“Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?”
These were the words of President Donald Trump as he addressed the National Scout Jamboree, or “Jambo,” an annual Boy Scouts of America gathering that goes back to 1937.
The president then went on to do precisely what he said he wouldn’t.
Trump spent nearly half an hour discussing efforts to repeal Obamacare, railing against the press, and bragging about the “hottest people in New York” being at some party he attended. He complained about the Electoral College being rigged against Republicans, and then threatened his secretary of health and human services, saying of Tom Price, “hopefully he's going to get the votes tomorrow to start our path toward killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare that's really hurting us.” The Boy Scouts issued a statement apologizing for what happened.
As a proud Eagle Scout who first joined the Boy Scouts almost 20 years ago, I can’t stress how damaging Trump’s politicizing rhetoric really was. This is an organization that is known for striving for nonpartisanship, focusing instead on the values of leadership and hard work for young men regardless of political views. It’s been critical to keeping support for the Boy Scouts high.
I know better than most how important it is to keep the Boy Scouts nonpartisan. In 1997, I joined the Cub Scouts despite anti-LGBTQ inclusion laws that forbid my two mothers from volunteering with the troop. I went on to fight for gay and later trans scout inclusion in the organization. In that time, I’ve been accused of bringing my politics into the Boy Scouts.
In reality, my fight was the opposite — it was to fight the politicization that kept boys out of the Scouts simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. My fight has been to open up the Scouts so that even more people can learn and live the values taught in these spaces.
Trump has refused to uphold this. We need the Boy Scouts as a space to teach kids important life values outside of politics. Once again, an important civic institution worth protecting has been eroded by the president’s insistence that he be the center of attention.
Trump’s politicization of the organization jeopardizes that work
It might seem strange that the president of the United States would be invited to speak for an organization that considers itself apolitical. But there’s a long tradition of that. The Boy Scouts of America is one of about 100 organizations with a Title 36 charter from Congress. That means that the president of the United States is required to serve as the “honorary president” of the Boy Scouts of America. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, she would have been invited to speak to the Boy Scouts as well, which would have been historic in its own right.
But this invitation has nothing to do with partisanship. The values of the Scout Law — of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent — are not ideological or partisan. The Scouting creed has been used for generations to talk about the values we want to instill in young Americans without the conflicts inherent in our political differences.
Further, striving for nonpartisanship allows the Boy Scouts to operate in nearly every community in America and to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes. Its membership standards have changed as the country has changed. At times, this was slow — the Boy Scouts didn't require desegregation until the 1970s. And I certainly would have preferred them to end their ban on gay members sooner than they did. But through it all, the Boy Scouts have done their best to keep their focus on bringing the values of Scouting to as many youth as possible. This focus on membership, in Scout parlance, is known as “keeping the main thing the main thing.”
And this is precisely why Trump’s speech was such a problem — it shifted the focus to him and away from the main thing: the kids. Instead of talking about Scout values or all the great steps the BSA is taking — the fact that they have launched a “STEM Scouts” initiative and are in the early stages of piloting a coed “family scouting” program — we’re talking about, and you’re reading about, Donald Trump.
Theoretically, Trump could have given a largely noncontroversial speech. Instead, he delivered a highly political speech that put the Boy Scouts in the news for all the wrong reasons just as Scouting begins its to prepare for its annual fall recruiting drive. The main thing is no longer the main thing — and this should be a warning to the rest of American civic society.
It’s important to keep the Boy Scouts apolitical
I know how important it is to uphold the Boy Scouts’ nonpartisanship. My two moms, Jackie and Terry, were a little hesitant when I told them I wanted to join the Boy Scouts in the late 1990s. At the time, the Boy Scouts membership standard disallowed the participation of openly gay adults like my parents. Thankfully, local leaders were willing to ignore the national policy and my moms were able to volunteer, and once I signed on as a Tiger Cub Scout, they helped guide me all the way to Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Scouting.
Then in 2012, I co-founded Scouts for Equality, a group of Eagle Scouts dedicated to ending discrimination against LGBTQ people in the BSA. We have been largely successful in that effort, with the Scouts ending their ban on gay youth in 2013, their ban on gay adults in 2015, and their ban on transgender boys earlier this year.
Depending on whom you ask, the Boy Scouts either finally did the right thing or they caved into the PC-police/social justice warriors/Big Brother Bullies — that is, me and my Eagle Scout friends at Scouts for Equality. The Boy Scouts’ conflict about their membership standard, and Trump’s speech, are good examples of what Vox’s Ezra Klein has described as “the politicization of absolutely everything.”
During the campaign to change the BSA’s membership standards, the topic of “politicization” came up again and again and again. Our campaign was accused by the religious right of trying to politicize the Boy Scouts. Their slogan was “Keep Sex & Politics Out of Scouting!” To the religious right, gay and trans people are political by definition, and so any effort to include them in the organization was political by extension.
Of course, it was not particularly political for my family to want to participate in the Boy Scouts or for the Boy Scouts to allow its (many, many) gay members to be honest about who they are. I never woke up in the morning thinking to myself, “Boy, I can’t wait to push my political agenda today!”
I saw our work as part of a broader effort to help bring the BSA’s membership standards into the 21st century. We wanted the values and lessons of Scouting to be accessible to more people, not fewer. That was the whole point of our campaign in the first place: more people participating in Scouting because we believe the program offers timeless values and important lessons that prepare you for life.
We saw precisely the opposite of this on Monday night. While President Trump did encourage the assembled youth to work hard and serve their country, he also discussed the 2016 election, the Electoral College, and the impending vote on Obamacare. He pushed a partisan message that has nothing to do with the Boy Scouts of America.
And, unfortunately, when BSA is politicized, people who would otherwise be supportive of Scouting are turned off. I’ve personally heard from nearly a dozen Scouting parents who have themselves heard negative things from their peers. Instead of delivering the speech without mention of politics, Trump is jeopardizing the critical work Scouting does.
Trump’s speech is another warning to American civic society
The Boy Scouts of America, with more than 2 million current enrollees and 50 million living alumni, is one of our nation’s most important civic organizations. It is a critical strand of the social fabric that weaves our country together. And most of America’s other civic society organizations, for reasons similar to the Boy Scouts, opt to remain largely nonpartisan. They want their work to unite and not divide.
Unfortunately, Trump continues to actively put many of these institutions in a no-win position. Whether it is the Al Smith dinner, the sacred space in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall, or on the deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Trump has a habit of putting himself first in front of organizations dedicated to serving others. Organizations can either invite the president to their events knowing that he is almost certain to go off script and make the event all about him, or they can shun the president and invite someone else, which may spark even more political conflict with people who feel the president is being disrespected.
As long as Trump insists on making himself the center of attention, American civic society, and its nonpartisan standing, will suffer the consequences.
If anything, the Boy Scouts’ biggest failure may have been failing to get Donald J. Trump to join when he was a kid growing up in Queens. Maybe he would have learned the Scout Oath and the Scout Law or the importance of being prepared and doing a good turn daily. He’d be a better president if he had.
Correction: The date for the first National Scout Jamboree was incorrectly stated as 1935. It has been corrected to 1937.
Zacharia Wahls is an Eagle Scout, a co-founder of Scouts for Equality, and the author of the bestselling book My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, which he often joked should actually have been titled My Two Moms: Or Everything I Needed to Know About Gay Marriage I Learned in the Boy Scouts. His speech before the Iowa legislature about growing up with lesbian parents was YouTube’s most-watched political video of 2011. He is currently studying public policy and is a master’s candidate at Princeton University.