Cult-Like Culture: Something To Believe In

“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.” 

  — Henry David Thoreau

Does Freemasonry offer the young men of today who actively seek involvement something to believe in? According to Don Schmincke, founder of The Saga Institute and author of The Code of the Executive,93 the secret to organizational success lies in belief. People act according to their beliefs. Passion lives in a man’s beliefs, and a man who truly believes in a cause will make sacrifices for it. Napoleon once remarked: “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” At first blush a crass statement, but a more thorough analysis reveals that Napoleon understood what drives men. Of course, it was not the worthless material of the ribbon; but, rather what the soldier believed that the ribbon symbolized for which he was willing to fight: Duty; Honor; Country. 

John W. Gardner observed, “Men of integrity, by their existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.” Henry David Thoreau said, “Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.” So why should we work to build a better world for our children? Because we can. And, Freemasonry provides a vehicle to unite the very best men together to build that better world. 

If young men again perceived Freemasonry as something worth believing in, the need for public relation campaigns and one-day classes would vanish overnight. Adapting Schmincke’s analysis to Freemasonry, there are three essential building blocks that create belief. First, there needs to be an inspiring story; a compelling saga that illustrates an organization’s reason for being and resonantly answers the questions “who are we” and “why are we here” while at the same time is devoid of grandiose and unsubstantiated myth. Next, an organization must create a culture of identity, a tribal community with which each member strongly associates on a deeply personal level. Finally, Freemasonry must have an effective organizational structure that provides progressive and inspiring leadership that envisions, enables, and engages its members, earning both their respect and enthusiastic support.

1. Freemasonry’s Inspiring Story

There are charities that do good works. There are clubs and fraternities that provide social fellowship. There are church congregations that teach moral virtue to their members. But few organizations embrace the simple truth that everyone is part of the universal brotherhood of man. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists—all these good people work within their religious communities to improve the world. But, where do all of these groups come together in brotherly love for the betterment of all mankind? In an earlier age, one such place was a masonic lodge.

On September 11, 2001, the world bore witness to an act of terror rooted in a culture of divisiveness and hate. Sadly, belief systems that divide humanity into an “us and them” are all too common. As the great Scottish poet and Brother Mason Robert Burns penned, "Man's Inhumanity to Man, makes countless thousands mourn."94 The world has borne witness to the horror of genocide throughout history: the Holocaust; the killing fields in Cambodia; the Armenian genocide; the Balkan ethnic cleansing; Stalin’s and Mao’s great purges, and Rwanda, just to name a few. 

Nor are we Americans without guilt: our history with Native Americans, slavery, and our civil rights record serve as uncomfortable reminders of our own failure to treat our fellow man as our brother. The Saga of Hate that divides mankind into an “us” and a “them” is a powerful story, one that makes “man’s inhumanity to man” possible, and one that continues to play out today with unsettling images of beheadings and mass executions being carried in Syria and Iraq, all in the name of god. 

In stark contrast to this divisive philosophy stands Freemasonry. It teaches the Universality of God and the Unity of Humanity. It teaches an inspiring story of peace, love, and harmony. It is a Saga of Love and Unity arrayed in an epic and eternal battle against the Saga of Hate and Divisiveness. This is why Freemasonry exists. This is why men of integrity and good conscience seek to become Freemasons. This great truth, clothed in traditions with a history so ancient that its very origins have been lost to time immemorial, is Freemasonry’s inspiring story. 

