In Depth

Why Trump isn't the only one to talk politics to Boy Scouts

In Depth: From colonialist roots to gender clashes, the apolitical Boy Scouts are steeped in politics

In a rant compared to a "drunk stepdad", Donald Trump used the Boy Scouts of America national jamboree to complain about delays to his legislative agenda, Obamacare and his opponents.

Faced with complaints from angry parents, the Scouts later apologised for the "political rhetoric", reaffirming the organisation's apolitical identity.

However, it wasn't the first time the youth group has been involved in politics. It has been embroiled in everything from "nationalist resistance movements in India… [to] the contemporary American debate over gay rights", writes Timothy Parsons, associate professor of history at Washington University.

Heart of darkness

Although the modern scouting movement prides itself on its inclusivity and absence of political or ideological bias, its origins are indivisible from the country's colonial past.

In 1908, when the first edition of Scouting for Boys went on sale, Robert Baden-Powell was already a household name as the heroic defender of Mafeking, successfully holding off an overwhelming force of attacking Boers for seven months.

He saw his scouting programme "as a way of preparing British youth for imperialism and for the next war", says Professor John Merriman of Yale University.

Baden-Powell's vision was universal insofar as it fit within an imperial world view. When colonial administrators brought scouting to the Indian Raj in 1909, "officials tried to restrict membership to Britons" on the grounds Indian troops might be coopted by nationalists, says Parsons.

This led to the creation of numerous unofficial scouting bodies - the most popular being the nationalist Seva Samiti Scout Association.

Boy soldiers

The scouting movement's relationship to fascism and other brands of authoritarianism is complex.

Baden-Powell's enthusiasm for cleanliness, order and moral purity meant "the scouting ethos had always had something modern and totalitarian about it", Christopher Hitchens wrote for The Atlantic in 2004.

For instance, in an otherwise remarkable passage on wildlife, Baden-Powell described bees as a "model community" because they "respect their queen and kill their unemployed".

During the 1920s and 1930s, supporters of fascism found much to admire in scouting's emphasis on self-discipline, patriotism, physical hardiness and military training.

In 1937, Baden-Powell was invited to meet Hitler to discuss closer ties between the Scouts and the Hitler Youth, the Daily Telegraph reports.

He appears not to have accepted, but the admiration was not all one-sided. In 1939, Baden-Powell wrote that Mein Kampf was "a wonderful book" and praised its insights on "education, health, propaganda, organisation etc."

Ironically, scouting's lack of political allegiance, as well as its message of loyalty to traditional institutions such as the monarchy and organised religion, were also viewed as a threat by totalitarian governments.

In 1927, the Italian scouting movement dissolved under pressure from Benito Mussolini's fascist government and young Italians were instead expected to spend their time participating in the Opera Nazionale Balilla, a state-run youth training programme with the motto "book and rifle, perfect fascist".

Prepared for change

Today's debates over the rights of ethnic, sexual and gender minorities has continued to put the Scouts' apolitical character to the test.

In the case of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the membership policies became a battleground in the "culture wars" of the 1980s which has persisted to this day.

It has historically drawn its core membership from conservative and religious communities -  "joining the Boy Scouts is practically automatic among Mormon boys", says the New York Post - and has come to be associated with "traditional" values.

As late as 2004, BSA official policy described homosexuality as "inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed".

In a landmark 2000 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled against a gay scoutmaster who claimed that he had been unfairly dismissed, upholding the BSA's claim that as a private organisation, it had a right to turn away members who might interfere with its message.

However, with multiple lawsuits in the pipeline, the ban on gay scouts was lifted in 2014 and openly gay adults were allowed to hold leadership positions the following year.

In February 2017, Joe Maldonado of New Jersey became the first transgender boy to join the BSA, which, unlike its UK counterpart, maintains a boys-only policy.

There are more political battles ahead when it comes to BSA membership, however. Senior leaders are finally considering the admission of girls to more of its programmes (the Girl Scouts of America is a separate, unrelated organisation), NBC reports.

The issue of atheist or non-religious scouts is likely to be the next frontier. While the Girl Scouts of America, as well as most Western scouting bodies, offer a non-religious alternative to their traditional oath, BSA scouts must still promise to do their duty to God.

The battle to open up participation in scouting to even more children in the US may not be over, but the significance of the recent shifts in BSA policy should not be overlooked, says the Washington Post.

The BSA's brand of "square" 1950s-style conservatism might be an easy target for those on the political left, but the truth is that the Boy Scouts "are a barometer of how far the country's attitudes have shifted on issues of race, gender and sexuality".

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