“Scout’s honor” just ain’t what it used to be. My internal dialogue as I tried to think of a way to describe al-Shabaab for yesterday’s article went something like this:
Imagine the Boy Scouts if that organization was infused with religious fundamentalism.
[“So, wait, you mean like the Boy Scouts five years ago?”].
No, I mean imagine the Boy Scouts if that organization was infused with religious fundamentalism and lots of high powered weapons.
No, no, I mean imagine the Boys Scouts if that organization was infused with religious fundamentalism and lots of high powered weapons and a desire to take over the country and impose its views on everyone else, even if doing so meant lots of people would be shot to death in the process.
[“Oh, you mean like the Boy Scouts?”]
Yes, exactly like that.
While the al-Shabaab analogy is a bit hyperbolic, the Boy Scouts of America organization has fallen under disrepute in the eyes of many who see it as a bastion of conservatism and religiously-motivated opposition to progress and/or a craven betrayer of traditional values in the wake of a progressive agenda, and more still view it as an organization that ignored or facilitated widespread abuse.
In this regard, the more apt comparison for the Boy Scouts is the Catholic Church. Like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America is currently embroiled in a scandal for its lax personnel policies allowing serial child molesters to victimize scouts for years (and no, the Catholic Church connection isn’t just a comparison – at least one predatory scoutmaster teamed up with a pedophile priest to molest boys because what the **** is wrong with the world nowadays…). Because the BSA doesn’t have the deep pockets of the Catholic Church, the financial settlements being paid out to victims may bankrupt the organization.
Many voices on the right who once championed the Boy Scouts are now welcoming the potential shuttering of the organization (while many on the left have never been big fans of the Scouts to begin with). The fact that the Boy Scouts have gathered such a diverse group of adversaries says something about the complicated politics that has surrounded the Scouts and the organization’s identity.
Religion, Politics and Political Religion: The Boy Scouts of America
The Boy Scouts of America can be considered a “religious” organization, but only in a very broad sense. The Scout Oath references a duty “to God and my country,” but the group’s by-laws clarify that the organization “does not define what constitutes belief in God or practice of religion;” Mormons, Unitarians, Buddhists, Muslims and practitioners of Native American religions have been been active members of the BSA, and many of these religious organizations have sponsored Scout troops. The BSA still draws a hard line at atheism, however – essentially, any religion is welcome, but no religion is not.
In practice, however, the Boy Scouts have been dominated by Christian Churches. Three quarters all Boy Scout units are sponsored (“chartered” in Boy Scout language) by religious organizations, and Christian denominations such as the Latter Day Saints, United Methodist and Catholic Churches sit at the top of the list for most chartered units. With this level of financial and ideological influence, it’s not surprising that the Scouts have reflected the preferences of their Christian sponsors. Until recently, girls and gay and transgendered boys were not allowed to openly be scouts, and gay men were barred from leadership positions within Scout units.
In addition to being broadly religious, the Boy Scouts of America has been inherently political (hitting both halves of the website title today-booyah!), even before President Trump decided to use their national jamboree to incite the scouts to “boo” former President Obama (at least he didn’t lead the scouts in a “Lock her up” chant – don’t front, you know he wanted to). The Boy Scouts have largely found themselves interconnected to the Religious Right in recent decades. Its restrictive membership policies lined up well with conservative stances and “religious freedom” talking points. The group has also had close association with the NRA; one writer talks of the BSA as forming “an iron triangle with the NRA and the firearms and ammunition industry.”
Now that the policies excluding girls, or GBT boys and men have all been reversed in the last few years. Much of conservative media has castigated the group for caving to a progressive or “homosexual agenda” (clearly, LGBT Americans have been meeting in secret and coming up with a 42 step plan to take over America: “Infiltrate the Boy Scouts” was 37 on the list, between “purchase NFL” and “bioengineer laser-shooting unicorns,” or so I’ve been told). The Mormon Church, the Scouts’ oldest and largest major sponsor, severed ties with the BSA in he wake of the latter’s changes.
Progressives, on the other hand, continue to employ their time honored tradition of segueing from condemning conservatives for not implementing progressive changes to condemning them after their changes for not having done so earlier and more comprehensively. To some on the left, the BSA is a “fascist youth group” indoctrinating children. The Scouts thus find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place (There has to be a merit badge for extracting oneself from that, right? Oh, here it is!)
Nevertheless, as some observers, such as Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter, have argued that the Boy Scouts should be saved because the organization has served as a model, both for social progress and for responding forcefully and systematically to prevent additional abuse of its members. Others see the Boy Scouts as a potentially important ally in the fight against global climate change. Thus, although its future remains uncertain, the Boy Scouts’ progressive shifts, coupled with its continual focus on traditional apolitical American values (hard work, leadership, the usual) may allow the organization to survive its current challenges.