On Monday night, President Donald Trump spoke at the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree. His speech has received a great deal of criticism, and for excellent reasons. Former Scouts and parents of current Scouts attacked the speech for being too political, too disrespectful of Barack Obama, and for including a curse word.
But few have touched on the central problem of his speech — it violated the core principles of the Boy Scouts, principles which inspire young men toward virtue. By violating these principles on the largest stage in Scouting, Trump may have harmed the moral character of children across America.
The Scout Law reads, “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” As an Eagle Scout, I swore to uphold the Scout Law and to teach others to do likewise. That includes the leader of the free world, especially when he addresses the Boy Scouts.
In its statement after the speech, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) reiterated that the organization is non-partisan, and only invited Trump because as U.S. president, he is the BSA’s honorary president. This is why I will address my remarks to President Trump himself, not to the organization. The BSA should have required a transcript before the speech, but that is another matter.
Here is the open letter I wish to present to President Donald Trump.
At the very beginning of your speech, regarding politics, you promised to “put that aside.” In your words, “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts? Right?”
Apparently, Mr. President, you do. You could not shut up about politics, and while The Washington Post often infuriates me as it does you, Katie Mettler and Derek Hawkins were spot on in saying your speech “broke with 80 years of presidential tradition.”
From fake news to Obama’s decision not to attend the Jamboree in person to that “glorious night” when you defied the odds and won the election, it seemed you could speak of nothing but politics. You even went into detail about the electoral votes that Maine splits, Wisconsin’s history of voting Democratic, and the war on Christmas.
Trustworthiness is rather simple, Mr. President. You keep your word. If you say you won’t talk about politics, you don’t talk about politics.
When you mentioned the Scout Law in your remarks, you stopped after the second virtue. “As the Scout Law says, a Scout is trustworthy, loyal — we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that,” you said.
I know you feel betrayed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation (many conservatives are also angry at him for something else — expanding civil asset forfeiture), but the way you threw him under the bus was very underhanded.
Sessions has gone through hell for you — protesters even dressed up like the Ku Klux Klan to brand him a racist. He was the first senator to endorse you. He deserves better than this late-breaking attack seemingly out of nowhere.
That joke you took at the expense of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was uncalled for. You joked that if he didn’t get the votes to repeal Obamacare, “I’ll say, ‘Tom, you’re fired.’ I’ll get somebody.” I know it was a joke, but Price has no say in whether the repeal passes Congress or not, and with the reports of you demanding a “loyalty oath” from former FBI Director James Comey, such jesting is disturbing to many people.
Loyalty goes both ways, and being helpful and friendly entails helping people when they need it most, not just when it makes you look good.
“Courteous” means “polite, respectful, or considerate in manner.” You were right to say that Boy Scouts are very patriotic people, but you were wrong to dwell on the failings of Democrats. A Jamboree is a place for Americans to come together, not be divided by their political leanings.
“November 8th — do we remember that day? Was that a beautiful day?” you asked. “November 8th, where they said, these dishonest people, where they said, there is no path to victory for Donald Trump.” You dwelt on that night. “That incredible night with the maps and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue, and that map was so red it was unbelievable.”
It is one thing to glory in victory and correct the record. You are entirely right that the media underestimated your chances. But the Boy Scout Jamboree is not the place to gloat over your victory.
Most of the Scouts probably were “red” in that audience, but many of them were “blue.” You are the president of the “forgotten people,” but you are also president of everyone else. Please act like it.
The best way to start acting like it is to be kind to those whom you defeated. “A Scout is kind,” and that means treating even your enemies well, even when they do not deserve it.
Since you are the president of the United States, it may seem laughable to say that “A Scout is obedient” should apply to you — but it isn’t. Under our Constitution, your power is extremely limited, and you need to be cognizant of that.
In an overtly political speech, you did not mention the Constitution once. Your braggadocio seemed rather less than humble, unlike America’s two greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I will return to this in the discussion on reverence.
What does it mean for a Scout to be “cheerful”? Not too long after you started your speech, Mr. President, you broke your promise to avoid politics by talking about the “swamp.”
