by Christopher Hodapp
As we all sit barricaded in our private COVID dens of ill health, there's no time like the present to go through the rubble on our deskstops - real or virtual - to see what's been buried over the last few years. I myself haven't seen the flat, uncovered surface of my desk since before the first Clinton administration, and the very prospect terrifies me. So instead, I'm going through some old unposted and unfinished blog entries and came across this one.
Back in 2018, Lance Kennedy over at the FreemasonInformation.com website posted two thought-provoking articles about the future trajectory of American Freemasonry, and I can summarize them for you pretty easily: Freemasonry, as a large, institutional fraternal organization, is rapidly marching towards the tar pits. Of course, making that claim is something akin to shooting a school of carp trapped in your bathtub with a 12 gauge shotgun.
Brother Kennedy chose the subtle approach by entitling his requiem: Freemasonry Is Dying.
Click that link and give it a read. Also read Lance's companion piece, Two Trajectories For American Freemasonry: Consolidation Or Implosion.
After having spent more than twenty years worrying about this and doing what I can to halt this trajectory almost every day of my life, I freely admit that I had frustration with reading more of these obituaries of the fraternity. I've been reading them since before I was raised, and there's nothing new about staring at the undeniably alarming historic membership statistics from the Masonic Service Association and considering an aborted suicide attempt. Figuratively, of course.
I even wrote a swollen chapter in Heritage Endures about the steady 60-year erosion of Masonic membership and what grand lodges have attempted to do to halt it over the last three decades:
- dropping petitioning age to 18
- reduced proficiency and near elimination of memorization
- open solicitation
- one-day classes
- lifetime memberships
- easier to read ciphers
- and even fully-written ritual books
None of it has had a substantive effect on attracting and retaining enough new members to reverse, or even slow, the trend.
Brother Kennedy is approaching this as a numerical or statistical issue, and it's almost impossible to argue with his conclusions, which grand secretaries have been telling us all for several decades now. As the numbers in Masonry continue to decline, more of these sentiments are being expressed nationwide, especially by the younger Masons who see a bleak future. There's zero comfort in knowing that these "If We Don't Do Something Immediately To Fix This..." articles have been rephrasing the same ideas for at least a quarter century. Then the traditional/observant/European concept/best practices Masons roar up and declare "Good! Smaller is better, Masonry is elite, and we're supposed to be no bigger than a group of Japanese tea cozy collectors!"
Lance's contention is:
"[I]t is necessary for every Mason to come to terms with our present state. This awareness was the goal of this article and I hope you will take a moment to soberly ponder the very real possibility that Freemasonry in the US will go the way of the Elks or Odd Fellows, that is into the fraternal graveyard."The problem with these dirge-like examinations of Masonry's decline is that everyone wants to dance around the societal issues involved that are much larger than "what are we doing wrong?" We're NOT doing anything overwhelmingly wrong per se (although every jurisdiction has its own Big Issues to deal with).
Sociologists and demographers have been exhaustively studying the steady erosion of local community adhesion for more than 30 years, and time and again the smarter brainboxes in the room zero in on the closures of churches, local committees, and civic and social groups like fraternal lodges that were the hallmark of America for more than two centuries. How and why that happens is a long and twisting lineup of falling dominoes, and because history is fluid, you can't pinpoint the very first domino that tipped over to smack down all the rest. (I explored some of these factors in previous posts, like How the 1960s Really Killed American Freemasonry's Future.) You CAN pinpoint a raft of contributory factors after 1959 that snowball into a veritable avalanche of destructive forces and influences that led to isolation and tribal atomization we have now that caused the destruction of local middle class communities. An excellent starting place if you're new to the subject is Charles Murray's seminal work, Coming Apart.
Roger Van Gorden has been quoting an old Allen E. Roberts saying since the day I met him: "All Freemasonry is local." Roberts was actually paraphrasing the long-gone Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill who always said, "All politics is local." O'Neill said it in the 1980s, and he was absolutely right then. Yet, paradoxically, it's not quite right anymore, and hasn't been ever since we all put smartphones in our pockets. Suddenly in the last dozen years, Americans don't know or seem to care what goes on in their towns, cities or states anymore. The only politics we know about are national ones now, and I'll bet fifty quatloos that 95% of American citizens can't name their own mayors anymore.
Local businesses and business owners are gone, in favor of massive chains and franchises that are faceless. Newspapers? What's that? No one knows or cares what the city council or the state legislature does anymore, what legislation they pass, or what bureaucratic annoyances they suddenly baked up. Nobody knows their local banker through whom you always got your loans - now you apply over your phone to a faceless corp in another state, and never once speak to a human being. Human beings? What are those? Ditto with your old, friendly insurance agent or investment broker or furnace repair guy or dog groomer or the kid who cut your grass. There are now apps for all of that, and if you play your cards right, you will never have to actually see any of those people again. How often has someone told you, "Don't bother to call me, I never talk on the phone. Text me." Use the self-check at the grocery and you don't even have to chat with the girl in line behind you or be forced to mumble an answer to the cashier when he asks, "Did you find everything today?"
