A Scout Aspires

In 1985, I was a scout in Kentucky’s contingent to the National Scout Jamboree. It was a formative experience for me. I met scouts from all over the nation and in some cases the world. I talked to people from all walks of life and of all sorts of different opinions on a wide range of issues. The thing that sticks with me, though, is the memory of the assemblies. We had the Beach Boys and the Oak Ridge Boys on different nights, and people would be brought in to talk about the scout oath and law and what that should mean to us.

As part of that, President Reagan was invited to speak. He was unwell at the time, so Ms. Reagan came to talk to us. I don’t remember the complete content, but I remember the tone. She talked about the role we would play as tomorrows leaders, how important our moral formation was, and specifically cautioned us about drugs, which was one of her personal campaigns. There are a few places in my scouting career where I have vivid memories. The assembly at the Jamboree is one of those. I can always place myself sitting on the ground with thousands of other scouts, being told that how we were developing as young men mattered to the country.

When I watched footage of President Trump’s speech to the Jamboree this week, my heart fell. The scouts in attendance had been reminded of one of the points of the scout law, “A Scout is Courteous.” They had been instructed to be courteous to the president and to avoid any chanting or vocal demonstrations of any kind. After all, the office of president is owed a certain amount of respect. But respect is a two-way street.

The speech the president delivered was unlike any speech ever given to scouts at the Jamboree in the past. Instead of encouraging virtue, it included allusions to a sex-filled romp on a yacht. Instead of respecting the multi-faith nature of Boy Scouts (26% of all units are charted to civic organizations, and around 4% are chartered to non-Christian faith groups) a bizarre statement about wishing people “Merry Christmas” ensued. He attacked a former president and his political rivals, encouraging “boos” from the assembled scouts that they had been told to refrain from in order to be courteous. He bullied a subordinate, Tom Price, on stage. Instead of giving the scouts something to aspire to, he showed them how to use elected power in the most selfish manner possible.

Politics is aspirational. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional are aspirational. They articulate a standard and an ideal that is not actually attainable. It was not attainable by the Founding Fathers and it is not fully attainable by us as fallen human beings. But it is the act of aspiring towards the ideal that makes government of the people, by the people, for the people possible. America is always a dream — but it has to be continually dreamed.

When we enter into full-blown cynicism about our form of government, when we believe that it is so far gone that it no longer matters how our leaders act — that we don’t care whether our leaders publicly reflect the best of our aspirations even though they may actually fall short — then we no longer believe in our founding ideals. Then we no longer aspire to the hard work of real consitutional democracy but adopt the mantra of “might makes right” which has been the unspoken core of all totalitarian regimes in human history. If we don’t care what our leaders say, then we by extension do not care about the safeguards of the constitution.

The function of speeches by politicians at Boy Scout Jamborees has not heretofore been to further personal politics, but to deliver the message of aspiration to the next generation. It is to give the assembled boys (and girls these days) the belief that they can actually make a difference as they become adults. In 1985, I was inspired by Nancy Reagan to believe that by following the Scout Law, I could make a difference, no matter how small, in the world I was growing into.

If our nation crumbles, it will not be the fault of conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. It will be our fault. It will be because we, the people, became so cynical and jaded that we no longer care that our leaders aspire to the ideals in our founding documents. It will be because we forget that the dream of America is one that never fully materializes and lose heart. It is that dream, that aspiration, that makes America work. We should expect better from those we ask to speak to our children, lest the aspiration not be passed on.

The Rev. David Simmons is an Episcopal Priest in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He was a Life Scout and a Vigil Member of the Order of the Arrow