Wednesday, January 20, 2010

JMG, Secret Handshakes

Yes, I’m a Freemason. Some years back a series of accidents clued me in to the huge role that the old fraternal orders had in structuring American communities a century ago, and in the process I also learned that the handful of fraternal orders that still survive are rapidly going under for lack of new members. The obvious response was to apply for membership in a lodge, which I did. The results have been an experience, in almost every possible sense of the word. I’ve given and received quite a range of secret handshakes, and worn some very exotic headgear; I’ve spent evenings in mostly empty lodge halls while a handful of elderly members try to remember the details of initiation ceremonies none of them have had a chance to perform in twenty years; I’ve seen old men, proud as hawks, get teary-eyed as they reminisced about the days when the rest of the community responded to the lodges and their charitable work with something other than total indifference.

Now of course this is not the way lodges, and particularly Masonry, are portrayed in today’s popular culture, and I’m quite aware that to a certain percentage of my readers, my Masonic affiliation defines me as one or more of the 31 flavors of evil incarnate. It doesn’t matter that membership in Masonry has been dropping like a rock for decades, that most Masonic lodges are struggling to find enough members to keep their doors open, or that Freemasonry has less influence in this country than at any time since the Revolutionary War – the last Mason in the White House was Gerald Ford, for heaven’s sake. There are still plenty of people who use the Craft, as Masons like to call their oddball institution, as the perfect inkblot onto which they can project their fantasies of organized wickedness, whatever those happen to be. At a time when people can get million-dollar book contracts and all the radio air time they want to bash Masonry, it may seem a little odd that they can insist that Masons control the media and the rest of American society to boot – when’s the last time you saw something favorable about Masons on the media, by the way? – but contradictions of that sort are pretty much par for the course in our collective discourse these days.

The irony here is that all this vituperation is being flung at the last struggling remnant of what was once a huge social force in America. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, by reliable estimates, half of all adult Americans – counting, by the way, both genders and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Grange, and many other orders – some 3,500 different organizations, all told – formed a crucial element in civil society in America; they had a similar role elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where they were called “friendly societies,” and a somewhat less active presence elsewhere.

What makes this explosion of voluntary communal organization particularly relevant to our time is that the old lodges weren’t simply social clubs. With few exceptions – Freemasonry, interestingly enough, was one of those – they had a vital economic role. In an age when governments didn’t consider people starving in the streets a matter of public concern, in fact, the fraternal lodges filled many of the same roles now filled by the welfare state.


A positive appraisal of Freemasonry from a freemason. Did the medieval guilds fulfill the same social functions?

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