But even Freemasonry comes up short under close examination. No Freemasons from mainstream grand lodges accompanied Dr. King on his march from Selma to Montgomery. Clearly, as early as 1965, Freemasonry had begun to lose its moral compass. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, around this same time Freemasonry began its long decline. Where will Freemasons stand on today’s great moral issues? Today, a number of state grand lodges still refuse to recognize their Prince Hall brethren. It is not easy to claim the moral high ground, and harder still to hold it once claimed; but, to recapture its past glory and redeem itself, Freemasonry must once again embody the inspiring story of love and unity for all humanity. In the vernacular, we must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

2. Freemasonry’s Culture of Identity

The second great building block of belief is crafting a culture of identity through the use of symbols, ritual, and custom. Symbols are the holders of an organization’s beliefs—they are the things that mean something. Rituals are the processes that mean something, and Custom is the intangible collection of moments, anecdotes, and history captured in an organization’s mythology.  Freemasonry has all these things. Masonic rituals rich in elegant symbolism and pageantry are practiced in every corner of the world forming a singular identity culture. There can be no finer example of such a ritual than the masonic initiation rites whereby the values of our organization are instilled in neophytes. 

Freemasonry uses the celebrated Temple of Solomon as a vivid symbol of all that can be accomplished when mankind works together in unity to the glory of God. When man cooperates with his fellow man, not even the visions in his dreams are beyond his grasp. Over 2,000 years ago, working with nothing more than his physical strength, mason’s working tools, the ingenuity of his mind, and his indomitable spirit, mankind raised the most magnificent building that the world had ever known. Today, two millennia later only a portion of its foundation remains. Known as the Western or Wailing Wall, this last remnant of the once great Temple still inspires awe. And conflict. 

If the Temple symbolizes all that humanity can achieve when working together for the glory of God, then the murder of our Grand Master Hiram Abif, and the Temple’s ultimate destruction, are disturbing symbols of the consequences of evil in man’s heart. Jealousy, envy, greed, and murderous hate destroyed the innocent and noble, and ultimately led to the toppling of man’s greatest triumph. This tragic story serves as a troubling portent: when man kills his brother for his own selfish gain, all is lost. This one symbol vividly teaches the lesson of good and evil. Freemasonry, so rich in symbolism and ritual, possesses all the building blocks necessary to create a strong culture of identity.

3. Freemasonry’s Organizational Structure

The final building block of belief is a highly functioning organizational structure that provides leadership that works to envision, enable, and engage its members. And it is here where Freemasonry fails. Our organizational structure has become a dysfunctional anachronism, and our leadership, tired. Officer lines at some grand lodges are self-perpetuating, with the membership at large having little real choice in determining who will govern the grand lodge or how it will be governed. Men in positions of authority in an environment devoid of transparency and accountability have little motivation to risk their high status to embrace change. 

Such men claim that our membership woes are the result of changing demographics so that they are not to blame. They point to diminished attendance at traditional churches to support this weak excuse. If true, then the logical conclusion is that Freemasonry and religion are no longer relevant to young people today. But should we accept this feeble excuse at face value? Has religion truly lost its relevance for young people today? A more accurate observation may be that their parent’s church’s practices have lost their relevance for young people, but the underlying core value and attraction of faith is as strong now as ever.

Breaking away from traditional mainline groups, many new churches have sprung up in recent years, some attracting congregations that count their members in the thousands and their annual budgets in the millions. These new mega-churches are flourishing in a time when mainstream churches whither on the vine. They are able to raise millions of dollars in capital campaigns from congregations filled with young people. Why? Because their members believe in the church and more importantly they have faith in their leaders. They are willing to make a personal sacrifice based on their belief and that faith. The fact is Generations X and Y are actively seeking new ways to belong, connect, and give back; Freemasonry simply is not meeting their needs.

Just imagine what we could do if we could fill our lodges with Master Masons who were passionate in their beliefs! Even in this time of diminishment, Freemasonry has millions of members, millions of dollars in wealth, real estate, magnificent buildings and worldwide recognition. An aspiring fraternity would look with envy at that which Freemasonry presently holds in its grasp. What we so desperately lack is effective, charismatic, inspirational leadership capable of leveraging these extraordinary assets. 

The Role of Grand Lodges

The next section discusses the role of Grand Lodges in building the future of Freemasonry.

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