Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Leadership and Religious Literacy in Freemasonry

Brother Paul J. Rich is a Freemason who lives in Washington, D.C. Over the years, I have read several of his Masonic research papers, and back in 2009 I was lucky enough to hear him speak in person at the International Conference on the History of Freemasonry, where he delivered a paper about the dubious history of a Masonic apron that purportedly belonged to Robert Burns.  That was a dangerous thing to do deep in the heart of Scotland - even more so because he did it in the main hall of the Grand Lodge of Scotland!

Today, he is the president of the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, D.C. Brother Rich has a fascinating history. He is very well traveled and experienced, and he is an academic gentleman and Brother for whom I have the very deepest regard.

Paul just weighed in briefly on the discussion about the recent actions against gay Freemasons in Tennessee (and Georgia). I feel that it is a comment that should be more widely shared with all modern Masons today, and not just buried in the depths of an online discussion. 

He writes:

Part of the crisis in the lodges over gay marriage is because of a change in the background of Masonic leadership, which has become less culturally literate at a time when the country is becoming more educated. An elite in grand lodges to an extent has become increasingly blue collar and lower middle class. Religions being to an extent a reflection of social class, the religious composition of some jurisdictions has changed. 
The result includes the loss of Masonic cultural literacy, which means unawareness of the importance of the jettisoning of Christianity from the Craft in the early eighteenth century (and perhaps hints of that even before in the time of Christopher Wren and the Royal Society). Anderson and his cohorts in London embraced this change, and the lodges dropped Trinitarianism, providing forums that attracted men like Benjamin Franklin because of their freedom from orthodox religion. 
Now with the increasing exit of educated members, there is a trend in some Masonic jurisdictions to move away from secularism and embrace a religiosity evidenced in the organist playing hymns and the prayers invoking an anthropomorphism rather than the Supreme Architect that the Enlightenment embraced. With that comes a Biblical literalism and its accompanying morality that should be left along with other theology outside the lodge room. The genius of Masonry was its insistence on providing a nondogmatic place of fellowship, so unusual at the time.
The separation of church and state in America has something to do with the contribution made by Masonic secularism. Andrew Jackson, Grand Master of Tennessee, found himself roundly criticized for refusing to declare a national day of prayer. He replied that he would be, 
"...transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government." -- letter to the Synod of the Reformed Church of North America, 12 June 1832, explaining the request that he proclaim a "day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer." 
He understood the importance of demarcation.
By all means people should have their views on marriage, but to impose in Freemasonry their religious beliefs on others stands against a centuries-old and successful openness that had much to do with the success of the movement.

3 comments:

  1. In contemplating the future direction of our fraternity, I am reminded of a quote I saw in a recent column by, of all folks, a female activist in Kuwait named Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib:

    "[We must] see ourselves as we really are, or else perish while playing the role of victim to an empty theater."

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  2. Br. Rich is right on the money here, and kudos to Dummies for helping spread the word. It is extremely dismaying to many of us to see the Order turned into a defacto branch of protestant Christianity. But like most Masons, even if we have grave concerns about this creeping co-opting of the fraternity, we almost never mention our concerns.
    This conversation, notjust about gay Masons, but about the unthinking, and often doggedly stubborn leadership, who insist on "Yaweh or the highway," is highly prejudicial to keeping existing members, and attracting new ones, as Br. Rich rightly points out.

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  3. Six years ago in a Southern jurisdiction, two WMs brought a lodge up on charges for violating what they defined as the "Moral Law" by initiating a black man. Not long ago, a grand master in another warm weather jurisdiction used biblical references as part of his edict to justify the suspension of Masons who did not fit his own description of acceptable religious faith.

    These are certainly highly individual cases and are by no means a sign of an epidemic. The quote by Paul Rich above does clearly say "some" jurisdictions (and he says it twice), not all or even most. And he doesn't isolate it to GMs only.

    Of course, VERY religious men can and have been thoughtful, exemplary and excellent Masons and Masonic leaders - no question. If nothing else, they have followed the motto of Hippocrates, "Primum non nocere." But we tread a dangerous path when we allow our personal biases and opinions to influence us in decisions that affect our lodges and grand lodges when we get into positions of power.

    What happened to Masonic leaders who simply reprimanded instead of expelling? Or those who wrote reasoned philosophical essays in our magazines instead of dictating edicts? Or those who valued the input of opposing viewpoints, instead of gagging their brethren in the public forum?

    Brother Rich reminds us in his short comment above that we are ultimately sons of the Enlightenment, when the founders we claim to revere like Anderson specifically crafted rules for us the way they did because there were still English citizens who remembered their own civil war that erupted over the differences in competing Christian denominations. Their King was killed over it. So, the Ancient Charges were worded to put an end to the types of emotional, idealogical, and personal differences between men that tore their own society apart. And within a few years of the formation of the first official grand lodge, the lodges in London were doing what every other social organization in Europe had failed to do - they welcomed non-Christians into their ranks. And in France not long afterwards, royal investigators were shocked when they busted into a Parisian lodge to discover Masons allowing a black trumpeter from the King's palace to sit among them and allowed him to have an equal vote in their business.

    This is the kind of cultural and religious literacy that specifically should inform our leaders and often does not.

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