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Post Magazine
This Week:
Fezzes, Sphinxes and Secret Handshakes

With Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, Nov. 19, 2001; 1 p.m. EST

What do Mozart, J. Edgar Hoover and Michael Richards (aka Kramer on "Seinfeld") have in common? Membership in the mysterious fraternity of the Freemasons -- a movement that was once so powerful in the United States that it included many of the Founding Fathers but now is fading fast.

Peter Carlson, whose article "Men in Hats" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m. EST, to field questions and comments about the article and the colorful history of Freemasonry in America.

Carlson is a writer The Post's Style section.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Herndon, Va.: A great article! I well remember, when I was a boy growing up in Lincoln, Neb., and one of the highlights of my year was the annual Shriners parade. There were bands, (my dad played in the Dixieland band), clowns, men on motorcycles, and the Omaha Corvette Corps (which had new Corvettes every year) -- and EVERYBODY wore a fez. I didn't realize the Shriners just a part of Masonry until I was in high school. It's sad to see it all dying out.

Peter Carlson: Thanks for the kind words. My policy is: all compliments gratefully accepted, whether earned or not. I agree with you on Shriner's parades. I like the Rockville Md. Memorial Day parade in which Shriners do figure-eights in little go-carts. Looks like fun.


Georgia: You wrote a wonderfully informative article. I appreciated your research into the unknown and your candor.

If there was one complaint about the article, it would be about Putting the Mormons and the Ku Klux Klan in the same paragraph -- juxtaposing them as having similar symbolic rituals. I thought that was rather unfair to the Mormons.

What say you?

Peter Carlson: Well, I certainly wasn't trying to equate the Mormon church and the KKK -- just noting that they both -- along with many other organizations -- incorporated Masonic ritual into their own ceremonies. Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, was a Mason and added Masonic ritual into church ritual.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Excellent article. I will give it to as many people as possible. It is one of the best, most concise survey of the past and present condition of our fraternity.

My question is whether you have seen any rise in membership due to the coming of age of the Millenial Generation (born 1982-2003) due to their reputation as community oriented. Our Lodge is the fastest growing in the state with 20+ new members this year alone. We appear to be going through some kind of revitalization and nearly all of our officers are less than 40 years of age. We still have a considerable gap among the Baby Boom, but have been building steam with Gen X and Y.

Peter Carlson: I heard from a Mason in North Dakota that he'd recently had a growth in young members. Thus far, it doesn't seem to be a trend nationwide. I'd be curious to ask you: Why are these Gen Xers joining? What attracts them to Freemasonry?


Washington, D.C.: Hello there: I have been told by parents, priests etc that the masons are anti-Catholic. My mom told me stories of the masons in her community not allowing Catholics to join. Could you address this please? I have always wondered how true this is. Thank you.

Peter Carlson: Good question. I, too, was raised Catholic and heard from the nuns that Masons were evil anti-Catholics. For the record, the Masons do accept Catholics and there are many Catholic Masons. However, the church has an official policy, reiterated over several centuries, of excommunicating Masons. I believe the reason stems from the days when Freemasonry was one of the few non-church-controlled organizations in Europe and was filled with freethinkers who didn't follow church dogma. The original encyclical against Freemasonry--I forget which Pope issued it--was also a diatribe against public (that is, non-church) education. In short, I believe the church was always more anti-Masonic than the Masons were anti-church.


Washington, D.C.: Would you ever join the Masons?

Peter Carlson: I doubt it. But that's not because I have anything against them. I'm simply not a joiner.


U.S.: Are women allowed? Is there an auxiliary?

Peter Carlson: The Masons do have several women's auxiliaries, open to the female relatives of male Masons. There's also an organization, called the De Molay, for the children of Masons.


Chicago, Ill.: A couple of things:

1. Thanks for clearing up the mystery (to me anyway) of why, in my hometown of Indianapolis, there was a Scottish Rite Cathedral a few blocks away from a Shrine center. I knew both had something to do with Masons, but I didn't know the Shriners were a rogue offshoot, if you will. (By the way, one way the Shriners in Indianapolis stay alive is by renting their 2,500-seat theater and a separate banquet hall out for concerts -- they even have a contract with SFX/Clear Channel for booking.)

