Renaissance in the Making

While mystic lore remains, Freemasons are tearing down veils of secrecy and preparing for a rebirth

While mystic lore remains, Freemasons are tearing down veils of secrecy and preparing for a rebirth

Article by Helen Mondloch / Photograph by William Baumbach II

The Masonic Grand Masters of USA gathered at the George Washington Masonic Memorial on  Feb. 22 to celebrate the 278th birthday of their Masonic brother, George Washington.
The Masonic Grand Masters of USA gathered at the George Washington Masonic Memorial on Feb. 22 to celebrate the 278th birthday of their Masonic brother, George Washington.

Anyone who has ever performed a Google search of “Freemasonry” has seen the alarming bulletins. On one website, visitors receive an urgent call to action. Pay a modest fee, and you will gain access to shocking secrets about the world’s oldest and largest fraternal society. This limited-time offer promises to deliver the “darker side of Masonic conspiracies, murder and world manipulation.” Use it “with caution,” the vendor advises.

Since long before Dan Brown and “National Treasure” catapulted Freemasonry into the popular imagination, the Craft (as it is also known) has been the subject of elaborate invention. For centuries detractors have variously accused Freemasons of undermining religion, worshipping Satan, secretly controlling the American government and plotting to conquer the world. Some charges may date as far back as the Freemasons themselves, whose shadowy history has been traced to European stonemasons of the 16th and 17th centuries. Fear and animosity towards the fraternity peaked with organized opposition during the American “Anti-Masonic Period,” dating from 1825-1850, survived into the 20th century and still lingers today.

The image of a sinister, power-mongering underworld dramatically belies Freemasonry’s self-portrait as an organization devoted to “Brotherly Love, Truth and Relief.” It is proudly rooted in principles of the Enlightenment and the ideals of our Founding Fathers (especially those who were Freemasons themselves). Today’s Masons don’t pay much attention to all the bad blood and vitriol, but when asked, offer insightful counterpoints and explanations about the forces that have battered their reputation. They appreciate the overall positive attention generated by the popular media in recent years but also muse over old misconceptions that it has helped reinvigorate.

Freemasonry’s Foes
Mark Tabbert, director of collections at Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic Memorial and author of “American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities,” asserts that the reasons for Freemasonry’s vilification are “complicated.” He cites the age-old human tendencies to scapegoat, to demonize anything that is enigmatic and to take refuge in simplistic answers. Indeed, the Craft’s secret signs and rituals—gestures meant to evoke fraternal loyalties and teach allegorical lessons about building virtue—have always invited befuddlement and suspicion. To many, these elements smack of cultism and the paranormal.

Tabbert also attributes the Craft’s defamation to its loose organizational structure. (In America, it is comprised of some 12,000 individual lodges and one grand lodge per state, but the latter has little governing authority. Over the centuries, Masonry has spread its branches with numerous Masonic appendant organizations, like the famed Shriners and the Scottish Rite.)

Says Tabbert, “Since no one owns freemasonry, it has no central headquarters or official spokesman and does not defend itself against libel or infringement—as do other clubs or corporations. Anyone is free to attack it without fear of reprisal.”

Freemasonry’s most extreme attackers allege that the organization has always controlled the U.S. government and seeks global domination. Its stranglehold on America is evidenced, say the conspiracy theorists, in the ubiquity of its symbolism, especially in the buildings and street plan of Washington, D.C. (an idea enlivened by Dan Brown’s latest best-seller, “The Lost Symbol,” which presents an odyssey through D.C.’s hidden “Masonic” locations). The theorists offer elaborate descriptions of clandestine symbols embedded in the downtown landscape, including a pentagram linking the White House to the Masonic House of the Temple on 16th Street N.W.

Thoughtful Masons have countered these charges with reason, one of the hallmarks of their institution. “It might be worthwhile to ask, ‘Why would Masons do this?’” quips S. Brent Morris in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry.” He goes on to say that “deeply superstitious people concoct and believe these tall tales. In an earlier era, they would have sprinkled holy water everywhere to negate the evil influences; today they post warnings on the Internet.”

Masons do not deny, however, that there is spiritual and esoteric significance embedded in the physical features of our nation’s capital. Designed by sons of the Enlightenment, men who were deeply symbolic thinkers—including a number of Freemasons—the city is naturally steeped in high-minded allegory. The sculptures alone are intricate monuments to the principles elevated by Age of Reason luminaries—justice, liberty, wisdom. A stroll through the Capitol grounds, among other downtown sites, provides a tour of the era’s breathtaking ideals.

Tabbert traces Freemasonry’s ill repute to the French Revolution, when “many believed that such a cataclysmic event could have only been perpetrated by a secret cabal of nasty folk (and not 10 million starving peasants)!” The paranoia and simplistic analysis followed Freemasons across Europe and into America with tremendous sticking power, he says.

In the 20th century a number of repressive regimes outlawed Freemasonry, including those of Hitler, Mussolini and Saddam Hussein. Their reasons included Freemasonry’s alleged ties to Zionism.

