What’s the story on Freemasonry?

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Dear Cecil: What can you tell me about the Masons, i.e., politics, bylaws, who belongs, etc.? I have always assumed they were one of those semisilly men’s associations like the Elks or the Odd Fellows, but occasionally you hear rumors of something more sinister. Kathy P., Chicago


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Cecil replies:

Masonry is probably harmless, but I feel it is my duty to stir up doubt. Besides, it’s not like you’re the first one to hear rumors. The Catholic Church and other major denominations have repeatedly condemned Freemasonry for its allegedly pagan tendencies. For a long time Catholics who became Masons were automatically excommunicated. In 1987 the Anglican Church reaffirmed that Christianity and Masonry were “incompatible.”

The origins of Freemasonry are obscure. The best guess is that it’s an outgrowth of medieval stonemasons’ guilds that began after the mid-1500s. As construction of Gothic cathedrals ceased and the number of real (or “operative”) masons began to dwindle, some of the guilds began to accept nonmasons, often members of the upper classes.

These men, called “accepted” masons, enjoyed the ritual and secrecy that in the Middle Ages had been necessary to transmit the skills of the craft and prevent outsiders from horning in. Eventually there were no operative masons at all and Masonry became a kind of fraternity, retaining such trappings of stonemasonry as the apron worn at formal functions and the familiar compass-and-square symbol.

Over the years a long-winded Masonic ritual has grown up, full of cornball references to Knights of the Brazen Serpent and the like. There are also “secret” signs and handgrips, which initiates are never supposed to reveal lest they suffer a fate worse than death. (In reality, books on Masonic rituals can be found in many public libraries.) In shaking hands, for example, a Master Mason will press his thumb between the other guy’s second and third knuckles, thereby identifying himself to initiates while leaving others clueless.

Clerical objections to Freemasonry are based in part on its quasi-religious overtones. In the ceremonies open to members of lower degree (there are 33 degrees, or ranks, in all), reference is made to the Great Architect of the Universe, whom initiates are encouraged to think of as the God of their own religion.

If and when they climb a little farther up the ladder, however, they learn that the real name of the Great Architect is Jahbulon. According to British journalist Stephen Knight, Jahbulon is a combination of the names Jahweh; Baal, the god of the Canaanites, whom the Jews regarded as false; and Osiris, the god of the Egyptians. Ergo, Freemasons are pagans.

This accusation shocks most Masons, few of whom take the rituals literally, at least in English-speaking countries. (French lodges reportedly are more openly atheistic.) Masonic apologists argue that Jahbulon represents a sort of primitive ecumenism. But leaders of established churches recoil at the suggestion that their conception of the godhead is no more valid than that of the golden idol crowd.

Another (and to the nonreligious, more serious) charge made against Freemasonry is that it is a conspiratorial self-help society whose members look out for one another to the detriment of non-Masons. In some areas so many big shots belong that Masonry has become a kind of parallel Establishment, and it is widely assumed that members get first crack at jobs, preferential legal treatment (many cops and judges are “on the square,” as the Masonic saying goes), and so on. The extreme example of this is Italy’s infamous P-2 lodge, whose members included hundreds of prominent officials, some of whom traded confidential information, influenced government decisions, and pulled strings for one another.

American Masons have included such prominent figures as Gerald Ford and Robert Dole, meaning we had an all-Masonic presidential ticket in 1976. Nonetheless, there has been little concern recently about excessive Masonic influence in this country. This is not the case in countries such as England, where Masons constitute a much larger percentage of the population. Knight’s expose, The Brotherhood, created a sensation in 1983 and no doubt was partly responsible for the Anglican crackdown.

Personally I think it’s all paranoia. But next time you’re in London you might want to press between the knuckles when shaking hands and periodically intone “so mote it be.” Maybe it won’t help. But who knows?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.