2. The more important point -- does the "33" on every bottle of Rolling Rock have anything to do with Freemasonry?

Peter Carlson: Well, the Shrine isn't exactly a "rogue' offshoot--just a party-hearty addition to Freemasonry. By the way, the Shrine recently adopted a new rule permitting any Mason to become a Shriner. Until a couple years ago, you had to have reached the top of either the York or Scottish Rite. This could affect the number of men who join those rites because many joined so they could become Shriners. Needless to say the honchos of the York and Scottish Rites lobbied hard against the change.
As for the 33 on the Rolling Rock bottle--I never knew it was there. I thought it just said 3 and I was seeing double from too much Rolling Rock. Just kidding--I have no idea. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Mr Rock was a Scottish Rite Mason.


Minneapolis, Minn.: In response to your question:

We appear to have hit a general vein of young men who never really got on well with their Boomer parents and their permissive child rearing, and are looking for more traditional values and avenues for becoming involved in the community. This may be similar to the recent rise in church attendance among some younger people.

Curiously enough, we have also struck a chord among people we might incorrectly describe as "gothic". They are very interested in the esoteric lessons and information behind the ritual and have turned out to be very good at performing degrees and perpetuating the mysteries in general.

While our recent success may still turn out to be a fluke, we are very much enjoying ourselves. It's sort of like discovering the cape and power ring of a superhero among your grandfather's stuff in the attic.

Peter Carlson: Wow! Goths invade Freemasonry! Now there is a story! I guess time will tell on this one. Maybe Brent Morris's jokes in my article about Masonic piercing might prove popular. I guess you never know, do you?


20002: What does the large temple in Alexandria have to do with the masons? Did you get to go into that one too?

Peter Carlson: Yes, I went there and it is an amazing place. Tours are free and it's well worth a trip. Each floor is decorated by a different Masonic rite--Cryptic Masons, Shriners, Grotto etc--and they are very weird, easily as strange as the House of the Temple on 16th street. The place is called the George Washington Memorial and it also has relics from Washington's Masonic lodge.


Herndon, Va.: By the way, I am Catholic and I did some research before joining the Masons. It was Pope Leo XIII that issued the encyclical banning Freemasonry, but that was changed about 25 years ago by Pope Paul VI or John XXXIII. It is no longer considered a sin (and certainly not a sin worthy of excommunication) to be a Mason. I tried talking to someone in the Diocese of Arlington about this, but no one seemed to know anything, so I did my research on the Internet... for what that is worth!

Peter Carlson: You may know more than me on the latest Catholic teaching on Freemasonry. I had thought that Pope John Paul had reiterated the Church's opposition to Freemasonry but I may be misinformed.
By the way, the Church of England and the Southern Baptists have also issued anti-Masonic fiats in the recent past.


Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed the article very much. However, it did leave me wondering, where is the dark side of masonry? I would like to believe that it is simply a product of people's misconceptions but there does seem to be a lot of anti-mason sentiment, particularly on the Internet (I know, I know). It must be based on something?

Peter Carlson: Good question. Of course it's impossible to prove a negative but I never encountered the dark side. (Of course, I wasn't allowed to watch the degree rituals.)
I suspect that most--if not all--of the anti-Masonic theories are due to a few factors:
1) Opposition by church groups--Catholic, Baptist etc--to Masonry
2) Incidents like the kidnapping of Mr Morgan that I detailed in my story.
3) the fact that any group famous for secrets simply spawns theories by those who aren't privy to the secrets.
Anyway, there is plenty of anti-Masonic stuff out there and I wish I had the space to go into it. As I wrote, every crime from the Jack the Ripper killings to the Oklahoma City bombing has been attributed to the Masons by somebody.
Barring more evidence, I'm unconvinced.


Alexandria, Va.: I thought I read somewhere that the Masons were one of the groups persecuted by Hitler. Is this true, and if so, why?

Peter Carlson: Yes. The Masons have been persecuted by Hitler, Stalin and most tyrants everywhere, partly because dictators hate secret organizations they don't control and partly because Freemasonry in centuries past was associated with the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment.


