Hysterical reaction to the gay scout leaders decision is a terrible witness

American conservatives have reacted badly to the Boy Scouts lifting its ban on gay leaders.Reuters

The decision by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to allow gay people to lead its groups has been met by predictable howls of outrage. Franklin Graham accused its president, Robert Gates, of "not having the moral courage to do what is right". "This move is bending to LGBT activist groups and would put young, innocent boys at risk," said the chief executive of Samaritan's Purse.

"We express consummate sadness that this once vibrant organisation continues to cave to social pressure, compromising its long-held, constitutionally protected tenets," said Roger "Sing" Oldham, a spokesman for the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention.

The Mormon Church, a strong supporter of scouting, said it was "deeply troubled" by the move, while Russell Moore, chairman of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, dismissed claims that churches would be protected, saying: "Churches know that this is the final word only until the next evolution."

It is, at first glance, hard to see what the problem is. The BSA realised that it was about to fall foul of anti-discrimination legislation and in lifting its ban on homosexual leaders took the only sensible course. However, since 70 per cent of its groups are affiliated or "chartered" to religious organisations, many of them conservative, it also made it clear that these organisations would not be compelled to appoint gay scout leaders if they didn't want to.

There are, however, a number of things going on under the surface.

1. For many such as Franklin Graham, the move marks a concession to an aggressively liberal gender agenda and a further defeat in the culture wars. Graham and like-minded conservatives want to resist the idea that homosexuality is normal, and see the possibility of gay scout leaders acting as role models to impressionable young people as abhorrent.

2. The concession granted to churches is welcome, but for conservatives it is hardly to the point. Moore evokes the "slippery slope" theory to argue that it is only a temporary relief; he appears to believe that the law will change so that churches find it more and more difficult to resist the appointment of gay scout leaders. Worse than that, the culture shift may become so entrenched that they are less inclined to resist it.

3. The BSA has a totemic status among American conservatives, standing for traditional values which are fundamentally threatened, they believe, by the moral shifts experienced in the modern world. It's not just about law, it's about identity – a potent rallying-cry. If the scout movement does fracture, that's one more thing to pin on the liberals.

4. There are undoubtedly some fairly toxic assumptions among many of the responses – read the comments, more than 11,000 of them, under Franklin Graham's Facebook post for a flavour (Larry Rebowski Snr remarked: "I think the last time there was this much evil in the world Noah built an ark.") The subtext – and indeed the text – to many of them is that gay men are paedophiles.

The conservative Church's reaction to the BSA's decision is, in many ways, teeth-grindingly frustrating. It reinforces every negative stereotype that wider society has of it.

As things stand, churches are perfectly free to ban gay people from leading their scout troops – though it is hard to imagine the effect that this attitude would have, for instance, on a gay, celibate member of an evangelical congregation who has never harmed a soul but who still regarded as a danger to children.

It may sound harsh, but what strikes the neutral observer about all this is the note of hysteria in much of what has been said and written. This is not the way to build bridges, and this is not the way to save souls.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.