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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Civil Society and Freemasonry

Solomon's Lodge No. 1, Savannah, Georgia
Columnist Salena Zito may or may not have realized that yesterday was St. John the Baptist Day and its importance to Freemasons when she wrote her essay for the Washington Examiner.  She was visiting Savannah, Georgia and was in the famous red brick home of Georgia's Solomon's Lodge No. 1 as their members streamed in.  The landmark building was once home to the city's Cotton Exchange nearly two centuries ago, before the Masons of Solomon's Lodge bought it.  But in both of its historic roles over the years, that distinctive place has been a center of civic life in Savannah.  

I encourage you to read Zito's editorial (excerpted below), because it speaks about the vital importance of fraternalism in America throughout our history, and why organizations like the Freemasons are needed at this very moment in time more than ever.  

From America's Dearth of Civil Society:

Freemasons are civic leaders, and the room is filled with men of all ages, races and backgrounds, about to meet over what they can do next to further the betterment of their community. They are members of a dying American tradition that once drew young men by the hordes, in particular after the end of World War II when memberships in fraternal organizations like the Mason’s, Elks, and Rotary Clubs swelled with young veterans reared on the ethos of community service.
America today has a recession of civic activity as we emerge into a society that [is] less united in a common endeavor with fewer people willing to listen to elders who could guide young men and women with the skills of cooperation and citizenship.
For the past 200-plus years Americans eagerly formed countless associations within their communities. It didn’t matter if their neighborhoods were in large cities, small towns, or spread out in expansive rural farming areas. We liked to form associations; a lot.
Some were serious, some were frivolous, some had ties to commerce in a town or were wedded to a church and some were exclusive, but nearly all of them were formed to advance or foster a better community or a better city.
Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America’s burgeoning democratic order and the rapid formation of civic groups, through example “they form a society.”
But we don’t join things the way we used to. The question is why? The first obvious answer is we are busy, but so were our parents and grandparents and they joined the Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis.
The second obvious answer is technology. It does everything for us and connects us to people instantly so why would we want to connect in person?
You can answer that one by looking around yourself at an America with an eroded public square. Things are not going well.

Traditional member-based organizations, especially the do-goody ones, rarely included politics and brought diverse different ideas together that helped make communities and societies form cohesively.
They bettered the schools by providing funds for small projects. They bettered the parks by volunteering to weed, seed and keep the area tidy. They encouraged young people to join and mentor them towards improvement. And they avoided using the government for all of their tasks. It was a way to network and a way to support worthy causes.
No politics. No handouts. All from within.

Today all of these organizations face memberships in the decline, as their members die out their influence does too – and that may not be a good thing.

“This country would not have grown to be the great place it is today without the civic engagement that all of these different fraternal organizations have provided. We have to think ahead as to how to maintain them, they are and can still be the core of a civil society,” [Past Master Bryan] Hoffman says as the old trading floor, now complete with pale blue seating on three sides, fills up with members.
The only groups we seem to join these days are political, and we have no tolerance, or at least little tolerance, for those who do not share our point of view.
Part of America’s greatness comes from our willingness to strengthen, foster, grow and promote our localities. Our exceptionalism has never come from politics, or government, a new impulse that neither educates our democracy nor restores our faith in each other, it might be time to redirect our energies and reflect on where to better utilize them...
Zito concluded her essay with an appeal to join the Rotary, and that's a fine idea.  Service clubs like the Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, and Sertoma are great organizations, and especially connect people in businesses, encouraging them to participate in their communities in countless ways.  Like the Freemasons, they don't permit religious and political arguments to creep into their meetings — or at least they try not to, which can be tough given that businesses have to interact with government so much.  

But the service clubs are very different from the fraternalism to be found in a Masonic lodge.  Freemasonry forms a bond between its members that business-related groups do not and can not.  That's not a bad thing, because ANY group these days that broadens our circle of acquaintances and friends outside of the protective sphere and echo chambers of political or advocacy groups will help to calm the turbulent social waters we are experiencing right now.  But Freemasonry is much closer to a familial relationship than just a lunch companion a few times a month.  It creates a world-wide connection that we call the 'Mystic Tie,' that lets you step off a plane in Cleveland or Winnipeg or Istanbul or Mumbai, and suddenly encounter a Masonic Brother who will treat you as though he has known you all his life.  You may have absolutely nothing else in common, other than your Masonic membership.  Yet, he'll drive you where you need to go; he'll show you the sights; he'll treat you to dinner; he'll invite you to sleep on his couch...  

In short, he'll treat you like what you are: his Brother.  And you would do the same for him.

Since the contraction of the larger fraternal groups like Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Woodmen, the Knights of Pythias, and so many others in the last 50 years, America and the wider world have lost something critical that few realized was so important at the time (De Tocqueville certainly recognized its importance in his day).  Fraternalism was one of those guiding hands on society's shoulder (like religious institutions) that helped keep the human animal from constantly going after the other guy's throat.  All those "famous Freemasons" who fill up Denslow's books who were senators, congressmen, presidents, statesmen, business leaders, innovators, and others who helped to craft and operate the levers of civilization found ways to get along with each other, to cooperate for the common weal, despite having wildly opposing viewpoints.  People weren't any less passionate 100 years ago about laws or taxes or injustices or iniquities than they are today.  But they got along with each other because when they weren't at work or at home, they were sitting side by side in church, or meeting on the level in their lodges, or both.

We don't share much in common in Western society any more, now that we don't read the same papers, listen to the same radio stations, watch the same TV shows, and belong to the same clubs.  We've all gone tribal, and that's a dangerous place to find ourselves, because it always stresses our differences, not what we share.  In a country of 350 million people, tribes are likely to lash out when they feel under assault (whether it's true or not), especially now that we've redefined the smallest of slights and perceived insults as crime, and then given everyone an instant 24/7 media megaphone by putting a smartphone in every pocket.  Technology isn't going to roll backwards anytime soon.  So maybe it's time to consider the human alternative of finding ways to get along with each other again, face to face.  

There's a reason why Freemasons usually build our temples without windows, because inside you''ll find a sanctuary from all of the screaming and the noise outside.  Knock on the door of a Masonic lodge - or if you're already a member and haven't been back in a long while, go to the next dinner or meeting.  

You can take your place along that endless chain of union that binds us to the Mystic Tie, and help us make a better world, one man at a time.

(H/T Nathan Brindle)

On a related theme, see also:

The Decline of Men, and What Freemasons Need To Do About It

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