That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture
david g. hackett,
336 pages, berkeley, $49.95
While many readers will know about traditional Catholic opposition to Freemasonry, many may be surprised to discover how Freemasonry engendered significant Protestant opposition as well. David Hackett proposes to give readers the first detailed account of its religious dimension, while remarking that “Catholics were the original operative Masons, working on the great stone castles and cathedrals of the medieval period.” Even after the modern “re-founding” of the Masons by Protestants under Enlightenment influence, it is a “curious phenomenon” that remnants of Catholicism were retained, like celebrations in honor of the patron saints of the medieval stonemasons’ guild.
Catholic involvement with Masonry is somewhat convoluted. With its 1717 re-founding, many Catholics in Europe became members. In less than two decades, however, papal condemnations began to appear. In addition to concerns about its revolutionary aspects, theological objections were raised and deemed far more weighty than the more political dimensions. Religious indifferentism and universalism, confused and confusing religious positions, pagan influences, anti-clericalism, and extreme rationalism formed the heart of papal objections, which bans have perdured into contemporary Catholicism, along with similar prohibitions in Eastern Orthodoxy and many other conservative Christian bodies.
Freemasonry claims to have ancient foundations with occult knowledge and secret ceremonies of initiation, an example of ritual and popular religion, although many Masons have denied it is a religion, which Hackett defines as “shared ideologies and practices that help people become human in relation to transcendent realities.” “Freemasonry’s quest for primeval truth”—like primitivist Christian groups and Mormons—“joining together disparate political and religious leaders” contributed to the secularization of American society by staking out a “least common denominator” approach to religion—a via media between orthodox and evangelical Christianity on the one hand and pure rationalism on the other. Members were encouraged to keep “their particular [denominational] opinions to themselves,” embodying what the author dubs “polite Christianity” or what the 1723 Masonic constitution refers to as “that religion in which all men agree” (hence, the title of the book).
When Freemasonry refers to “rational” religion, this does not envision faith and reason as two wings of the human ascent to the truth, à la Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio; on the contrary, its religious equation is reason minus revelation or faith. As Thomas Paine argued, Masonry “is derived from some very ancient religion wholly independent of, and unconnected with that book [the Bible].”
Another interesting historical tidbit informs us of the dependence of Mormonism on Freemasonry, especially in the development of its unique rituals. Likewise interesting is that eleven of Joseph Smith’s original twelve apostles were Masons.
Freemasonry caught on for a variety of reasons, not the least being its ability to forge deep relations independent of (or even in spite of) religious positions, redounding to the social, economic and political advantage of its members. It did not hurt that such prominent founders of the American republic as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Hancock were committed members of the Lodge. Interestingly, we learn that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Lodge members rarely attended church services (only 14 percent among San Franciscan Masons), giving credibility to the popular perception that Freemasonry was a religion unto itself. As part of its “inclusivity,” one lodge was comprised of Druids—whatever that might have meant.
The role of secrecy in the organization cemented relationships, to be sure, but also led to its undoing. John Vanderbilt in 1808 averred that “nothing can be more binding, nothing more sacred or more pious” than those bonds, causing not a few observers to give credence to long-standing accusations of Freemasonry’s involvement in plots to overthrow both political and religious establishments. Women also expressed concern that perhaps their marriage vows were in danger as well.
As often happens in closed societies, some members began to question teachings and practices. Apostate Masons divulged secrets and asserted that blasphemies and sacrileges against Christ and Christianity were part of the regular fare of lodges. One such “whistle-blower” was William Morgan, who was kidnaped and never heard from again. As that disappearance was laid at the door of the Masons (and never convincingly responded to in the public forum), it visited deleterious effects on Freemasonry as lodges in New York State alone lost 60 percent of its membership between 1826 and 1835.
Jews seeking to assimilate into American society joined lodges but, for reasons that have never been very clear, left the Masons and in 1843 founded B’nai B’rith, whose “original constitution avoids mention of God, Torah, or ritual obligations while emphasizing Jewish unity”—an approach clearly in line with its evolution from Freemasonry.
The first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, apparently winked at Catholic membership in lodges, perhaps because his own brother Daniel belonged to one! While individual Catholics were admitted to lodges, Masonic attitudes toward institutional Catholicism “ranged from tolerance to rabid anti-Catholicism.” In short order, though, Masonry’s welcome mat even for individual Catholics was rolled up with the arrival of waves of Irish, Italian and German immigrants as Masonry supported the nativist American Protective Association.
That development triggered the establishment of the Knights of Columbus as the Catholic response to the bigotry of the Masons and the condemnations of the Holy See. Unlike the Masons, local councils of the Knights have always been inserted into parochial life, never functioning as a parallel or surrogate religious institution. Hackett claims that membership in the Knights has tanked in recent years, like American Freemasonry’s, as evidenced in its “aging, dwindling membership” and “its ill-kept and largely vacant buildings.” In point of fact, however, between 1950 and the present, membership in the Knights has actually doubled.
Although repetitious in many places, this is nonetheless a worthwhile and interesting account of the growth, development and passing of a significant influence on American religious, political and social life.
The Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., is a member of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic High School Honor Roll National Policy Advisory Board, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, and editor of The Catholic Response.