book seemed both appropriate and out of place at the same time. I say "appropriate" considering the influence of American/Native Indian customs on the scouting movement (e.g. Order of the Arrow ceremony, etc.). However, it also felt highly "out of place" when I thought about the title and began to read the contents of the volume. The Boy Scouts of America, while holding up the ideals of reverence and belief in God, does not endorse any faith.
The brief description at ScoutStuff.org notes that: "Compiled from American Indian cultures, this classic work offers a glimpse of the ways, history, and philosophy of these proud peoples." This is misleading, though. "Philosophy" is much different than "religion," which is what this book is all about. Written by Earnest Thompson Seton (one of the founding members of the BSA movement) and his wife Julia in 1936, The Gospel of the Redman is a small treatise on the general spiritual beliefs of the American Indians. David C. Scott in an extended article on Seton and controversies surrounding the beginnings of the scouting movement observes:
The book describes and documents various philosophical teachings and beliefs of Native American Indians in a form that can be easily read, understood and taught in the outdoors. And it is highly spiritual and clearly states that "service to fellow man" is paramount. On page one Seton writes: "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, 'How much service have I rendered to my people?' His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world.
Scott also notes that this book is used as "as a model for non-denominational Chapel services. " This is not surprising, considering Seton's universalistic approach to religion that attempts to summarize from the Indian religion what he sees as the essential common points of all faiths. After touting the endorsement of Jewish and Christian sources alike, he states in the forward that "it would seem that it (Indian spirituality) must be real religion since it is universal, basic and fundamental." (vii) At the same time, however, Seton also clearly has a bone to pick with Western Christianity, and wastes no time showing the seeming callousness of early missionaries to the Indians. For him Western culture, as a whole, is spiritually lacking, and he observes that the "culture and civilization of the Whiteman are essentially material," while "The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual" (1).
Unfortunately Seton not only errs in his universalism, but also in his blatant exaggeration of the virtues of the Native Americans as well. He states that "Their honesty is immaculate, and their purity of purpose and their observance of the rites of their religion are most uniform and remarkable" (2). As a Christian I would hardly make such a bold claim even for my own church, especially in a sinful world.
I will be forwarding my concerns about this book and its inclusion in the Scouting movement to the BSA. While I do not oppose educating on Indian spirituality in the right context, this book is clearly an apologetic for Indian religion, and therefore very inappropriate for the BSA to publicize and use. Even the religious awards used and worn by scouts are technically not officially sponsored by the BSA, but by a separate organizations. Instruction in the various faiths is left to counselors who are often not even members of scouting (e.g. the scout's minister) and is not like the regular merit badge program where the instructors must be from within the organization itself.