Washington, D.C.: Did you and Mr. Morris discuss one reason why younger people have not joined Freemasonry are due to 'sins of the father'
if you will? I mean someone in Freemasonry told me that there were people in key positions who committed civil rights abuses
here and elsewhere during the 50's and 60's. Their sons consequently wanted to have nothing to do with the club of their dads despite that most may have and continue to do good works.

Peter Carlson: I'm not sure what you mean by civil rights abuses. Masonry in the United States was, like so many American institutions, segregated by race.
In my story I mentioned the Prince Hall masons--the Black Masonic organization--only in passing. If I'd had more space and time, I'd have gotten into it at greater length. Basically, it was--and still is--a branch of Masonry for Black folks, evolving parallel to white Masonry in the same way the Black churches grew up separate from white churches--or black college fraternities and sororities grew up separately. However, back in the 1800s, there was some ugly animosity between the two branches, sparked at least in part by white racist Masons objecting the their black Prince Hall brethren.
It's a long story that I wish I had more space to get into.
These days the two branches seem to be getting along better.


Herndon, Va. ...one more comment and I'll sit down..: Since Masonry obviously interests you, there is much to learn about the Prince Hall Masons and other Freemasons. The PH types are much more physical in their degree work and they seem to be growing in membership. I have many good friends who are Prince Hall Masons and they are almost exclusively black men. For whatever reason, most state organizations do not recognize the PH lodges, but that is changing. I am a member of the D.C. Grand Lodge that does recognized PH Masons as brothers.

By the way... I am a poor example of the dark conspiratorial side of Masonry, and I am still waiting for it to make me either wealthy or good-lookin'.

Peter Carlson: I had no idea that their degree work was more physical, whatever that means. Obviously, as a non-Mason, I wasn't allowed to see any degree rituals.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Peter. Nice article and nice Q&As. Your writing nicely captured your speech patterns.

Brent

P.S. I think I have several more hairs to go before I'm "bald." I think "balding" would have been a better description.

Peter Carlson: You see what we reporters have to put up with? You write 6,000 words on a guy's organization and he grumbles that you should have called him "balding" instead of "bald." Just kidding, as I assume Brent Morris was. For folks reading this who haven't read my story yet, Brent is a very funny Masonic honcho at the House of the Temple in Washington. He taught me about 90% of what I know about Masonry and made the tutorial fun. See if you can get him to give you a tour of the House of the Temple, it's a gas.


For Chicago, Ill.: And anyone else who cares: The "33" on the Rolling Rock bottle signifies 1933, the year Prohibition ended, and the number of words on the back label. So goes the official explanation, anyway. No mention of Masonry, but maybe it's the Masons who are keeping the truth down?
BTW, very well-written and informative article, Mr. Carlson. I had no idea anyone could become a Mason, I always thought one had to be invited or sought out somehow. Maybe that is one reason membership has dropped so much: No one knows how to become a Mason.

Peter Carlson: I bow to this man's greater wisdom on Rolling Rock numerology. When it comes to beers brewed in Pennsylvania, I prefer Yuengling, which has no numerology but more taste.


Washington, D.C.: I've always heard that the Freemasons know the secrets of the universe, like: the big bang theory, did Oswald act alone? Where did Stonehenge come from? Crop circles, etc. How do you find out all this stuff and when are you going to enlighten all the non-freemasons out there? (like me)

I wish I could join.

Peter Carlson: Maybe you should join and then write back to me when they teach you the secrets of the universe.


College Park, Md.: I am surprised you did not tackle any of Umberto Eco's flamboyant historical-fictional accounts of the Freemasons. His academic interpretations of freemason symbology, and how people interpreted them, as well as their myth, is really quite fascinating. Although his book "Foucault's Pendulum" looks at Freemasonry as a possible secret organization out to control society is an enjoyable journey, Eco's study of how people were influenced with the Masons, and their myths, is truly interesting and allows us to critically study how we look at them: then and now.

Peter Carlson: Good question. Not only does Freemasonry appear in Eco's novel but it's also in Tolstoy's War and Peace and Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, as well as Mozart's Magic Flute.


Akron, Ohio: Do you believe there is a correlation between the decline of Masonry and the rise of New Age in the American zeitgeist?

Did the subject of Egyptian Rite Freemasonry surface in your investigations?

