Comments on President’s Speech

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NOTE: This is a long article. I apologize for its length. I hope it serves to give leaders in need of resources to respond to parental concerns what support they seek. This cannot be addressed flippantly or dismissively. The concerns need to be addressed with care, campassion, and education. The media has not served us well on any of those fronts.

As always comments are welcome when in the spirit of the Scout Oath and Law.

As the world now knows, on Monday, July 24, 2017, President Donald Trump spoke to the Boy Scout National Jamboree. The presentation received a raucous response from those present and howls of derision and anger from the news media. Whatever your political beliefs, they are probably on the spectrum between these two poles.

As part of my summer duties as North Star District Commissioner, I strive to visit each unit at summer camp, especially the Packs attending Camp Belzer and the Troops attending Camp Ransburg. Troops that camp outside of council or Packs that attend Camp Kikthaweneund are beyond my ranging.

Since most of our units camped before the President’s speech, I did not hear opinions from those units. From the handful that I met with after The Speech, I heard a wide range of opinions. What was most interesting was that those I spoke with closer to The Speech were more favorable and less critical. As time passed, I heard fewer favorable comments and more critical comments.

The more critical comments have been followed by parents reconsidering their relationship with the BSA. Most of these parents who have been brought to my attention are parents of younger Cub Scouts. For long-standing scouters who have been critical of The Speech, they are not reconsidering their relationship with the BSA. They focus their anger on the the President. I find these different approaches worthy of note.

That has led me to ask of a few long-term scouters why they focused their critique on The President and not the BSA. Almost universally, these scouters emphasized the BSA’s duty to be non-partisan and its policies for participating in civic functions.

My personal observation is that the news media acts on an unstated assumption that the BSA is a conservative organization. The rationale is that the BSA has been slow to react to the political movements of the day. If this claim is true, has the BSA been motivated by a viewpoint unwilling to adapt to modern era expectations?

The evidence is clear. The BSA does adapt. It just seeks to defend Constitutional principles first, for the benefit of all of its member chartered organizations.

Whether the topic is racial integration of troops, female adult leadership, homosexual membership standards, etc., the BSA has always fought for the principle of freedom of association. See U.S. Constitution, Amendment I (freedom of assembly); cf. NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958) (dispute over disclosure of NAACP membership roles found to be violation of a freedom of association arising from the freedom of assembly and free speech); see also Wikipedia. You can learn more about this pattern of legal defense and policy adjustment on our Membership Policy page. All further comments in this article presume the reader has read and thoroughly digested the information from this page. Even so, the summary version is that the BSA litigates on principle to protect all of its chartered organizations. That means litigate to protect freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. This keeps the costs of litigation for any one chartered organization to a minimum. With the legal principles clear, the BSA adjusts policy to encourage the growth of the BSA’s membership. The linked article has further links that demonstrate this policy in theory and practice.

The general public is either unaware of these strategies or unwilling to accept that this strategy is the BSA’s true motivations.

In the spirit of the Scout Oath and Law, I presume the BSA to be acting according to its honor; it is seeking to be loyal and trustworthy to all of its members; and it is seeking to be friendly and courteous to prospective members. The BSA’s observed litigation positions are consistent with a duty of loyalty to existing chartered organizations and their member scouts and scouters by defending the organization from litigation. The BSA’s observed policy changes are always toward welcoming more members. I cannot think of single instance where a policy change limited membership. Existing policy has been enforced in court. BSA policy changes almost universally expand membership.

From these past litigation cases, we can see a pattern of defense and adaptation. This flies in the face of arguments that the BSA is bending to the demands of a conservative political point of view. But how does this history inform the debate about the propriety of The Speech?

Several questions about the significance of The Speech need to be addressed if we fundamentally want to deal with the BSA as it is and not as a political football.

First, did the BSA ask the President to speak to further a conservative political point of view?

Second, what evidence can we rely as outsiders to such an invitation to reliably understand the nature and purpose of such an invitation, when we do not know and can never know what happened by the scenes?

Third, what principles is the BSA required to follow in terms of political questions, issues, and participation?

Fourth, did an invitation to the President violate these principles?

Fifth, is an invitation to a politician to speak to the BSA unusual; in other words, is the invitation to a political figure like the President a violation of customary practices?

Sixth, are there any published guidelines for political speakers to the BSA? If so, did the President violate these principles?

Let’s take a look at these questions.

Whether the BSA asked the President to speak as political homage to conservatives has been fairly well debunked in the national media. The simple version of this is that the President of United States has been the Honorary President of the BSA since President William Howard Taft (1909-1913). After leaving office, President Taft continued as a strong advocate of the BSA into his time as Chief Justice of the United States (1921-1930). It seems that the practice of having an Honorary President of an organization speak to that organization is highly logical. It also fits historical practice of inviting all sitting presidents. Most have accepted either speaking in person, by video, or by sending a credible proxy, like the Vice President or the Secretary of Defense and future BSA President Robert Gates. So the fact that The Speech occurred should be no surprise.

We can never know what happened behind the scenes. Whether some conspiracy to give a conservative-friendly speech occurred will be the matter of legend for years to come. So as to the second question, we cannot answer it. I would imagine that former BSA President and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson along with the other Eagle Scouts in the cabinet were all favorable to the President speaking. I doubt they were expecting a partisan message.

