It’s unfair to criticize the Boy Scouts of America because President Trump turned his speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree into a political rant on Monday. But it is fair to suggest that the organization should have acted differently – and more swiftly – in the aftermath of the speech.
For those who missed it, Trump turned what was meant to be a salute to the ideals of scouting into little more than a typical Trump campaign rally.
Trump reveled in his election night victory (“a beautiful day”), chastised both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, berated the “dishonest” media, and even celebrated the career of William Levitt, a builder who refused to sell his houses to African Americans in the years following World War II.
All of these things fly in the face of BSA’s commitment to being non-partisan. They also undermine the Boy Scout Law, which says, in part, that a Scout is “friendly, courteous and kind.”
So, the speech left some scratching their heads, and made many others angry.
Yet, even as its own social media feeds filled with complaints, BSA failed to understand the depth of anger many felt after hearing the speech. As a result, the BSA was slow to respond and remains on its heels as the criticism intensifies.
BSA should have swiftly disavowed the president’s rhetoric as antithetical to the organization’s own values. It should have more promptly apologized to its members, alumni, parents and others because Trump made an intentionally non-partisan event political. And it should have committed to taking steps to ensure something like this could not happen again at future Jamborees and other BSA events.
Instead, the BSA posted a brief online statement reaffirming its commitment to being non-partisan and reinforced that sitting presidents are always invited to speak at the annual Jamboree.
The statement did little to stem the tide of member frustration, and on Thursday, BSA Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh issued a more formal apology.
But, based on initial feedback, the apology is ringing hollow, or as “too little, too late.”
Even before this week, the BSA saw its membership in decline – having lost approximately 25 percent of its Cub, Eagle and Venture Scout members between 2006 and 2015, according to its own annual reports. Now, scouting parents, alums and others are saying they will no longer support the organization or allow their children to participate.
So while it wasn’t the BSA’s fault that Trump went political on Monday, if the organization doesn’t take more aggressive action to address the concerns of its members because of Trump’s speech, it will only have itself to blame if people flee the organization in droves as a result.
Dave Duschene is Executive Director and leader of Golin’s Issues and Crisis Team.