Peter Carlson: I'll take the easy question first: No, I don't know anything about Egyptian Rite Freemasonry.
Now for the tough question on the rise of the New Age and the decline of Freemasonry: I'm not sure, Any connection would be sort of vague. The connection between the two would be mysticism and a spirituality that is non connected to any particular religion. I think somebody smarter than me could probably write a doctoral dissertation on this topic.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Remember the movie, "The Man Who Would Be King," based on a Rudyard Kipling story, in which a British adventurer, Sean Connery, is found by an ancient Middle Eastern tribe to have a Masonic symbol on his necklace and becomes their king? It's the same symbol on the dollar bill -- the pyramid with the eye on top. What's that symbol supposed to mean, anyway?

Thanks.

Peter Carlson: The pyramid with the eye on top may or may nor be a Masonic symbol or combination of Masonic symbols. the aforementioned Brent Morris swears it is not a Masonic symbol and that the dollar bill was designed by a committee that contained only one Mason--Benjamin Franklin--and that Franklin wanted a different design. However, every other Mason I talked to believed it was a Masonic symbol. Certainly the pyramid is used in many Masonic motifs and so is the all-seeing eye of God.


State College, Pa.: I am a child of a Mason and a member of Eastern Star (the women's organization) and a former member of the International Order of Rainbow for Girls, the girls' equivalent of the Order of DeMolay. I am also a Gen Xer. While I enjoyed the community service and Christian "social" aspects of the organization, I got bored with much of the ritualism. I was also a bit miffed over time about the misnomers attributed to Masonic organizations from those who knew nothing but assumed a lot about the organization. I have decided not to become an Eastern Star member, at least for now, because it seems to me that the social good performed by the organizations is outweighed by the assumptive "baggage" associated with it, true or not. Have you run into current or former members of Masonic organizations who feel that way?

Peter Carlson: I have run into folks who feel as you do. That's one of the problems of Freemasonry and why it is shrinking.


Anywhere, USA: Great article Mr. Carlson. Question: Do you think 'dying' was the right choice of words or would you call it a fraternity in transition, similar to the transition it went through after the anti-masonic party crusade?

Peter Carlson: Maybe 'dying' was a bit of overstatement. But what is the right word for an organization that has lost half its membership in the last 40 years and continues to lose more?
By the way, how's the weather out there in Anywhere, USA today?


Bethesda, Md.: By any chance are you related to Eric Carlson, who does the hysterical column in the San Jose independent paper, Metroactive and maintains a Web site called San Jose Underbelly?

Peter Carlson: Not that I know of. I thought I was the only Carlson making his living typing.


Toronto, Ontario: Peter, just a follow-up:

Both my grandfathers were 32 degree masons. So I would have to say that a continuation of a family tradition is one reason I've decided to join. (Although neither my father nor my uncle joined.) But I think my main reason for joining is the history and mythology of the Order. Perhaps I'm also looking for a reverence for tradition that seems lacking in our modern and cynical society.

Peter Carlson: Those are the traditional reasons for joining. If you find meaning or friendship or fun there, more power to you.


Bowie MD: You stated that the Scottish Rite was started in Charleston, not in Scotland. But there was not really any follow up into how it came to be called the Scottish Rite, Can you elaborate more now? I realize the space limitations of the magazine must have led you to cut more information.
Can you recommend a good book to read if one is interested in joining?

Peter Carlson: Yeas, it was called the Scottish Rite because the Frenchmen who created most of the degree rituals that became the Scottish Rite thought that Scotland was an exotic hotbed of ancient Freemasonry, which may or may not be true.
I know it's a confusing answer but lots of things about Masonry are confusing and wrapped up in myth and legend.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr Carlson:

I met you when you were doing your article on Pat Buchanan -- "Buchanan To Right Of Them." I was, in fact, in the background of the photograph of Pat that was published with it.

Given that you have a history of writing hit pieces at the direction of the Zionist-Masonic New World Order, why should we believe your efforts to minimize the influence of Masonry over world events is anything but obfuscation in an attempt to promote the order?

Peter Carlson: Oops, I guess my cover as a Zionist-Masonic agent has been blown. This could ruin my propaganda value to the Great Conspiracy. Gadzooks, the enemy is on to me! I better head for a safe house immediately!


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