This is a follow-up to a previous post on a similar subject by Worshipful Brother Robert E. Burtt. He 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. A longer bio can be found on his previous posts.
The Current Masonic Crisis: For Whom the Bell Tolls
Like some Brethren, I recently had to rethink my position about Grand Lodge independence within Freemasonry. The decisions by the Grand Lodges of California, District of Columbia, Belgium, and the Netherlands to withdraw Masonic recognition from their counterparts in Tennessee and Georgia forced my hand. Since then, the Grand Masters of Massachusetts, Maine, and Illinois have issued statements that have indicated strong disapproval of these two Masonic bodies. As all readers know by now, the issue of contention is the decision by these grand lodges to make sexual orientation a criteria for Masonic membership. As if that were not enough, they have actively engaged in rooting out, and expelling, Brethren based on their personal conduct. In an earlier submission to Fresh from the Quarry, I stated that these actions are part of a much larger problem within Freemasonry in the United States. The more I thought about this issue, however, the more I realized that this problem is multifaceted. The challenges facing the Craft can be divided into three areas: political activity within Freemasonry, cultural specificity of U.S. grand lodges, and finally, isolation between Brethren in differing jurisdictions.
In addressing the first challenge, I can’t improve on D.C. Grand Master Kenneth Fuller’s language in his letter to the GL of Georgia:
The suggestion that a certain religious order’s …disagreement with the lawful conduct of brothers…should be the basis of Masonic law is to…misunderstand and misapply the…philosophy of Freemasonry. This…break with Masonic law places the Grand Lodges of Tennessee and Georgia in a state of disharmony that threatens…(the)…entire Masonic family.
I would add to RW Brother Fuller’s analysis that in America, for a generation, religion and politics have been intertwined on the national scene. In 1980, the “Reverend” Jerry Falwell aligned his “Moral Majority” organization with the Republican Party’s “conservative” wing. Since that election year, voters espousing religious fundamentalism, extreme social conservatism, and nativist tendencies have generally tended to align themselves with the Republican Party. By contrast, those wishing to keep the “welfare State,” the “mixed economy,” and to continue the expansion of personal freedom have tended to vote Democratic.
All well and good. Everyone is entitled to their own views—this is America. Debate and political conflict are what makes our nation great. However, political and religious views have NO place within the Lodge. This has been one of the basic landmarks of the Fraternity since time immemorial. 2016 is a Presidential Election year. Has anyone noticed that social and religious issues traditionally used to whip up the electorate have been pushed to the front burner in Georgia? The state legislature recently passed “Religious Liberty” legislation that was so extreme that Gov. John Deal (R) vetoed it. Among the corporations that threatened to leave the state over this issue were the Atlanta Falcons, the Braves, Delta Airlines, and Coca Cola. North Carolina has also passed similar legislation. As I write this, the State’s Attorney General (D) refuses to defend the law in Federal Court against legal challenges. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is denouncing “outside agitators” attacking the new law. Pay-Pal Corp. has cancelled plans to expand its operations in the state.
Politics is a messy, dirty business. Many of its practitioners consider it a “blood sport.” For the Masonic leaders of Georgia and Tennessee to drag their members into this morass shows a stunning betrayal of stewardship. This is why Brethren outside of those jurisdictions should take an interest in this story. Freemasons everywhere will be tarred as intolerant “Neanderthals” unless we respectfully address this issue. No matter what grand lodge you are a member of, the general public will see all Freemasons as part of this issue.
Another facet involves the legal status of Freemasonry within each respective state. Most Grand Lodges are incorporated as charitable, non-profits by state legislatures. By actively engaging in political activity, and breaking federal discrimination laws, the leaders of Grand Lodges are putting their entire organizations in legal jeopardy. See this link for a more complete treatment of this problem: http://freemasonsfordummies.blogspot.com/2016/04/tennessee-masonic-wife-fiduciary-harmony.html
Reading the public comments of some Brethren is a depressing exercise. One wonders what they learned during their degrees—if anything. Typical is a series of posts made by a Freemason in a Facebook forum. His comments contained phrases like: “someone has to stand up to the liberals…PC has to be kept out of the lodge…I’m proud to be a Tennessee Freemason…” and finally: “I took an oath on the Holy Bible and I believe everything in it. We don’t care what atheistic liberals think.” Out of curiosity, I went to his Facebook page. It contained racist sentiments and pictures. Some dumb blonde jokes. Pictures of the Confederate flag were prominent. There were quite a few attacks on President Obama. There were also Masonic symbols and pictures that gave evidence of his membership in the Brotherhood. How can such a “Brother” wear the ring in public? I don’t understand, but I will not let such public activity go unchallenged. To quote Bro. Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” All Brethren have an obligation to stand up to racism and discrimination and keep such sentiments out of the lodge. If we don’t, then we will be violating our own Oath and Obligation.