You know, I go to Washington and I see all these politicians, and I see the swamp, and it’s not a good place. In fact, today, I said we ought to change it from the word “swamp” to the word “cesspool” or perhaps to the word “sewer.”
I understand your perspective and agree that Washington, D.C., from the Congress to the administrative agencies to the “deep state,” needs serious reform and accountability. The federal government has expanded beyond the due boundaries of the Constitution and it has become an odious thing.
But once again, the Boy Scout Jamboree is not the place to bring this up.
While you speak a great deal about “winning” and overcoming opposition, your words echo a tribal mentality of “my team beating your team.” This is not cheerful, it’s divisive, patronizing, and even demeaning. The Left has treated you horribly, but you should not return the favor.
Cheerfulness is a long-term disposition. It involves approaching the world with a settled joy in life and an optimistic attitude toward the future. This view is arguably incompatible with the angry insistence of tribalism.
While your speech dwelt on economic success and even narrated the business exploits of William Levitt, you never mentioned saving money, spending less, or managing it well. According to your speech, Levitt failed because in his words, “I lost my momentum.” Here was a chance to mention — even just give a nod to — the virtue of thrift, and you didn’t take it.
You did extol the bravery of the members of America’s Armed Forces, and for that you deserve credit. But unlike your magnificent speech in Poland, you did not tell any inspiring stories about the brave men and women in the “noble tradition” you so rightly extolled. In a speech where you dwelt on November 8, it seems you could have found a few minutes for such a tale.
Cleanliness for a Boy Scout means more than just washing your hands. When the Scout Law states that “a Scout is clean,” it means moral spotlessness. Your remarks about Levitt — “because you’re Boy Scouts, so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” and then “Should I tell you? Should I tell you?” — taunted the crowd with sexual interest. Given your previous boasts about women, it is likely the boys caught on to your meaning.
Finally, but most importantly, I would like to address the virtue of reverence.
While I deeply appreciate your hitting back against the political correctness of being ashamed of Christmas, Monday night was not the time to champion “Merry Christmas!” This “Christmas in July” moment may have riled up the crowd, but it suggests a shallow understanding of reverence in your mind.
You rightly noted, “In the Scout oath, you pledge on your honor to do your best and do your duty to God and your country.” You were also spot on in saying, “the words ‘duty,’ ‘country’ and ‘God’ are beautiful words.” They are, but they are even more beautiful things — and terrifying things.
“Duty” is the call to serve others because it is right and because others have served you. It is the flip-side of “rights,” and it is the ground on which rights rest. “Country” is a reference to the awful duty to serve the nation — it is the draft forcing men to go fight and die overseas, it is the law preventing licentious living.
“God” is the most terrifying thing of all. For Christians, God is a person of infinite power, infinite justice, infinite wrath, and infinite love. Every sin is a sin against Him, and every human being deserves His judgment.
The fear, wonder, and sense of shrinking beneath each of these things are a vital part of reverence. Reverence does not entail going shopping in the name of Christmas. It involves a right understanding and respect for the things that are greater than you, and to which you owe ultimate loyalty.
Reverence drives Christians to confess their sin to God. It drives patriots to enter the armed forces. It drives men and women to raise children, even though it is costly and hard.
Abraham Lincoln faced a hostile press — in fact, he faced a hostile half the country, not unlike yourself. How did he respond? In his second inaugural address, Lincoln submitted his cause to God. He said the if the Civil War was a punishment given to both the North and the South for their sins, and even if it did not end soon, it must be said that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” This is the reverence of a true Scout.
As a patriot, I want you to succeed, Mr. Trump. I want the Boy Scouts of America to love you and be truly inspired by you. But I also want to see you honor their core code, to deserve that love, inspiration, and respect.
Your speech violated the Scout Law in more than one respect, but I look forward to your promise to speak again to the national Jamboree. Next year, please keep your word and leave the politics in Washington. Consult with your wonderful vice president, Mike Pence, on the meaning of trustworthiness, loyalty, courtesy, cheerfulness, and reverence.
I look forward to a great speech next year.