Fort A.P. Hill, Va. (CNSNews.com) - The Boy Scouts' values "are the values of America," President Bush told 32,000 boys attending the National Boy Scout Jamboree at a Virginia military base.
In videotaped remarks played for the crowd on Monday, President Bush told the Scouts gathered at Fort A.P. Hill, "Every society depends on trust and loyalty, on courtesy and kindness, on bravery and reverence." He thanked the Scout for their service to their communities, and he commended them for upholding "values that build strong families, strong communities, and strong character."
"Times and challenges change, yet the values of Scouting will never change," the president said.
He also praised adults who work with the Scouts, making no mention of the criticism heaped on the organization for its ban on homosexuals.
In keeping with tradition, President Bush was scheduled to speak to the gathering Sunday night, but because of inclement weather, he delivered his remarks a day later, by videotape.
Fort A.P. Hill, the 76,000-acre U.S. Army facility that has been home to the Jamboree since 1981, looked more like a refugee camp than a summer camp, with rows upon rows of tents, portable showers and toilets, and activity booths offering Scouts the opportunity to earn merit badges in everything from plumbing to engineering to physical fitness.
In addition to earning merit badges, participants at this year's quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree are celebrating an organization that some former supporters have scorned for excluding openly homosexual members.
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court - upholding the Boy Scouts' constitutional right of association - said the organization had the right to dismiss an openly homosexual scout leader in keeping with its moral values -- despite local ordinances that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Boy Scouts of America has been under fire ever since.
However, among the 32,000 Scouts from two dozen countries who have gathered in Virginia for nine days, the controversy seemed abstract and far removed.
Traditional Values Under Fire
To many Scouts, the homosexual issue is not something they see as affecting them directly.
"It is more something that the adults care about," said Tom Carpenter, a 16-year-old Scout from Colville, Wash. "As far as the Boy Scouts go, nobody really cares if you are gay, just as long as they act normal like everyone else."
Like Carpenter, most boys involved in Scouting do not have a problem with others being homosexual, just as long as those who are homosexual do not make an issue out of it.
"In my opinion, if someone is promoting being gay, it is a big problem," said Rich Atwood, a 15-year-old from Hillsboro, Ore. "If someone is gay and does not make a big deal out of it, it won't be a problem."
But some people do see the ban on homosexuality as a big problem.
Homosexuals who want their lifestyle to be viewed as normal and acceptable - and heterosexuals who agree with such "alternative lifestyles" - are attacking the Boy Scouts where they think it will hurt most - in the pocketbook.
Under pressure, some United Way chapters and several corporations - CVS, Levi Straus, Wells Fargo and Fleet Bank.-- have revoked or curtailed funding for the Boys Scouts of America.
Some celebrity supporters have severed their ties with the Scouts in protest, including Steven Spielberg, who was an Eagle Scout and served on the organization's advisory board.
Many Boy Scouts see economic sanctions - the withholding of funds - as punishment directed against them as well as a detriment to the community as a whole.
"If I could tell those [contributors] what I thought, I would tell them they are not proving a point, they are hurting a lot of people, said 16-year-old Rick Ness from Banks, Ore. "It costs us more to do things like the Jamboree and other activities that make Scouting what it is.
"Boy Scouts are constantly in the community, helping the community, so by punishing the Scouts, the whole community loses something," he said.
Steadfast in Mission
The Boy Scouts of America has taken the criticism and economic blows in stride, claiming that enrollment is still on the rise and funding is still pouring in. The Scouts say they will not bow to political correctness but will stand on principle, upholding the longstanding oath to be "morally straight."
Mike Bernhardt, a Scout Master from Wilmington, Del., this year is attending his tenth Jamboree. In his 40-plus-year involvement with the Boy Scouts, Bernhardt said he has seen many changes in the Scouting program but not in vital parts of the organization's original mission.
He noted that merit badges, which boys earn to gain rank, now include such skills as computers and scuba diving, along with the traditional badges awarded for first aid and survival skills. But one facet of the Scouting program that hasn't changed, says Bernhardt, is a focus on family values.
"We still believe in and teach kids traditional family values, including a home with both a mother and a father," he said.
In fact, one required merit badge is devoted to family life, emphasizing the duties within the family. To earn the badge, Scouts must keep a chart of things they do for their family, and they take part in budgeting and decision-making.
According to Bernhardt, the badge is intended to teach Scouts the importance of the family, a value that many see as being lost in modern society.
"The leaders of BSA have felt that society needs that [family values education] for our young people, because that is what we are here for," Bernhardt said. "A lot people think that we are just here to teach kids to go camping and how to tie knots, but that is just a method to keep the kids coming back week after week, month after month.
"Our real goal is to teach them how to make the right moral and ethical decisions for the rest of their life," he said.
Despite public accusations that the Boy Scouts are an exclusive, conservative organization, BSA officials claim that they continually strive to diversify the ranks of Scouts.
"We are trying to make Scouting more relevant to inner-city youth, because those are the kids that certainly need the type of values Boy Scouts promotes," he said. "There is a big movement to appeal to a big cross-section of the nation, but people still see it as a mainly white organization."
Bernhardt said that boys in his troop in Delaware include some who are disruptive in the classroom and some who take medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. By bringing those boys into the Scouts, he said, the program giver them skills to make "moral, ethical decisions."
A long-standing focus of the Boy Scouts is "God and Country," although the organization does not promote any particular faith. However, the Scouts do require members to "believe in some supreme being," Bernhardt said.
According to Bernhardt, every faith was represented at the Jamboree on Sunday, with multiple worship services offered for all religions. Bernhardt added that his troop in Delaware includes Christians, Jews and Muslims, and every effort is made to satisfy their spiritual and dietary needs.
From athletes to computer geeks, many boys find acceptance in their Boy Scout troops, One scout, Will Price from Kingston, Mass., said Scouting isn't something a lot of boys would advertise at school, because it is not "the cool thing to do."
He said outsiders "don't understand what scouting is all about and can't understand why we think it is fun," says Price.
However, Scouting has important benefits to those who stick with it - aside from the practicality of knowing how to tie knots and make a splint for a broken leg.
For those who make it to Eagle Scout, BSA's highest rank, the doors of opportunity may open wide. According to the Boy Scouts of America, being an Eagle Scout still tops the list of qualifications for those wishing to attend West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy.
"Eagle Scouts have learned what being a leader is, which most of time means leading by example," Bernhardt said. "They have the ability to make moral, ethical decisions, and those are the kinds of leaders the military is evidently looking for."
With about 5 million members worldwide, Boy Scout officials say they do not see a bleak future, despite the naysayers of the past year.
As President Bush reminded the Boy Scouts, "What you have learned in scouting will see you through life. In good times and difficult ones, the scout motto will always help you: 'Be prepared.' And whatever you do, the scout oath will always guide you: 'On your honor, do your best.'"