Beyond the Merit Badge: Address Given to the Boy Scouts of America

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you today to recognize fine young men in their outstanding achievement. Making the rank of Eagle Scout is no small matter, and it is with pride that I congratulate them.

In a former life, I was Dean of Students at The Altamont School, and it was at that institution that I taught history to these fellows. In this role I advised them, instructed them, threatened them, laughed with them (and occasionally at them), and consoled them: all of this with one goal in mind.

You probably think I mean college. But no, that is not the case. Any teacher given good material can accomplish as much. It was, rather, my goal that they grow to become men of character. That they are being honored today is a testimony to the fact that they are well on their way to achieving that end. But like all of us, they remain works in progress. And that brings us to the matter of why I am here.

Gentlemen, today it is my task to offer you advice, or, more appropriately, wisdom. You probably thought that when I left Altamont that you had escaped me forever. But you were wrong. Indeed, there will be an examination immediately following this ceremony to see what you have learned. And then, as was my practice, I will grade it some months from now.

Speaking seriously, when I reflected on all that I might say it occurred to me that there was no better starting place than the Scout Oath itself.

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
Mentally awake, and morally straight.

The first clause of the Scout Oath says that the Scout will endeavor, to the best of his ability, to render duty to two entities—God and country. First, note the priority given God. He is quite literally First. This ceremony began with prayer and we meet in a church today to give solemnity to this occasion. Don’t let this be lost on you. It certainly wasn’t lost on James West, the author of the Scout Oath.

That God is mentioned first is appropriate. All things in this life—be it men or the governments they create—are temporal. God, however, is eternal. And He stands to judge the actions of men in the next life for their deeds in this one. I Samuel 2:30 reads, “He that honors Me, Him will I honor. In taking the Oath, you pledge to honor Him. Do that and He will honor you or, as Proverbs 3:6 puts it, “… He will make your paths straight.”

Next is your duty to your country. This may mean something as simple as voting and observing the supremacy of the Constitution. But the times we live in serve as a grim reminder that “happiness depends on freedom, and freedom depends on courage.”

Your freedom was purchased at the price of blood; indeed, blood is the currency of American independence even to this day. Remember it and be worthy of the sacrifices others have made on your behalf. It is for you to cherish and defend freedom. And to know that freedom does not mean, as some would have it, being able to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. That is anarchy. Rather, it means civic duty, responsibility, and an obligation to help one’s fellow man.

In the second clause of the Oath, the Scout promises to help other people at all times. I will not dwell on this—as the application is, I hope, obvious. But it is easily overlooked. Recent events in my own life have caused me to take note of the people Jesus called “the least of these.” Often we are eager to help those whom we find most pleasant and appreciative; or where we are most likely to receive the greatest recognition. But such service is no service at all. Let your service be motivated by a genuine desire “to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The third and final clause reads, “… to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” As a young man, I always thought the charge to remain “physically strong” curiously non sequitur. I mean, the rest of the Oath speaks of lofty ideals and principles, and then you have this odd reference to physical fitness. The logic, it seemed, did not follow. But that was many years ago. I have learned much since those heady days as a tenderfoot!

I have seen many people forfeit their ability to serve as a result of ill-health that was self-induced. You will recall that your old headmaster, and a great one he was, had his own career cut short for such reasons. Right now, you are young and, you think, indestructible. There will come a time when you will have to work to keep yourself physically strong. Do not neglect it.

So what of “mentally awake, and morally straight”? Well, the first speaks to your education and the manner in which you employ it; while the second refers to your conduct. But for either to endure, they must go hand-in-hand.

Education is so much more than the academic. The Unabomber, for example, was by modern standards well-educated. He was, after all, a UC-Berkeley professor of mathematics. But we would hardly call him “morally straight.” A good education is one that has moral good as its objective. Because intellect and morality are not mutually exclusive, but inform one another.

Finally, let me return to one item that you fellows probably thought I overlooked: specifically, line 3 and the promise to uphold the Scout Law. I saved it for last because it seems to me that one of the most formidable tasks facing any Scout, especially Eagle Scouts who are to set the example, is living up to those words. When I consider them, I am struck by the fact that these are fine words—trustworthy, loyal, helpful—but words mean little if they remain only that: words. They must be evident in your lives. Inscribe them on your dashboards and dinner plates; place them on your calendars and screensavers; live up to them and you will fulfill the Scout mission.

In closing, gentlemen, let me remind you that today you celebrate while at the same time you commit yourselves to a life of service.

Service means sacrifice. It means doing the right thing when there are no merit badges to be earned. Indeed, in the proverbial “real world” it may mean being ostracized, missing a promotion or two, and having the socialites mark your name off the party list. But if you are truly committed to upholding your oath—and oaths by definition are not to be taken lightly—then you will remain faithful no matter what the circumstances, and no matter how unknown the outcome.

David Livingstone, the great missionary and explorer of the nineteenth century and a man who, more than any other, was responsible for taking the Christian gospel to Africa, wrote this in his diary: “I know that I have no unusual endowments of intellect, but I this day resolve to be an uncommon Christian.”

Men, I congratulate you—and your families—and hope that this day you will resolve to be uncommon.