It is a fact that the seat of this conflict resides in two Grand Lodges located in the southern region of the United States. This leads to the second aspect of the problem: the cultural specificity of Grand Lodges. In many ways, this has been a historical strength of Freemasonry. The Fraternity can be adapted to differing social climates. It can change itself in order to meet local needs, and it can mobilize without waiting for some distant, centralized authority for permission to do so. Much like the individual states in our nation, each grand lodge can reflect its own special membership. Much of this diversity is charming and interesting. It can encompass food, language, and ritual. In New England, baked beans and cod are served at the festive board. I have eaten Italian “hoagie” sandwiches in Pennsylvania. In the South, cornbread and catfish are staples after a meeting. I would not be surprised to discover that Hispanic cuisine is served in the Southwest and on the west coast.
Few of us would be surprised by regional accents, but Brethren who have never traveled to another jurisdiction might be shocked at the diversity of Masonic ritual, customs, and practice. In Pennsylvania, new Master Masons are advised (in effect) that “should you have cause to visit Lodges in other jurisdictions, you will undoubtedly notice a great difference between Pennsylvania work and other ritual.” That is putting it mildly. To give one example, in Pennsylvania, to put on a degree, one extra officer is needed: the guide. That is all. The Wardens and the Worshipful Master conduct the entire ceremony. From gavel to gavel, it takes one hour for a First Degree, forty-five minutes for a Second, and two hours for a Third. I have never witnessed the end of a Master Mason’s degree in any other jurisdiction. At eleven o’clock, there was still more ground to cover and the lodge was merely taking a break. I’ve always had to leave and go home to get some sleep.
Anyone reading this has probably explored social media to get acquainted with the competing positions. We live in a marvelous world of instant communication. However, some of these modern wonders are an illusion. It is true that we can instantly send a message to anyone in the world in seconds. That does not mean that we are truly connected to one another. I am struck by the fact that most Brethren are unaware of what goes on in other jurisdictions. We, all of us, naturally believe that Freemasonry, while supposedly different in each state, is somehow very similar to what we experience in our home lodges. This is not true. Each Grand Lodge really IS independent and different. Some of the events happening in different jurisdictions would make one’s hair stand on end. And no one really knows. Most Brethren would be outraged if they knew the facts.
I’ll give two specific examples of this phenomenon. I reside in Arkansas but am a member in good standing of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. I resigned my Arkansas membership years ago. The years 2004-05 were tumultuous for the Grand Lodge of Arkansas. The Grand Master died after serving only one month in office. It was decided by the Deputy Grand Master that, to please the widow, the office would remain vacant so that his predecessor could have his “year.” He invented a title for himself and merely “presided” for the rest of the year. By doing so, he put Freemasonry in Arkansas in legal jeopardy. The Grand Lodge operates under state legislation like any other non-profit. The law clearly stated how the Grand Lodge should operate and what officers should run the organization. By inventing a new position, he broke the law. When Brethren around the state complained to each other via emails, he expelled them for “un-Masonic conduct.” His decree was that by writing anything about this issue, they had violated their Entered Apprentice Oath and Obligation.
During this time, the Acting Grand Master went to a lodge in Little Rock, singled out Brethren by name, and commanded them to present themselves at the Altar. As punishment, he forced them to re-obligate themselves as Master Masons in his presence. I’ve told this story to other Brethren and most can hardly credit it.
The relationship of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas and the Shrine has been stormy for the last twenty years. Last year, the Grand Master decided to forbid membership in the Shrine for all Arkansas Master Masons. You read that correctly. After much negotiation, which included a personal visit from the Imperial Potentate, Shriners International was forced to remove the requirement that only Master Masons could join the organization. This ruling applies only to Arkansas. I’m not making this up!
These events illustrate what I mean by lack of communication among Masonic Brethren. Light and the Truth are excellent disinfectants for tyranny and corruption. But, aside from some excellent “blogs,” there is no real way for Brethren in differing jurisdictions to keep in touch with the state of Freemasonry in other parts of the country. Without better information flow, most of us aren’t even aware of Masonic crimes being committed by leaders in other states. Most Brethren aren’t even aware that there are problems in other states. This is probably one of the great challenges that we all must face in the future. We need better communication. Freemasonry is national, but it is not a national organization. I do not advocate a unified Grand Lodge, but I do feel that a national informational organ is needed. I close with a quote from the Opening Charge and ask all readers to deeply ponder the meaning of these words.
If we are united, our Fraternity must flourish. Let all private animosities, therefore, if any should exist, give place to peace and good fellowship. Uniting in the same grand design, let us be happy ourselves, and endeavor to contribute to the happiness of others!
Engaging in political activity within the lodge. Stirring up political and social hatred. Using cultural specificity to cloak injustice and tyranny. Hiding behind a Grand Lodge’s jurisdictional independence in order to impose personal beliefs on other Brethren. All of these Masonic “crimes” should be brought to light and debated within the Fraternity. It is a terrible thing to withdraw recognition and cut ties between Grand Lodges. It may have to be done. I find myself dreading the battles to come in this new century. What happens in other places affects us all. The bell tolls for thee my Brother. The bell tolls for all of us.