The Right to Build Character: Scouting and the Freedom of Association

The need for strong, capable leadership is critical today, both in Scouting and in the world generally.

The Character of a Great Man

I’m truly grateful to be here today, and to offer a few thoughts on this special occasion. I know President Monson wishes he could be here with you. And I know that he is deeply honored to have his name associated with the new Leadership Excellence Complex for which we have broken ground today.

Leadership excellence is something President Monson has always strived to achieve personally and to foster in others. He knows—better than anyone I know—that the joy of true leadership is to give all you have to bless and lift others.

President Monson learned that profound truth early. I’m reminded of a story told about him at BSA’s centennial celebration. You may recall it. As a new twelve-year-old scout, his adult leader dropped him and his troop off at a summer campout. After making sure young Tommy had his fishing rod, the leader told him: “Catch each boy a trout for breakfast each morning. I’ll be back Saturday to take you home.” And then he drove off. (I don’t recommend that approach for adult leaders, by the way!) Well, Tommy did his scout duty. No one went hungry.

That’s Thomas Monson. He is always using his leadership skills to serve and feed others, physically and spiritually. That’s true character. It’s little wonder that over his 76 years of association with Scouting, President Monson has received every major award Scouting has to offer. Scouting, after all, has always been about recognizing and building character.

Scouting as a Movement to Build Character in Boys

Indeed, to Scouting’s great founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, that was the whole point of Scouting. “You cannot maintain an A-1 Empire on C-3 men,” he was fond of saying. 1 In Great Britain at the dawn of the 20th century, many socially conscious people shared his concern. As one author colorfully described their worries:

Britain suddenly looked around to find itself inundated with physically deficient men with pigeon chests, bad teeth, flat feet, and slack wills, lacking the passionate loyalty to British ideals that had helped to extend the empire over so much of the world’s surface.

  . . . .

How could Britain hope to compete with the evolving industrial threat of other countries—not to speak of the possible military threats to its empire—with a [generation] of morally and physically inferior men? 2

Baden-Powell’s answer was Scouting. “Scout training, rightly understood and liberally applied, could bring about the regeneration of the [British] nation.” 3 Scouting, he said, “aims to teach the boys how to live, not merely how to make a living.” 4 “Therefore the aim of Scout training,” he wrote, “is to replace Self with Service, to make lads individually efficient, morally and physically[,] with the object of using that efficiency for the service of the community.” 5 Scouting was to be no mere social club but rather, in Baden-Powell’s blunt term, a “character factory.” 6

American Scouting—Building a Character Movement

Like Great Britain, America in 1910 had millions of boys in need of character education. Not surprisingly, socially conscious Americans greeted the Scouting movement with tremendous excitement. America’s Scouting founders adapted Scouting to suit the unique needs and temperament of America and America’s boys. But the focus remained on building character, including character traits that come only through doing one’s duty to God. The British version of the Scout Law was modified to add a new, twelfth statement to the Scout Law: “A Scout is Reverent.” And the British Scout Oath was modified to add a new promise: “To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight”—an explicit focus on the character of the whole boy, “body, mind and spirit.” 7

With that moral foundation, Scouting’s American founders set out to create a real movement. They closely partnered with churches and faith communities. Other high-minded civic groups soon joined in. Scouting spread from coast to coast. Eventually, millions of boys embraced its program of high adventure, skills development, and—above all else—character building. A great organization was born, with national, regional and local institutions. The Boys Scouts of America established its own standards, created its own symbols, and selected its own leaders.

Over the decades, the positive influence of the Scouting movement in cultivating leadership skills and building character has been vast. We can’t fully imagine how many boys owe their lives to Scouting, and how many have made positive contributions to society because of the principles they learned in Scout troops. America is a stronger, better country because dedicated individuals—and that includes you here today—built and sustained the Scouting movement.

The Right to Build Character—Scouting and the Freedom of Association

I mention all this not only out of gratitude that President Monson’s name will now be associated with a Scouting facility dedicated to leadership excellence and character development, but to make another critical point: the American Scouting movement, and all the good it has done for over a century, has depended on what I fear is becoming one of America’s forgotten freedoms. That freedom is the right of ordinary citizens, guaranteed by the 1 st Amendment to the Constitution, to join together to form voluntary organizations—organizations where individuals are free to associate with others to share and act on common ideals and visions. Freedom of association has been at the heart of Scouting since its inception. Indeed, without it, there can be no Scouting.

There’s a good deal of talk these days about new rights. We are in the middle of a rights revolution. Sometimes the alleged new rights are important to correct injustices. But sometimes these supposed rights are little more than demands that government force others to conform to society’s new moral preferences.

The fundamental right of association is very different. It protects the right of all Americans to create voluntary associations, and to infuse them with their own beliefs, meaning, and purpose. If you don’t like someone else’s voluntary association, you can start your own. Like freedom of religion, freedom of association protects true diversity. In many ways, the right of association is the quintessential American right.

