On My Honor: A Memorandum to America

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020
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“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.”

—Scout Oath

The Boy Scouts of America is in decline. Membership is dwindling, the organization keeps changing its policies to keep up with the times, and scandals and lawsuits have battered the BSA image. Those of us who were Scouts or whose sons became Scouts look back and grieve its demise. It introduced millions of young men to the outdoors, awarded badges in subjects like citizenship, first aid, and swimming, and was for many one passage into manhood. 

Scouting also gave these same young men the Scout Oath, which was recited before every meeting. And before scouting passes into history, that Oath deserves to be honored and remembered, for in that single sentence is a blueprint for civic responsibility and patriotism pertaining to all Americans.

Let’s take a look at that Oath point by point.

Honor, Duty, God

“On my honor.” There’s a word rarely heard these days outside of the military, yet if we dust it off and polish it up, we find honor means integrity, the very core of what upright men and women live by. If we passed on the concept of honor to our children, taught it in our schools, and preached it from pulpit and podium, we might bring it out of the attic and into the daylight.

“I will do my best.” Here is a prescription against everything from shoddy work to poor relationships. Whether on the job, in a marriage, or as a rule for raising children, to do our best is the medicine needed to cure many contemporary illnesses.

“Duty.” Another old-fashioned word. We may associate the word with the military or first responders, yet all of us have duties: caring for children, earning a living, tending to aged relatives. The following quote may be falsely attributed to Robert E. Lee, yet it nevertheless contains great wisdom: “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more, you should never wish to do less.” The Scout Oath helps us remember the meaning and value of duty.

“God.” To do our duty to God—however we may perceive a Supreme Being—means living by a moral code. Even most of those who claim to believe in no god adhere to some sort of virtue or rule by which they conduct their lives.

Country, Law, Service

“Country.” Being an American citizen involves duties and responsibilities: voting, serving in the military, paying taxes. Even more, country is belonging. No matter where we live—an apartment in Manhattan, a suburb in Arizona, a farmhouse in Alabama—we should remember the line from Walter Scott, “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!” America is our own, our native land.

“The Law.” The Scout Law states that “a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” What else are these 12 points but the core of civic virtue? Obey them, and our lives become luminescent. And when our personal lives shine like the sun, so too does our country.

“To help other people at all times.” Most Americans are already in accord with this part of the Oath. We’re in the top five nations in the world in volunteering our time and giving to charities. Most of us, I would wager, extend a helping hand both to our neighbors and to strangers when they face difficulties: a flat tire on the highway, a gift of cookies to the widow down the street, donating via GoFundMe to a stranger facing some drastic surgery. 

Personal Maintenance

“To keep myself physically strong.” We are living longer than our grandparents, but many Americans are overweight, indulge in drugs, drink too much alcohol, and partake of tobacco products. Sixty years ago, the Kennedy administration stressed the idea of American “vigor” and inspired people young and old to take 50-mile hikes. Today a number of us might find a five-mile hike exhausting. Time to shape up, America.

“Mentally awake.” How many of us consider ourselves mentally awake? Do we read something challenging in the evening or flip on the latest television sitcom? Do we push ourselves, even a little, intellectually, or do we drift along day-to-day, same old routine, same old television news channels? Are our schoolchildren “mentally awake?” 

“Morally straight.” Are our politicians and other public figures free from corruption? Are they, by word and example, templates of how we should live our lives? Even more importantly, are we ourselves on the straight and narrow path? 

In “The Abolition Of Man,” C.S. Lewis defines this Way:

“The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or … ideologies … all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”

The Oath reminds us to follow the Tao—the Way. 

Let’s Honor the Oath

Many men who have gone through Scouting are imbued with the precepts of this Oath. It was once one of the many ways the culture taught its citizens their duties and responsibilities. 

In the movie “Clear and Present Danger,” the insidious character Robert Ritter says to Jack Ryan: “You are such a Boy Scout!” Ritter intends an insult, but if we know the Boy Scout Oath, we would take his remark as a badge of honor.

If we had a lick of sense, we’d make the Scout Oath one of the pillars of our Republic.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.