In short, what's gone is the one-on-one human interaction between physical neighbors that must exist if any community is to thrive. And THAT, my Brethren, is why Freemasonry is headed to the boneyard to be buried with a sprig of acacia through its heart. It's because our communities died first, or at least at the same time. The isolating development of suburbia in the 1950s that let more people get away from each other began the slow dismantling of the close-knit communities that used to result in a Masonic lodge every five miles in America. And after multiple generations of increasingly acquired numbness to that indifference to the people next door and down the block, this is where we are today.
My friend Ed Sebring once suggested that the real murderer of widespread fraternalism was, of all things, the credit card. And he's not wrong.
About 1900, business was conducted with a handshake. There were no credit bureaus. A merchant extended credit based only on his view of the customer's character -- and a lapel button or ring instantly vouched for a man's character. Remember how Rose Hovik, Gypsy Rose Lee's mother, in the musical "Gypsy" had a piece of silk in her purse with dozens of different lodge buttons to claim assistance from men when her family was in financial difficulties. That is my point. My dad was born in 1889. I remember hearing a tone of pride in his voice when someone's name came up in conversation, and Pop would say about him, "He's a Mason," or "He goes to our church." Today, anybody can whip out a piece of plastic. Where is the honor, pride and character in business today?
*(To explore some more of this in depth, read From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State by David Bieto. And have a look at Brother Stanley Bransgrove's essay about fraternal groups on the now-defunct Mill Valley Freemasonry website, that fortunately still exists on the Internet Archive.)
Members of fraternal groups like the Masons were deemed admirable because admittance into a lodge meant other important people in your community decided you were worthy of their trust and respect, too. Your membership signaled to the outside world that you were honest, trustworthy, a good risk, and that you had been vetted by other equally trustworthy men. That was back when it still mattered that "the neighbors might talk" and a man's reputation was paramount. Now, a person can obtain a home mortgage for hundreds of thousands of dollars entirely through an online application and automatic approval without ever seeing or speaking to a human being. Trust, honor and respect never enter into the equation anymore. Much less, reputation. In fact, such judgements are now considered illegal in most transactions in 21st Century America.
This is usually when the traditional/observant Masons leap up and declare that the fraternity must again become tiny, rare, more urbane, more scholarly, and - face it - more impressive. That train of thought is that we must "again" become the premiere society of gentlemen and be more like the lodges that attracted the men of the Royal Society, royalty itself, scientists, diplomats, composers, and the like.
The Masons (and grand lodges) who recoil from this vision deride these Masons and their lodges as a collection of overdressed snobs. Two centuries ago, the sneer against them was that they were 'silk stocking lodges,' (or 'blue stocking lodges') suitable only for rich, college educated men and other highfalutin' riff-raff.
Both sides declare the other guys are doing it all wrong.
In short, we're living through a modern day Moderns vs. Ancients fight. The English Moderns wanted to attract the cream of English society, while the Ancients sought to improve the common working man through their Freemasonry. The Ancients' side largely won the argument after the American Revolution. That brand of Freemasonry was sent westward into the wilderness to help educate and civilize a rough and rugged frontier collection of mostly uneducated pioneer settlers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If you've only hung out in shrinking city lodges or struggling suburban ones, take a drive to the country. To this day, some of the most successful, most active, most close-knit and happiest Masonic lodges you will visit are in tiny, usual rural, communities. It's not a rule, but fewer city and suburban lodges anymore have the kind of total involvement and cheerfulness you'll find in a lodge that exists in a smaller town where everybody cheers on the local high school teams, and everybody knows everybody else. People there don't move in, move out, or move away all that often. Most work at local businesses, and the big box stores and franchises are rarely seen unless it's out on the highway. You'll still find the yard sales, the bake-offs, the local fund raising, the family nights and picnics, the pitching-in to help the guy whose house burned down or crops needed harvesting while he was hospitalized, and the pride in their lodges. Coming to lodge isn't a chore, frequently their ritual work is exemplary, and their wives and children are often hanging out in the dining room during meetings. Those lodges are an extended family for their members, which is ehat was always intended.
It is in those places that Freemasonry is not dying, and never will. And they won't take too kindly to being told they're doing it wrong, because they aren't.
In short, all Freemasonry is local.
Lodges should always have the latitude to adapt to the needs, desires and preferences of their own members.
At this precise moment in history, consider the global experiment we are living through, as the Coronavirus has quite literally shut down the entire world. Nothing has ever accomplished that before in all of human history. Suddenly, people everywhere are deprived of most in-person, human contact on a wide scale. And more than a few are suddenly reaching out and discovering (or rediscovering) their neighbors, and gaining heightened awareness of their local governments - maybe for the first time in their adult lives. Only time will tell if a sea change happens and communities rediscover themselves again, or if everyone goes back to staring into their phones and remaining isolated again once the bread and toilet paper shipments return to normal.