Even now, many religious bodies sharply condemn Masonry. This is the case despite the centrality of God in the Masonic worldview, as evidenced by the “G” that stands in the midst of its most popular emblem, the intersecting compass and square. Belief in God is a prerequisite for membership, but even this offers little consolation to church authorities who see Freemasonry as too ecumenical as well as excessively “works-based,” and who believe its rituals compete with their own.

Catholicism’s longstanding prohibition on Masonic membership was firmly reiterated in 1983, when Pope Benedict XVI officially declared that “the faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.” Since then numerous clerics have expounded the incompatibility of Catholicism and Freemasonry in prose that is often thought-provoking. Nonetheless, Seghars and others report that practicing Catholics abound in Masonic lodges throughout the country.

Staying Above the Fray
For the most part, Freemasons seem to stay above the fray, maintaining a sense of humor when it comes to their critics. At the Washington Masonic Memorial, one exhibit features pictures from an old “Simpsons” episode that parodies anti-Masonic conspiracy theories. In one scene, Homer Simpson and fellow Masonic initiates belt out a song that celebrates Masonic dominion over everything from the Emmy Awards to extraterrestrial life: “Who controls the British crown? Who keeps the metric system down? We do, we do …”

Russell Vane, a 28-year-old government contractor and Marine reservist who resides in Vienna and attends Herndon Lodge 264 as a third-degree Mason (the highest official rank), laughs when asked about the society’s alleged sinister ties. He avers that “the secretive aspect is definitely the most confusing part for most people.” He also admits that the secretive aspect was one of the factors that enticed him to join: “It’s kind of like when we were kids, and someone said, ‘We’re gonna have a club, and we’re gonna have a secret.’ It’s definitely not anything sinister. Sometimes I wish it was, but it’s a lot more boring than that.”

George D. Seghers, executive director of the Masonic Memorial and a Freemason since the early ‘80s, similarly muses over the lurid speculations. “Quite frankly, we’re really quite conservative, and quite stable,” he remarks.

President Harry Truman, one of 14 U.S. commanders-in-chief who joined the fraternity’s ranks—and, according to H. Paul Jeffers in “The Freemasons in America,” one of its most accomplished—earned the Scottish Rite’s highest symbolic standing, the 33rd degree. Asked about the secrecy issue in an oral biography, Truman reportedly quipped, “I’ve got every degree on the Masons that there is, and if there are any secrets to give away, I’ll be damned if I know what they are.”

Pop-Culture Apologist
While “The Lost Symbol” underscores the mysterious aura commonly associated with Freemasonry—especially with its depiction of a weird initiation ritual involving a blood-laden skull—Dan Brown has also become the organization’s latest apologist. In one of a number of passages where fiction becomes factual, the author reconciles extreme views of the Masons by revealing that in times past, the “perception of the modern Masons ranged from their being harmless old men who like to play dress-up, all the way to an underground cabal of power brokers who run the world. The truth, no doubt, was somewhere in the middle.”

The book also heaps praise on the Freemasons for their religious tolerance. Professor Robert Langdon tells his students, “In this age when different cultures are killing each other over whose definition of God is better, one could say the Masonic tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable.”

Providing Relief
The most compelling counterpoint to the image of heartless, conniving Masons is, of course, their prodigious role in philanthropy. Nationally, Freemasons report that they raise more than $2 million a day for charitable causes, including scholarships, disaster relief and research funds for illnesses like breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Historically, Masons have also engaged in relief efforts for bereaved families of their own. Jeffers reports that during World War II, many men enlisted in lodges as a kind of insurance policy for their families before heading to the battlefields. Perhaps their best-known humanitarian endeavor is the network of Shriners hospitals that minister to burned and orthopedically impaired children at no cost to families.

Despite the steadfastness of Freemasonry’s foes, Seghars reports that its membership ranks are steadily rising. “We’re on the verge of a great renaissance,” he reports. Reflecting on the reason, he adds, “People are searching for meaning in their lives.”

Unraveling Masonic Myths

Today’s Freemasons are descendants of the builders of King Solomon’s Temple and the medieval Knights Templar.
» The lineage is symbolic, not historic. Scholars agree that modern freemasonry descended from European stonemason guilds that emerged around the 17th century.

Freemasonry is a religion.
» It is highly ritualistic and makes abundant use of symbols. Membership requires belief in God. But that is where the “religious” aspect ends. In fact, discussing religion in lodge meetings is taboo. Members do not worship Satan.

Freemasonry is a “good ol’ boy” organization for waspy men.
» While the majority of Masons are white, Protestant men, members of all ethnicities and faith traditions are welcome to join. The Prince Hall Affiliation is a predominately black Masonic group started in 1775 by Prince Hall, a freed black man. Women can join Masonic groups that are predominantly female, including the Order of the Eastern Star.

Freemasons control the United States government.
» An old idea promulgated by the significant role that Freemasons played in our nation’s founding and fomented by conspiracy theorists.

Freemasons are engaged in an ongoing plot to take over the world. Their good deeds are merely a front.
» For a variety of reasons, the logic of claims about Masonic aspirations to establish a New World Order also rests on thin ground. And it’s hard to argue that hospitals ministering to children are anything but good.

(May 2010)

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