Despite tremendous political pressure to change their views, on July 17 the Boy Scouts of America affirmed its policy of excluding -- or at least not officially welcoming -- gay people. The announcement came after a confidential two-year policy self-review by the organization.
In an extraordinary response to the decision, several dozen Eagle Scouts -- the highest order of Boy Scout -- have returned their prestigious medals in protest. The Eagle Scout rank is difficult to achieve and is attained by only a small fraction of the millions of young men who have participated in Boy Scouts over the past century.
It is against this highly charged backdrop that Michael S. Malone's fascinating new book about the Scouts -- with a focus on Eagle Scouts -- arrives in bookstores. Released yesterday, Four Percent: The Story of Uncommon Youth in a Century of American Life (WindRush Publishers) is the best, and most honest, book ever written about the Boy Scouts of America. Malone traces the history of the organization from its roots -- ironically -- as part of the early 20th century Progressive movement, with strong support from both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. FDR loved Scouting and made it a centerpiece of the New Deal, and ever since it has helped define youth service in America. Thanks in part to 50 years of iconic prints by Normal Rockwell, the wholesome image of the ever-helpful Boy Scout remains deeply ingrained in American lore.
This week, Eagle Scouts marks its centennial and Malone's book follows many of those young men who went on to achieve prominence in later life, including a president of the United States, dozens of astronauts (including Neil Armstrong), Medal of Honor recipients, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, authors, movie stars, titans of industry, senators, congressmen and governors, civil rights leaders, and community activists.
According to the author, the Eagle service project requirement, instituted in the early 1960s, is now likely the largest youth service initiative in history with more than 100 million hours served, and another three million hours added each year.
So how did such a decent, well-intentioned civic group that began life as the darling of Progressives become so politically radioactive today? According to Malone (an Eagle Scout himself) the willingness of the Scouts to take deeply-felt, if controversial positions is hard-wired within the organization's culture. During World War I, for example, many civic leaders, including Teddy Roosevelt, hoped to transform the Scouts into a quasi-military organization for national defense. Scout leaders refused to militarize the group, causing a controversy then and a permanent break with Roosevelt.
Fast forward to today and the position to avoid openly discussing sexuality is similarly rooted in the organization's core values. According to Malone, the heart of the issue is not anti-gay sentiments but rather a belief that Scouting is simply not about sexuality. He argues that most Scouts believe that one's orientation should never be a topic -- and indeed it isn't in most local chapters. However, in the last few years, because of some well-documented molestation cases, Malone suggests that Scouting has acted with an abundance of caution (the kind not displayed, for instance, at Penn State). It is in this context that sexuality and sexual orientation have unfortunately become intertwined. If true policy change is to come, Malone believes the movement will be led by the Eagles.
Four Percent is a valuable look -- warts and all -- inside a proud organization that truly believes it is doing good -- even when it willingly stands alone in that opinion.