To bigotry no sanction

I was delighted to participate in the recent National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America, held in West Virginia, attended by some 30,000 teenagers and a devoted volunteer staff of several thousand adult leaders.

I have served as a chaplain at every Jamboree for the past 20 years, offering Jewish educational programming, conducting Shabbat services, counseling Scouts, encouraging and supporting staff members, managing crises, and working together with a remarkably diverse and skilled chaplaincy team. That chaplaincy staff includes clergy and lay leaders representing, among others, the Roman Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, and Eastern Orthodox faiths, as well as various Protestant denominations comprising the rich religious mosaic that is American society. Also working closely with me in West Virginia were a rabbinic colleague, a cantor, and a senior rabbinical student, as well as lay members of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. I look forward to serving as a Jamboree chaplain again in the future.

A much anticipated high point of each National Jamboree is the opportunity for Scouts and Scout leaders to hear words of wisdom, guidance, and inspiration from the president of the United States, who is, eo ipso, the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America. Every sitting president since 1937 has been invited to address Jamboree participants.

I am pleased to report that presidential wisdom, guidance, and inspiration were in no way lacking at the 2017 BSA Jamboree. It was my great privilege to host a public reading of George Washington’s 1790 letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” of Newport, Rhode Island. The father of our country famously wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Washington offered prayerful greetings to the early American Jewish community, citing his favorite scriptural passage in so doing:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

The letter was read in sober and sonorous tones by Charles W. Dahlquist II of Salt Lake City, who is the national commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America, the nation’s highest ranking volunteer Scout leader. The event generated wide excitement and discussion, and drew a crowd numbering in the hundreds, including Scouts, staff, and military support personnel. The attendees were from every corner of the nation and were as culturally, politically, and religiously diverse as the country itself.

Introducing our esteemed guest reader, I pointed out that the religious diversity, cooperation, collegiality, and mutual affection characterizing the chaplaincy staff on which I proudly served — like the spirit animating Boy Scouts of America as a whole — now are well established and taken for granted. For Jews and other Americans in 1790, such an ethos was far less of a given. The principled religious pluralism characterizing American society as well as the BSA owes its origin in great part to the leadership of President George Washington: “To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” For Americans, “toleration” is far too low a moral bar.

Presidential wisdom, guidance, and inspiration thus were not entirely lacking at the 2017 National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America.

While George Washington is, by all accounts, a hard act to follow, the much discussed Jamboree address delivered by his current successor as president of the United States was in many ways profoundly disappointing. On that point, there was virtually no debate among Jamboree staff members with whom I worked and discussed the matter. While I make no claim of absolute unanimity of perspective, even those who proudly identify themselves as ardent Trump supporters readily conceded that the president’s remarks were deeply inappropriate. Furthermore, virtually all (including those self-identified ardent Trump supporters) conceded that for the first time in 80 years of presidential Jamboree addresses, they worried in advance about the propriety of the president’s remarks: both his content and his language.

Indeed, rather than restricting himself to his prepared message (and thereby modeling the moral and personal discipline demanded of Boy Scouts), the president turned the occasion into a political rally. Asking “Who the hell wants to be in Washington” (using language not tolerated in Scouts), he assailed the “fake news” — essentially urging Boy Scouts to distrust a critical vehicle of civil liberties and a bastion of American democracy. He denigrated his immediate predecessor as president of the United States, demeaned his opponent in the presidential election, and threatened a cabinet secretary standing beside him, manipulating and goading his impressionable teenage listeners into an unseemly, chanting, oohing, and occasionally booing crowd.

BSA leadership, always scrupulous in avoiding partisan politics, prohibits Scouts from even attending political events while they are in uniform. Before the presidential appearance, Scouts were warned not to chant, not to boo, not to bring signs or placards or banners to the speech, and were they informed in a curiously detailed written policy statement that neither apples nor oranges nor other “projectile fruit” would be allowed in the stadium during the president’s speech. Scouts were reminded that “a Scout is… courteous, kind… and clean…” and were instructed to reflect these qualities through their comportment at the presidential address. Nevertheless, boys chanted and hollered and — on presidential cue — variously cheered and booed throughout the speech.

Some did so because they or their families are staunch Trump supporters. Some did so because it is difficult for a 14- or 15-year-old to understand he is being manipulated by the president of the United States. Some did so to fit in with peers. And some did so because teenage boys are inclined to chant and holler and ooh and boo whether they are cautioned against doing so or not, especially when they are gathered away from home by their tens of thousands. Scouts properly reflected the excitement that should accompany the privilege of standing in the presence of the leader of the free world.

The boys (and not an insignificant number of girls) who heard the president speak never will forget that experience. Therein lies the pernicious nature of the president’s offense. Whether, in their innocence, the Boy Scouts understood it or not, the president let them down. He let them down “huge.” By making his speech about himself and his political ascendancy, and by fomenting divisiveness, he elicited a torrent of media response that coopted the news cycle from the good works and achievements of 30,000 wholesome, earnest, patriotic teenagers: a news cycle which the Boy Scouts of America had worked to earn through four years of planning, hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, and not inconsiderable financial sacrifices by both the organization and its youthful constituents.

Predictably preoccupied with presidential impropriety, the news cycle ignored the fact that tens of thousands of Scouts spent a full day of the Jamboree rendering more than 100,000 hours of public service to communities throughout West Virginia. The news cycle ignored the involvement of Scouts of every conceivable religious faith in observing their own religious tenets while learning about the sometimes very different religious observances and beliefs of their fellow Americans through a carefully administered “Duty to God” program. The news cycle all but ignored the time-honored Scouting activities of camping and cooking and hiking, swimming and boating, biking and shooting, learning and sharing and friendship that occupied Jamboree participants. The news cycle all but ignored the elaborate and carefully refined efforts the Boy Scouts of America have expended for 107 years to teach boys an admirable code of conduct, laying the foundation for them to become good citizens, community leaders, personal successes, and decent, wholesome gentlemen.

The president of the United States let 30,000 young people and their not-quite-so-young leaders down by depriving them of the attention and visibility they had earned and deserved. The president of the United States let them down by exposing them to language and to a self-aggrandizing, divisive, and partisan perspective that were entirely out of place and inconsonant with the values of the organization to which they were all devoted, and by which they had been shaped. Whether, in their innocence, the Boy Scouts understood it or not, the president of the United States let them down by making them appear complicit in his lack of personal probity and public decorum. The president of the United States let them down by making it appear that the Boy Scouts of America and its constituents lack the diversity of thought and political perspective, the open-mindedness and mutual respect that are among the most precious elements of the American polity.

Boy Scouts are taught the history of the United States, the founding principles of the American nation. The president’s Jamboree address was an object lesson in the principle articulated by Benjamin Franklin and which I first learned as a Scout: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Whether, in their innocence, the Boy Scouts understood it or not, the president of the United States besmirched his 30,000 young listeners’ reputation with a crass, inappropriate, and politically divisive speech. They deserved far better.

Yet presidential wisdom, guidance, and inspiration were not entirely lacking at the 2017 National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America. A disappointing and inapt presidential address — though painful to many — does not negate all the good that was achieved in West Virginia, nor all the good that the Boy Scouts of America will continue to effect in the lives of millions of young Americans.

“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

Or as Washington said elsewhere in a spirit that defines the Boy Scouts of America to this day: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”

About the Author
Joseph H. Prouser is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey (Franklin Lakes, NJ) and a practicing Mesader Gittin. A former member of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he currently serves as editor of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism.
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