Worshipful Brother Robert E. Burtt is the author of A Guide to Modern Freemasonry and A Pennsylvania Masonic Handbook, and has previously contributed to this blog here and here and here. He has Master’s degrees in Political Science and Public Administration, is a Navy veteran, and works for Homeland Security. He was raised in and served as Master of Harmony Lodge No. 429, Zelienople, PA, and he belongs to and has served many other Masonic bodies. See his previous blog posts for a longer bio, because he has something important to say today and I want to get right to it. The following is an op-ed he sent me concerning the current Masonic crisis involving the Grand Lodges of Tennessee and Georgia.
The Current Masonic Crisis: One Brother’s Perspective
By now most interested readers know about the recent decision by the Grand Lodges of California and the District of Columbia to withdraw Masonic recognition from Tennessee and Georgia. The Grand Lodge of Belgium has followed suite. The crux of the issue is the decision by those Grand Lodges to make sexual orientation a criteria for membership in Freemasonry in their jurisdictions. While this is certainly stunning news, it is part of a larger problem that has been percolating within U.S. Masonry for quite some time. The camel’s back—while not broken—has been strained severely in recent years by the actions of many Grand Lodges.
As Grand Master Kenneth D. Fuller of the District of Columbia writes in his letter to Georgia:
The suggestion that a certain religious order’s dislike or disagreement with the lawful conduct of brothers or individuals should be the basis of Masonic law is to fundamentally misunderstand and misapply the foundational philosophy of Freemasonry. This unfounded break with Masonic law places the Grand Lodges of Tennessee and Georgia in a state of disharmony that threatens our entire Masonic family.
Anyone reading this has probably explored the internet and social media to get acquainted with the competing positions. Those on the side of Georgia and Tennessee’s position make the following points: first, they assert that personally they find alternate sexual activity abhorrent. Second, they cite prohibitions against it in the Holy Bible. They feel that, since they took their obligation on that sacred book, that to take no action against such behavior would be to condone it. Lastly, they feel they would be breaking their Master Mason’s Oath and Obligation if they did nothing.
Those endorsing California and D.C.’s actions feel that conduct in one’s personal life, as long as it is not considered criminal by the state, is no one’s business. A man can be of good character and a Brother and still be gay. The argument continues that, although most men in the United States took their Masonic Oaths on the Bible, they did just that: they took Masonic Oaths, promising to uphold the tenants of Freemasonry. They did not promise to follow every commandment contained within that holy book. They feel that the offending Grand Lodges are perverting Freemasonry by injecting their own brands of Christian belief into fraternal practices.
I myself am in agreement with the decision to withdraw recognition from the two Grand Lodges. In my jurisdiction (Pennsylvania), there are four requirements for Masonic membership: one must be male, affirm the existence of a Supreme Being, be able to financially meet one’s obligations, and be of “good moral character.” This last requirement is vague. What it has come to mean is that a candidate has a clean civic record. If he has been convicted of crimes, has been arrested, has been charged repeatedly with wrong-doing, or is well known to law enforcement authorities, then he is de facto not of “good moral character.” Given the ballot box, the system of recommendation, and investigation by a lodge committee, the system has worked well. Once a member, one need only remain a law-abiding citizen of the state (traffic violations excluded) to be in good standing.
I was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in Pennsylvania. I am a PM, a KYCH, a member of the York Rite College, the Red Cross of Constantine, and the Pennsylvania Lodge of Research. In 2003 I moved to a southern state. I fully intended to continue my Masonic career in my new home. I had traveled to lodges in other states in the northeast and felt that, while the culture would be different, Freemasonry was basically the same everywhere and I would be able to “fit in.” I was wrong.
The first thing that struck me in my new home was the level of control exerted over individuals in their private lives. Any communication about the fraternity can be deemed a violation of one’s Oath and Obligation if Grand Lodge chooses to regard it as such. This includes public statements, internet communications, and written materials. The second thing was the casual racism I encountered in lodges. It grated on my nerves continually. There are nine states that still refuse to recognize Prince Hall Masonry in any way. They are the Grand Lodges of West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. This is condoning institutionalized racism. Third, the stench of fundamentalist Christianity in the lodges I attended left a bad taste in my mouth. Lodges were opened and closed in the name of Jesus Christ. Baptist hymns were sometimes a part of meetings. This was unlike any Freemasonry I had ever encountered. We are not supposed to be a Christian Fraternity (Commandary aside). Fourth, there has been an on-going war between the local Grand Lodge and the Shrine for the past twenty years. Freemasons in the state are now forbidden to join the Shrine. Lastly, there seemed to be a Grand Lodge “Good Old Boy” network that controlled all these policies. I soon decided to go into “internal exile.” I am still a member of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. I attend lodge there when I visit friends and relatives. I will have nothing to do with Freemasonry in the state where I now live.
I have read that the Grand Lodge of Mississippi will soon address the question of the sexual orientation of its members. I am not hopeful about the outcome, given that it is one of the nine states that still “hold out” against Prince Hall recognition. If you won’t accept a Brother because of the color of his skin, it is a short leap to holding his private life against him. I predict that there will soon be a pattern of non-recognition within the United States. Many of the Grand Lodges located in the south will, because of local pride, stubbornness, and a pig-headed commitment to their version of Christianity, basically create a Masonic version of the Confederate States of America.
I say let them go. Withdraw recognition. Leave them alone to wallow in their own version of reality. It is sad, but the alternative is to let the public think that Freemasonry is intolerant, illiberal, close-minded, and racist. As recognition is withdrawn, hopefully Grand Lodges will publicly state for the record why they have severed ties. Only in that way will the public become gradually aware of the concept of “clandestine” masonry. As was written long ago: “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” So Mote it Be!