I’ve worked with young people my whole adult life, both in Scouting and in church, so I’m very good at keeping my political opinions to myself—and certainly off social media. As I said in a blog post several years ago, “You’ll never see me post anything online that wouldn’t be appropriate for the youngest Scout to read, and if you want to know about my political leanings or adult-beverage preferences, you’ll have to ask.”
That said, I’ve had enough people ask me about President Trump’s speech at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree that I feel compelled to say something. Or a few things actually.
My first thought is that Mr. Trump’s political comments were absolutely inappropriate—just as political comments from a Democratic president would have been in this setting. The Boy Scouts of America is, by its very nature, an apolitical organization, founded to “to promote, through organization, and cooperation with other agencies, the ability of boys to do things for themselves and others, to train them in scoutcraft, and to teach them patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues,” according to its 1916 federal charter. Beyond congratulating the Scouts on their achievements and encouraging them to continue to serve their country, there’s nothing more a president should say in this setting. (By the way, the jamboree included more than 700 international Scouts, making Mr. Trump’s “America first” message even more inappropriate.)
My second thought is that I HATE these presidential visits to jamborees—and I’ve been through a few of them, having attended six jamborees from 1981 through 2013. They are logistical nightmares that turn the program upside down. Mr. Trump’s visit required several program areas to shut down as early as 10 a.m. on the day of his visit, and many troops had to leave their campsites as early as 2 p.m. in order to get through security. And that’s not even as bad as the jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill where we had to do an extra mobilization because the president’s schedule didn’t align with the two planned arena shows. My biggest memory of that day is the Scouts who were passing out in the blazing Virginia heat.
My third thought—and probably the most important—is that the furor surrounding Mr. Trump’s speech has obscured what a diverse organization Scouting is today. Because Mr. Trump got some of the Scouts to boo President Obama, there’s a sense that all Scouts are Republicans. Because he talked (for some odd reason) about Christmas, there’s a sense that Scouting is an exclusively Christian organization. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
As Mr. Trump was speaking, I happened to be transcribing an interview with a Scouter who works with an inner-city troop in Massachusetts where families speak at least six languages. She described in moving terms how these children of immigrants are going on to become the first members of their families to graduate from college. In the past, I’ve interviewed Muslim and Sikh Scouters who have found Scouting to be a warm, welcoming place.
At the 2010 jamboree, for example, Abdul-Rashid Abdullah helped run a mosque set up on site, where kids of all faiths could learn about Islam. He told me later, “Through Scouting, people of diverse cultures and diverse faiths can come together and learn from one another, learn to respect one another, and live together.”
At the 2013 jamboree, volunteers at the Sikh exhibit helped 1,500 Scouts learn to tie turbans. “We had turbaned kids running up and down the slope playing Frisbee,” Kavneet Pannu told me. “The zip line was above us, and we could see turbans on the zip line. Some kids didn’t remove their turbans for two days because they thought it was the coolest thing.”
In our hyper-politicized age, groups of all stripes want to use Scouting to advance their own purposes. As Scouters, it’s our job to keep our purpose clear: to help boys grow up to be men—regardless of how they worship, who they vote for, or what adult beverage they prefer.
Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.