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religions and political discussions
by R. W. Bro. G. H. Robertson
These words, familiar to every Freemason, are taken from the Charge after
Initiation; "Your obedience must be proved . . . by abstaining while there,
[i.e. in the Lodge], from every topic of political or religious discussion".
Through stormy years of religious and political strife these words have guarded
Freemasonry from possible dissension and disruption.
This same Charge is found in full in the Rawlinson Masonic MSS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Richard Rawlinson, Fellow of the Royal Society, 1714 was a member of four early Lodges, and a Grand Steward in 1734. His Masonic manuscripts are undated, probably written from 1730 onwards so that we do not know anything further about the early history of this Charge.
Anderson's Constitutions of the Freemasons, 1723
Dr. Anderson, in his Constitutions gives us a starting point in his Sixth Charge:
These words were written and adopted by Grand Lodge in a period of very great
disturbance when people could not talk to each other, because they had different
political or theological views. For early Speculative and Accepted Freemasonry
they made a good beginning and a good safeguard for the growing community of
Freemasonry. The Royal Society Eminent Masonic scholars, Lionel Vibert in
particular, have pointed out that "it was the considered policy of Grand Lodge
to prohibit all discussion on politics and religion, and in so doing they were
following the example of the Royal Society."
That seems to be the situation as it is at present. It must be firmly binding on Craft Lodges. But are we as Freemasons so little civilized that we cannot have discussion without dispute or quarrel? For myself I do not think that we are. We have had many papers in our Transactions, some Biblical, at 3000 years remove, and some antiquarian and safely distant from our own concerns. Of us all, Bro. L. H. Southwick and Bro. A. S. Oldham only have drawn attention to the state and future of Freemasonry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The times pass and yet they do not change. We, no less than our brethren of 1717, live in an age when things seem to be falling apart: there are wars without, and divisions within. There is still the unresolved conflict between the two sides of religion. On the one hand we see religion in history as a predominantly conservative influence. We see men dreading the collapse of the meaningful pattern that gives order to their human existence. But there is another side of religion which is a dangerous force for any society to invoke. This other face of religion questions the insistence upon an established pattern of behavior and thought for its own sake. Its purpose is to lead beyond itself and to drive towards absolute moral values such as justice, love, mercy, compassion, generosity. It cannot be classified or contained under a set of moral rules by the insistence upon an established pattern of behavior. True religion must acknowledge and mediate these two sides of religion, and must contain both. Where one has prevailed we have repression by the priest, the conserver, and where the other prevails we have the fervor of the prophet (sometimes true, sometimes false). As men and as freemasons we are inevitably caught in these tensions. We are charged not to be enthusiasts, (i.e. fanatics or bigots), persecutors, or slanderers of religion. And this is in our private capacity, and in the example that we set to the world.
If religion is man working with God, then politics is man working with man. It has been well said that "Almost the whole of the Old Testament is about politics and government. It is the story of God's efforts to teach the Jews to run their community affairs with justice, integrity and intelligence. Hence the detailed provisions regarding land ownership, care for the helpless, forgiveness of debt, commercial probity and the administration of justice". In this sense these are the politics dear to a freemason's heart, whatever tensions there may be over ways of achieving them. Another view is given by Lord Radcliffe in a Lecture on "The Dissolving Society" given in London in 1966: "What matters for our future is that we should still have a philosophy of living to sustain us in pride and dignity. It will not come by political action, as the great part of population, who do not want to have to think for themselves, dimly hope that it may. Politics can be the expression of a sound public philosophy, but they cannot create it; least of all in this country which in political terms is so organized that one half of the nation is always the enemy of the other, and in which the general public increasingly regards the two parties as two football teams which it expects to play for its entertainment. It will not come through the deplorable and lazy modern cult of majority wishes and majority opinion. We shall never begin to approach the ideal of a just and defensible society unless we shake ourselves free of the notion that there is any moral sanction whatsoever behind the votes or wishes of a majority. To respect majority opinion is the duty of a civilized man in all matters in which such deference may properly be required. A democracy cannot conduct its affairs on any other working principle. But the art of political theory is hardly begun with the rules for ascertaining and enforcing the wishes of a majority: the real art lies in analyzing and expounding the circumstances and occasions upon which, whatever the wishes of a majority, they ought not to be given effect to at the expense of a minority, large or small, and of that art, so far as I can see, our public life is almost totally deficient".
Where Should the Freemason Stand?
The freemason is bound by every consideration to practice outside the Lodge
all those duties which have been laid to his Charge inside the Lodge. Many of
these duties are symbolized in the tools of the Craft. Others are summed up in
the three grand principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. Truth above all,
for the freemason must make a study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic. He must not
let his passions and his prejudices be carried away by jargon words of the day,
"peace", "environment", "the common good", "race", "pollution", and so many
other simple words once clear in meaning as a forest pool, now clogged and
clotted with emotional weed. His study of arithmetic and geometry must have
taught him the honest use of numbers and measures. It is all there, and much
more, in our Ritual and the freemasons must take it into the outside world by
nature, not by art, and by other-regarding rather than self-regarding.
Here is part of what the Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book has to say
Comment on this paper drew special attention to the phrase "Natural
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Last modified: March 22, 2014