Want your daughter to learn all about camping, sewing and car repair, but with a heaping helping of Jesus? You could try to find a local Girl Scout troop with an especially Bible-thumping troop leader. Or you could just skip straight to the American Heritage Girls, conservative Christianity's very own copycat.
It's a common trope on the far-right that the Girl Scouts have become an out-and-out liberal organization with ties to Planned Parenthood. (The national organization patiently continues to insist they have no formal relationship.) This year, the barrage has intensified, thanks to a ginned-up controversy about the Girl Scouts of America supposedly tweeting support for Wendy Davis. (Not really true, but why let the facts get in the way of a boycott?)
And so, amid the bombardment, right-wing media outlets are trumpeting an alternative, called the American Heritage Girls. While much smaller—something like 30,000, compared to 2.3 million Girl Scouts—they're held up as a competitor. A columnist at fire-breathingly conservative outlet Breitbart, recently cheered: "AMERICAN HERITAGE GIRLS OFFERS FAITH-BASED PATRIOTIC ALTERNATIVE TO DECAYING GIRL SCOUTS." Glenn Beck's site, The Blaze, did their second piece on the group, following a 2012 intro. The National Review ran a Q&A between founder Patti Garibay and Kathryn Lopez, carrying the headline, "Good American Girls."
So what's a gal gotta do to qualify as a "Good American Girl" these days? This video from September 2012 provides a nice introduction. The group paints itself as a force "countering the culture," which "provides girls the necessary tools to defend their faith and to live righteously despite the mixed messages of a culture devoid of a moral code."
"Through the vehicle of scouting, girls are taught leadership and life skills that will enable them to put legs on their faith, or to develop a relationship with God when one does not exist," says founder Garibay in the video. The group is fairly popular on Pinterest; my personal favorite finding calls the group "The Conservative alternative to the progressive femi-nazi Girl Scouts...Promoting Christian and Family Values." The group is even endorsed by evangelical Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. On the group's website, you'll find a Statement of Faith, which identifies the group as a "Christ-centered leadership and character development ministry" and includes the tenant of "purity."
The group was founded in 1995, when Girl Scouts began allowing members reciting the organization's Promise to replace "in God" with alternatives like "Allah" or "my creator." You know—dogs-and-cats-living-together level stuff. Garibay told Lopez:
AHG was founded due to the Girl Scouts' change to its Promise in 1993, allowing girls to replace the word "God" with whatever their beliefs were, including no belief in God at all. The parents around the kitchen table at the founding of AHG felt it integral that God was the foundation for the new character- and leadership-development program for girls.
It doesn't seem she buys into the dark conspiracy theories about connections to Planned Parenthood—but she didn't need to, either. From The Blaze:
"They say they take no position and when one takes no position, they do take a position. That's a concern for me as a leader of a girl's organization.... These are issues that girls do have to deal with — and if you're going to be a character-driven program … [abortion] is an issue that we can't just sweep under the carpet."
So: What does this "Christ-centered," anti-abortion alternative to the Girl Scouts look like? I ordered a copy of the group's handbook to find out. (You can't order through AHG's online story unless you're a registered member, so I turned to Amazon's marketplace.) And, well, imagine a bizarro version of the Girl Scouts from a parallel universe where Mike Huckabee got elected president in a landslide.
Their uniforms look like Girl Scout uniforms, complete with sashes, except they're red, white and blue. Proper treatment of the flag gets 7 pages. Girl Scouts rise through the ranks as Daisies, Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes, Seniors and finally Ambassadors, while AHG goes a little more Captain America: Tenderheart, Explorer, Pioneer and Patriot. Each is associated with a person who's "made a positive impact on our country." Examples include Harriet Tubman and Dolley Madison—as well as Eliza Shirley, who founded the first Salvation Army Corps in America.
Compare the groups Oath to the Girl Scout Promise, which goes:
On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.
AHG's update is damn near identical, except God is presumably obligatory: "I promise to love God, Cherish my family, Honor my country, And serve in my community." And religiosity pops up constantly. The welcome letter of the group's handbook sets the tone:
"Welcome to the American Heritage Girls! I hope that you find your time in AHG to be filled with adventure and fun. The AHG program will help you learn many things about yourself and about God's purpose for your life. May your times be memorable and may you truly become a woman of integrity who loves God, cherishes her family, honors her country and consistently gives service to others."
The American Heritage Girls' Creed lists 10 "traits of a girl of integrity," including:
Each is illustrated with a Bible verse. The badge program features lots of relentlessly practical skills that've got nothing to do with religion, like fire-building, cake-baking and money management. But they're often illustrated with tangentially related Bible verses.
It's the "Personal Well-Being" frontier that'll really make you feel like Alice tumbling through the looking glass. Sure, there are badges about stamp collecting and personal style, for instance. "All God's Children" teaches about the disabled, but it's often through Bible verses. "Best Me I Can Be" crams in hand-washing and dentistry, plus manicures ("visit a nail salon") and modesty ("Consider visiting a modesty website such as Pure Freedom to learn more about this important value"). There's a "Bible Basics" badge ("God has given us a wonderful gift — an instruction manual on how to live our life according to His will"). Girls are encouraged to read the books of Ruth and Esther, in particular.
Perhaps the most fascinating is "Daughter of the King," which delves into a personal relationship with God. Tasks include talking to a mom or mentor about what "purity and self-respect" mean to her and considering "what should you think about during your next shopping trip to make sure that your clothing is pleasing to God?"
And every now and then, you turn a page and BAM, it's gone balls-out fundamentalist. For instance, the "7 C's of History" badge:
Take a walk through history and uncover amazing scientific and Biblical answers for the world we live in today. Discover the time-line of the universe unfolding the 7 C's of History—illuminating God's redemptive plan throughout history. The Creation Museum, and its website, offers wonderful resources for the completion of this badge.
Scouts are encouraged to visit the Creation Museum to complete the badge. The group has also launched a "Respect Life" badge, the Blaze has reported, and according to their press releases, recently sponsored a Youth Rally at the March for Life. (It's not strictly an evangelical group—there are largely Catholic troops, for instance.)
It's natural for parents to want to raise their children in a way that reflects their own values. But it seems pretty obvious that the American Heritage Girls is pushing an agenda far harder than the Girl Scouts of America.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.