By Daniel Cohen
I am a proud Eagle Scout. It’s the highest rank in the Boy Scouts, an organization dedicated to helping build life skills and virtue for boys in America. It’s also one of my proudest accomplishments, even as an adult who has been lucky enough to build a fulfilling marriage, make lasting friendships, and achieve a successful track record in a career I enjoy. Earning the rank of Eagle took years of dedication and support from friends and family, and required me to learn a wide variety of fields including but not limited to the finer points of citizenship and community engagement.
For those reasons, I was horrified to see the transcript from the President’s speech at the Scout Jamboree earlier this week. It was an embarrassment to me as a citizen of the US and the world and was particularly embarrassing to me as an Eagle.
Oddly enough, the speech reminded me of another speech given by a fellow Eagle Scout from my troop growing up named Ryan Penner. Ryan’s speech has always stuck in my memory because of its uniqueness. Most Eagle Scout speeches speak (respectfully) to generalized virtues such as honor or detail personal, sometimes comedic stories from the scout’s career; the scout cracks a few jokes and dances off stage for soda, cookies, and celebration with fellow scouts.
Not Ryan’s speech. When it came time for him to address the troop, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) still did not allow gay scouts or gay scout leaders. To this day, they still exclude atheists as a rule. Rather than offer a light-hearted and simple speech, about his experience in scouting, Ryan used his time at his Eagle Scout Court of Honor to respectfully but directly call out the exclusionary practices of the association of which we were all proud members. For all the good BSA had done us, I knew he was right then, and he is still right today.
Ryan’s speech stands in stark contrast to that of the President at the Scout Jamboree. At 16, he knew the best way to blaze a trail forward for both BSA and the United States of America. In contrast, Trump’s speech made it even more painfully clear to us that he is entirely unworthy of ever being an Eagle Scout, and further solidified his position as a black eye on the office of the presidency.
Here is the transcript of Ryan’s speech.
April 27, 2003
Eagle Court of Honor Speech
If I were to poll the entire Scouting body asking what they believe to be the most important teaching in Scouts, the overwhelming consensus could be summed up in one word: leadership. Through meetings, camp outs, summer and winter camps, service projects, advancement, and just about every aspect of Scouting, leadership is taught as the underlying theme of every activity. We learn to be leaders for our patrols, making sure all patrol functions are carried out. We learn to be leaders of our troop, entrusted with the decision of electing the Senior Patrol Leader who is in turn entrusted with coordinating the entirety of the troop’s leadership potential. It would indeed be difficult to find a single Scout in the entire organization that has not had direct or indirect leadership experience, whether he has recently joined or is a long time veteran.
It is certainly true, then, that we have learned to be leaders within Scouts. We are leaders to each other in our Scouting activities. It can also be said that through service projects we are leaders in our communities. Many former Scouts have been high-ranking government officials, including President Gerald Ford and a handful of Senators, so Scouting definitely influences leadership on the national policy level. As leaders, we do not only possess a wonderful privilege; we also carry an incredible burden of responsibility.
As an institution that focuses so much on diversity and acceptance, after all, leaders cannot be identical, we have a responsibility to set a high standard of equality for all people. One of the twelve tenets of the Scout Law is that a Scout is “reverent”. As a corollary to that, our organization has come to require its members to believe in the Judeo-Christian monotheistic “God”, despite the actual definition of reverence: “A feeling of profound awe and respect.” In an almost dogmatic fashion, we have excluded certain beliefs as if they were inferior. As leaders, that exclusion is emulated beyond the realm of Scouting, where to this day atheists and other believers of non-mainstream ideas are often discriminated against. We now hold the responsibility to alter the course of inequity within Scouting and take a stand against exclusion.
Thankfully, I have always felt that our troop has always been accepting of all people. Even though we have ties to this Jewish congregation, for which we are forever grateful, we have always accepted Scouts of all beliefs. This troop, and indeed all troops, is the embodiment of hope for a better future for Scouting as a whole. It is at the troop level that we can most effectively fight exclusionary policies of the organization.
Scouting has taught me many things. Leadership is certainly one of the main skills I have improved during my time here. It is that sense of leadership that has compelled me to fight discrimination at all levels, and what better place to start than the place where I first learned those skills?