Note: On Thursday, July 27, the BSA's chief scout executive, Mike Surbaugh, issued a strong statement about Trump's speech that said in part, "We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program." Read the whole thing here.
Donald Trump contaminates everything he touches. So no one should have been surprised when his speech at the Boy Scouts’ national jamboree took a nasty turn into partisan politics. After all, it’s always about him.
But there is a larger issue at stake here: the fate of the Boy Scouts of America, which has been slowly evolving out of its discriminatory past. As an Eagle scout, a former scoutmaster, and the father of an Eagle scout, I really care about the future of the organization. And I’m concerned that President Trump’s toxic rhetoric will stain a movement already seen by many as anachronistic.
Make no mistake — Trump’s speech on Monday went well beyond the bounds of anodyne patriotism that has characterized remarks delivered to the scouts by past presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. As he has repeatedly, Trump dwelled on his Electoral College victory map, which was “so red it was unbelievable.” He derided the “fake media,” claiming they would play down the size of the crowd — as though (as The Washington Post put it) the 30,000 scouts had turned out for him rather than the jamboree. He boasted that he’d bring “Merry Christmas” back into the lexicon, ignorant of scouting’s embrace of all religious faiths. He put in a plug for “killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare.”
And yes, the scouts booed Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” a few times. But scouting is a pretty conservative movement, and I have no doubt that many of those in attendance were Trump supporters. Those of us in Blue New England are outliers within the BSA, and the president’s actions were not helpful to the idea that scouting is for everyone, not just for kids in red states. Indeed, based on some of the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter, many people already believe the worst about the Boy Scouts, and they saw Trump’s remarks as confirmation of their stereotyped views rather than as a transgressive outburst.
Let me also put to rest the notion that Trump shouldn’t have been invited. Scouting has always had a close relationship with the federal government. It has held a congressional charter since 1916. The president of the United States is also the honorary president of the BSA. My Eagle card is signed by Richard Nixon; my son’s by George W. Bush. The problem isn’t that Trump was invited. It was solely in what he said. Now he has put the national organization in an impossible position. If the leadership fails to go beyond the boilerplate statement it has already issued, then it will take flak from Trump critics. But if it makes it clear that Trump’s remarks were inappropriate, then it will alienate its largely conservative membership. This is what Trump does — he divides.
The sad thing is that the BSA has come a long way in recent years. Seen as a force for progressive values during the civil-rights era, scouting later fell under the sway of cultural and religious conservatives. For years, the movement was known mostly for discriminating against gay boys and adult leaders. The ban was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. As I wrote in The Boston Phoenix in 2001, that decision was misguided because it failed to take into account the reality that a small number of unelected leaders were setting policies opposed by many within the organization.
Gradually, the BSA dropped its ban, first allowing openly gay scouts, then gay leaders. It is the height of irony that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was perhaps the key scouting official responsible for pushing the national organization to end its discriminatory ways. That led the Mormon Church, a major force within scouting, to pull out of two programs for older boys. Unfortunately, scouting continues to discriminate against atheists, as its admirable embrace of boys of all faiths does not extend to those of no faith.
Will scouting endure? Long before Trump’s speech, that was a question with no certain answer. Membership has been declining for years. Uniforms, camping, and hiking have long since given way to youth sports and other activities. The great thing about scouts is that it accommodated all kinds of kids, including those who didn’t fit in elsewhere. To their credit, scouting’s national leaders have slowly been moving into the 21st century. Trump’s speech, though, was a huge setback, and it’s going to take a long time for the movement to recover.