Every four years, thousands of members of the Boy Scouts of America gather at a National Jamboree to celebrate their participation in one of the country’s largest youth organizations. American presidents have spoken at the jamboree for 80 years, and yesterday, Donald Trump was no exception. Yet while every previous president, from Roosevelt to Truman to Bush, honored the organization’s apolitical values, Trump opted to deliver to his audience — young citizens dedicated to civil service — everything from thinly veiled references to “fake” news, evocative jabs about loyalty, and beyond.
Like many other members of the scouting community, Zach Wahls, co-founder of the organization Scouts for Equality, took issue with Trump’s speech. He talked to MTV News about his reaction to the speech and why he believes the Boy Scouts should avoid partisan politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MTV News: First, can you describe what the Boy Scouts Jamboree — the event at which Trump gave this address — is like? What was the context in which Trump was giving this speech?
Zach Wahls: The National Jamboree is kind of like the big family gathering that happens every four years. It is held at the Boy Scout camp in West Virginia called The Summit. It’s a week-long event for Scouts to have a great time with friends from their area, from scouts across the country. You do mountain biking, ziplines, fishing, hiking and all that stuff … I have lots of friends who go and say it’s a great time.
The setting [for Trump’s speech] literally could not be more ordinary. It’s the President of the United States, who is by virtue of the Federal Congressional Charter of the Boy Scouts of America the honorary President, talking at a National Boys Scouts Jamboree. That is the definition of an ordinary political speech. And what you do what you give that speech is you talk about the importance of leadership, of values, of being a good citizen. And instead what we got was a rambling attack on fake news, some weird social stories about his time in New York — the whole thing was just really bizarre.
That’s not the Boy Scouts’ fault. The Boy Scouts invite every President to the National Jamboree. They would have invited President Hillary Clinton. It would’ve been extraordinary if they had rescinded that invitation to Mr. Trump. And instead of doing what [Trump] was supposed to do, which was deliver a speech about leadership and values, he talked about politics.
MTV News: What was the general reaction within the scouting community to Trump’s speech?
Wahls: [There was a] sense of palpable disappointment and an almost lost innocence. I guess no one was really surprised, but everyone was still disappointed, if that makes sense.
MTV News: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with the Boy Scouts through your work with Scouts for Equality? What kind of organization is the Boy Scouts, politically?
Wahls: I joined the Boy Scouts when I was in kindergarten to first grade; earned the rank of Eagle Scout, which is the highest rank that youth can earn; stayed in it until I was 18. In 2012, I co-founded an organization (Scouts for Equality) that encouraged the Boy Scouts to end its ban on LGBT members. I think that some of our opponents tried to characterize our work [as political]. But there was nothing particularly political about growing up with lesbian parents. At least not for us. Other people might have tried to make us political, but we certainly never saw it that way.
In 2012, we had the support of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in calling on the Boy Scouts to end their ban on gay members. So we never tried to make this a political thing and we were always careful of not to go in that direction. I think the work we did was political only in the broader sense of how our society makes identity political. And we were successful; they ended their ban on gay youth in 2013 and their ban on gay adults in 2015. Just earlier this year [they] ended their ban on transgender kids.
Fundamentally, the Boy Scouts is a youth service organization that is dedicated to instilling lifelong values into America’s young people. [The Boy Scouts are] an important organization in terms of America’s civic society. They have been around for over 100 years and they’re about as American as baseball and apple pie. So one of the things that’s important to understand about that is they’re able to do that work because it’s seen as not political and not particularly ideological.
They really do put those values first. You say them at the start of every meeting: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And when President Trump last night talked a lot of politics in his speech, he makes it that much more difficult for the Boy Scouts to do their work. That’s really bad. As someone who believes in the importance of scouting, it’s really important that the organization stays non-political or at the very least non-partisan.
As someone who believes in the importance of scouting, it’s really important that the organization stays non-political or at the very least non-partisan.
MTV News: Why do you as well as other people in the organization believe it’s so important that the Boy Scouts stay apolitical?
Wahls: The Boy Scouts exists in almost every community in America. If you start trying to fracture the Boy Scouts and say, "No, we’re only a conservative organization," or, "No, we’re only a democratic organization," then the Boy Scouts can’t do that work. The whole point is that the guys are timeless, they are not partisan, they are not particularly ideological, and they’re really important to the future of this country. I can’t think of a time in our country’s history when we needed the unifying force of the Boy Scouts more than right now.
It was scouting that told me if you see something in the world that you believe needs to be changed, you have to be a part of that change. That’s what led us to launch Scouts for Equality and the success we had with that really did help me underscore the fact that this is an organization that is growing and is going to be really important. I think if anything, the only failure of the Boy Scouts at this point is the fact that they didn’t get Trump enrolled when he was a kid. Maybe he would have learned something. They had a transformative impact in my life and I know the lives of millions of other people as well.