What are the BSA’s principles about political participation and civic involvement. This one is easy. The BSA is chartered by Congress. 36 U.S.C. sec. 30901 to 30908. This is significant. For centuries, corporations were chartered individually by legislative bodies. If you wanted to start a company, you had to have special legislation written to approve your company. The document issued to implement the legislation was called a charter. At the beginning of the 20th century, legislative bodies made general laws allowing individuals to incorporate by an application called Articles of Incorporation. This eliminated the need for chartering legislation. However, the BSA was chartered by Congress in 1915. It is a creature of the Congress.

The Charter sets forth some of the basic rules of the BSA. In section 3, it sets the mission as to train and teach boys “patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred virtues.” The Charter also authorizes the Executive Committee to create By-Laws and Rules & Regulations consistent with this mission. Notice, there is no allowance for political advocacy within the mission. Consequently, the Policies on page 2 state, “Participation in Public Functions. Scouters must, when practicable, cooperate in connection with civic or other public gatherings of a nonpartisan and nonpolitical character in a way that gives youth members an opportunity to render service in harmony with their training instead of merely taking part in parades in their uniforms.” They further state on page 3,

Policy Concerning Political Questions

The Boy Scouts of America must not, through its governing body or through any of its officers, chartered councils, Scouters, or members, involve Scouting in political matters. However, this must not be interpreted to prevent the teaching of ideals of patriotism and good citizenship as required to fulfill the Boy Scouts of America’s purpose. Faith-based teachings incorporated into the Scouting program by religious chartered organizations in a manner consistent with the Bylaws are not considered political matters. This policy does not prohibit the Boy Scouts of America from expressing its opinion upon matters of governmental concern when considered in its best interest by the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America.

This policy does not limit the freedom of thought or action of any Scouter or member as an individual in a manner not directly or indirectly implying a connection to Scouting.

This prevents any part of scouting from participating in political matters. But is not intended to remove the BSA from the world like a monk in a cave in the wilderness. The political voice of the BSA is reserved for the governing body. Individual scouts and scouters can express their individual opinion, so long as they do not presume to speak for or on behalf of the BSA.

Here is the crux of The Speech. The governing body invites every president. The governing body has offered no statement on behalf of the President or his politics. Consequently, all of the press speculations about the BSA and its politics carries no weight at the BSA.

As a civics organization, we encourage scouts to participate in politics as individuals. We ask them to attend town council meetings. We ask them to express their opinion on the town council debates. See merit badge pamphlet for Citizenship in the Community. We do not ask them to speak for the BSA. We have governor’s luncheons and mayors’ luncheons each year. We do not expect these politicians to avoid politics, but we do expect them not to presume to speak for the BSA. The same holds true for the BSA’s Honorary President. We ask him to speak his opinion. We do not ask him to speak for the BSA. He cannot. He is not a member of the governing body.

So, did inviting the Honorary President violate these rules? Based on my analysis above, it seems not.

We have already noted that many presidents have spoken directly or indirectly, so clearly no customary practices have been violated. Next jamboree, we could have Bernie Sanders as president. Do we refuse to invite him? I doubt that this invitation would go missing in the mail.

As to whether speakers are given guidelines on speeches, I refer to an open letter by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in response to The Speech.  They said, in part, “Hopefully, in a climate where civility and nonpartisanship cannot be assumed or taken for granted, last Monday’s incident will also cause the BSA to revisit its practice of speaker invitation, at the bare minimum, making clear the BSA’s position on such matters as part of the invitation.” The AME has many churches as scouting unit sponsors. They had a neat booth at National Jamboree. Their participants in the governance of the BSA tend to suggest some knowledge of the mechanics of the presidential invitation. The implication in this passage is that the invitation contained no guidance on “the BSA’s position on [political] matter[s] as part of the invitation.” (I cannot find the link. This was emailed to me from the Christian Recorder.)

I commend the AME for seeking a resolution by putting forth a recommendation to prevent further controversies.

Where does this leave our units? We cannot presume to speak for our parents or other scouters.

We can fulfill our mission as an educational institution by educating our scouts, scouters, and parents that the BSA is a non-partisan, civics, educational organization. We can use this controversy to educate how these matters should be handled in the future. We can encourage our scouts to attend town council meetings or mayor’s speeches. We can attend political rallies and present the colors. We cannot stand in a scout uniform and advocate for a political party or its agenda.

We can teach the difference between political opinions and political conformity. We can encourage research and thought. We can foster debates.

But no step in any of this can we speak of the BSA”s political position on anything.

My own rule of thumb is to acknowledge political debate and encourage articulate presentation of opinions while in uniform. I save my personal commentary for when I am no longer in uniform. Is that required? No. It just saves the appearance that I presume to speak on behalf of the BSA when I do not have that authority.

Use this controversy as a chance to teach good civics and the value of an articulate individual political opinion. Teach the courage to defend the good of scouting when the world misunderstands the mission of scouting. A well articulated defense could lead to recruiting the person debating you. They decide that you persuaded them that they need to learn their civics better.

Remember people are easiest to persuade when they are passionate. Their passions can be re-directed, if you seek to understand their passions, and not just attack back. Use the Scout Law as your guide on how to design your response. Demonstrate Scout Spirit in the discussion. Acknowledge their anger. Offer different points of view. Accept they may never be persuaded. That acceptance is the ultimate in Scout Spirit.

If they choose to leave scouting, send them a card in mail. Show them your adherence to the Scout Law in being friendly and kind. Don’t accept that scouting is what they misapprehend. Scouting is peace. Scouting is friendship and brotherhood. Someone leaving in a huff because they don’t get what they want is missing the point. Ask them to come back the next year or find a way for scouts to serve their pet project or cause. That will really confuse them.