As is often true of Trump’s speeches, his address on Monday in front of the Boy Scouts of America would have been reasonably appropriate if he had simply given the speech as written. The scripted version was not great but passable. Trump’s asides, as always, sent the speech off the rails, full of references to his win, fake news, fake polls, Hillary’s sins, another swipe at Obama, and so on.
Backlash in the world of the Scouts was instantaneous. Those of us raised in Scouting—I say as an Eagle Scout myself, and author of a book on Scouting—know that a fundamental rule of the BSA is that it is nonpartisan. We were taught never to wear our uniforms at a political event or to act in any way while in uniform that would suggest the BSA would endorse the activity. Indeed, the national office issued a statement Tuesday affirming that the organization “is wholly non-partisan and does not promote any position, product, service, political candidate or philosophy” and that the tradition of inviting the president of the U.S., as honorary president of the BSA, to speak to the National Jamboree “is in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific politics.”
When I read Kenneth Keniston’s fine book from 1968, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, years ago, it seemed clear to me that the young men (mainly) who organized the antiwar activities of the Vietnam Summer of 1967 and whom Keniston interviewed for the book could easily have been Eagle Scouts. It seemed equally likely to me that a Green Beret fighting the war in Vietnam could have been an Eagle Scout. Participation in the war or against the war could easily be justified based on the values learned as Scouts. The point is, of course, that the values and leadership skills learned in Scouting do not lead to any single partisan position.
The BSA managed to avoid political controversy for the first 75 years or so of its existence, but the rise of the “culture wars” in the Reagan years dragged the BSA into battles it would rather have avoided. The BSA policies barring gay boys and men, and atheists, from membership signaled on which side of the culture wars the BSA had landed. Those policies were rooted in religion, and although the BSA was not intended by the founders to be a religious organization but rather an organization open to all, the large number of Boy Scout troops sponsored by churches sustained a membership policy that really was at odds with the tolerance promoted by the BSA. Eventually it did change its membership policies, first, in 2014, admitting boys regardless of their sexual orientation, then in 2015 admitting adult leaders regardless of their sexual orientation. Most recently the BSA announced a policy of accepting members based on the gender identity they stated on their membership application, rather than the gender indicated on their birth certificates, opening the way for the first transgender boys to be Scouts. Though the culture wars have clearly not disappeared in 2017, evolving millennial attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity have been transformative for the Boy Scouts organization.
Yet it’s incumbent upon the BSA’s current leadership to ensure that the Boy Scouts are a force for good going forward. The event at the Jamboree reminded me of the moment back in September of 2016 when the Rev. Faith Green Timmons, pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, Michigan, had to ask candidate Trump to stop turning his visit there—which was intended to be a recognition of the role of the church in the Flint water crisis—into a Hillary-bashing campaign speech. Trump complied but then publicly excoriated Timmons the next day. So I could imagine the BSA senior leadership standing in the wings of the stage at the Jamboree—perhaps they had seen the written version of the speech—cringing as Trump’s asides increasingly turned what should have been a nonpartisan speech into a deeply partisan one. And none of those leaders had the courage to do what Timmons had done.
Then there were the audible cheers from some members of the BSA crowd listening to Trump’s speech, which drove some critics to denounce the Boy Scouts writ large. I know that that Scouts for Equality had a presence at the Jamboree and their Facebook page chronicles their negative reaction to the Trump speech. Many boys were complaining that their troop leaders required them to attend the speech, against the boys’ own wishes. No, that crowd was not unanimous in its approval of President Trump, no matter the volume of the supporters.
But regardless, I’d argue that these cheers should actually serve as a scary reminder of exactly why the Boy Scouts organization is important. The BSA, which was founded in 1910, early on aimed to take the natural instincts of adolescent boys and channel them toward positive, socially beneficial goals. Juvenile delinquency was causing a moral panic among American adults, and the founders of the BSA explicitly—if dubiously— talked about the Scouts as the new, socially positive form of the boy’s “gang,” offering the boy what he craved as a teenager: a sense of belonging, comradeship, a distinct identity marked by uniforms and insignia, a sense of serving a larger good, and the satisfaction of helping others. These are needs that can be served by organizations espousing a politics of the left or right (hence the Hitler Youth analogy). The BSA tries to sustain a nonpartisan stance precisely because it wants to avoid the excesses adolescent boys are capable of.
The shouts of approval in the audience at Trump’s speech confirm for me that adolescence is exactly what the founders thought it was in 1910—a malleable time of life when teens and preteens are uniquely susceptible to both peer leaders and adult authority figures. One can hope that there will be a new president for the next National Jamboree in four years and that this new president will return to the tradition of delivering to the assembled Scouts a speech that brings out the best instincts in young people, instead of the worst.