Perhaps it took a true outsider to recognize this. Visiting America in the early 1830s on something of a fact-finding mission, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville studied the unique ability of Americans to form voluntary associations. He was fascinated by the great diversity such organizations foster. He wrote:

Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, [and] send missionaries to the [other side of the world] . . . . If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate. Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association. 8

The brilliance of the American system, which Tocqueville recognized so keenly, is that there are some things government cannot—and should not—do. Private and voluntary civic organizations made up of like-minded individuals who strongly believe in their cause are much better situated to bring forward new ideas or defend old ones, to develop the most persuasive arguments to support and explain those ideas, and to take action to galvanize the public to support them. Consequently, civic organizations are essential to the free-exchange of ideas and to the broad discussion and debate that must occur if a society is to explore important and sometimes controversial concepts in a free and peaceful way.

The right of association is essential to the very existence of civic organizations. The right to associate empowers ordinary individuals. It produces an endless array of social possibilities where people can join together in a common cause and give practical form to their beliefs and aspirations. It amplifies free speech, both by allowing the creation of institutions to promote a message and by allowing speech to mature from mere words into the concrete realities of an organization—like BSA—that can change lives and even the course of a nation. Within voluntary associations—from religious institutions to charitable organizations to civic groups like Scouting—people can refine their characters and find meaning in their lives.

In an address last year at Brigham Young University, Charles J. Chaput, Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia noted:

Our political system presumes a civil society that pre-exists the state. It’s an idea that [was] already emerging [eight centuries ago] in Magna Carta’s demand for recognition of the rights of the Church, and the rights of persons. In the American model, the state is meant to be modest in scope. It’s constrained by checks and balances. Mediating institutions like the family, churches, and fraternal organizations stand between the individual and the state. And when they decline, the state fills the vacuum they leave. So protecting these mediating institutions is vital to our freedoms. Alone, individuals have little power. But organized communities—including communities of faith—are a different matter. They can resist. They can’t be ignored. 9

We must never forget that along with religious freedom, the right to freely associate is a great bulwark against tyranny. By protecting voluntary associations, it provides a buffer between the private realm of one’s personal life and the mega-institutions of government and the marketplace, balancing and checking those increasingly powerful forces so they don’t dominate our lives. Almost two centuries ago, Tocqueville recognized that “freedom of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority.” 10 The same is true today.

The Supreme Court has said that the Constitution protects the “right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.” It has further acknowledged that throughout our history the freedom of association has been “especially important in preserving political and cultural diversity and in shielding dissident expression from suppression by the majority.” 11

Unfortunately, freedom of association is under assault. Only sixteen years after the Supreme Court made those broad statements, a bare 5-4 majority of the Court upheld the freedom of BSA to set its own membership policies. The four dissenting justices would have denied BSA that freedom. Today BSA—and many other similar organizations—face continued pressure from government and special interest groups to conform to newly emerging societal trends. In this environment, too much pressure is put on BSA to abandon its special mission as a civic organization created to imbed and perpetuate specific moral views. And there is too little support and appreciation for the crucial role that it and similar organizations play in society.

But of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that freedom of association is being targeted by those who want to force others to adopt their vision of what’s morally and socially acceptable. Freedom of religion is under assault for many of the same reasons. Those two fundamental rights often lead to beliefs, morals, speech, and ways of life that run counter to the dominant culture. Those rights take power away from government and the elite and disperse it among many diverse and free institutions run by ordinary citizens. Those rights limit the power of the state to impose its orthodoxies and to punish dissent. Regrettably, those who wield power and influence are often suspicious of such freedoms and seek to limit them. And they have had substantial success over the past few years.


Few organizations understand this hard reality better than Boy Scouts of America. The good character that for over a century Scouting has tried to instill in all of us is being put to the test. Whether as scouts or as loyal supporters of Scouting, doing our “duty, to God and [our] country,” includes standing in defense of vital freedoms. Foremost among these are religious freedom and freedom of association. They are, after all, what made Scouting possible. Despite the challenges, I remain optimistic that, with great leadership and continued dedication to the principles Scouting established over a century ago, Scouting will not only endure – it will thrive, and it will continue to build character.

Thank you.

  1. Michael Rosenthal, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement 3 (1986).

  2. Id.

  3. Id. at 6.

  4. Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys 19 (22nd ed. 1944).

  5. Id. at 20.

  6. Rosenthal, supra, at 6 (quoting Baden-Powell).

  7. Murray, supra, at 56.

  8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Bilingual Edition 896 (Eduardo Nolla ed. & James T. Schleifer trans., 2010).

  9. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, “The Great Charter at 800,” [address given at Brigham Young University, January 23, 2015];

  10. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Bilingual Edition 307 (Eduardo Nolla ed. & James T. Schleifer trans., 2010).

  11. Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 622 (1984).