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The Found Symbols: Mitch Horowitz, 'Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation'

YOU CARRY AN OCCULT symbol in your pocket every day.

The “all-seeing eye” and broken pyramid on the back of the dollar bill is a Masonic image, placed there in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a Freemason.

But this combination of the occult — which really means “secret” and not “Satan” — and the U.S. government is nothing new. Politics and mysticism have long been bedfellows, from Ronald Regan‘s reliance on astrology to Vice President Henry A. Wallace‘s deep devotion to being a self-described “practical mystic.” In fact, Wallace was the one who encouraged Roosevelt to use the eye and pyramid, which he found on the Great Seal of the United States, a ceremonial insignia used on official government documents and treaties.

Even though its influence has reached deep into the commonalities of American life, Freemasonry, the secretive organization that is a target in Dan Brown‘s latest novel, “The Lost Symbol,” isn’t a power-hungry society bent on controlling politics and the world’s financial systems, said Mitch Horowitz, author of “Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation.”

“For the past hundred years or so, at least in this country, Freemasonry has largely been a charitable organization,” Horowitz said. “The Shriners, which are wing of Freemasonry, run a network of free children’s hospitals around the country.”

In fact, Horowitz said, Freemasonry’s roots are liberal in nature, likely founded around 400 years ago during a brutally repressive era in Europe for those professing beliefs that didn’t tow the line for the government or the church.

“Freemasonry in its early days, was an organization that held firm principles of religious toleration, religious liberty,” Horowitz said.

That’s one of the reasons why the organization’s ideals appealed to America’s founding fathers.

“Freemasonry held within it that the new republic needed to break with the sectarianism of the Old World,” Horowtiz said. “So, the fact that people like Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, George Washington were Freemasons is an altogether positive thing.”

From the influence of Ouija boards to the mystical experiences of black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, as well as the American-grown religions Mormonism, Christian Science and Seventh Day Adventism, “Occult America” treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions about religion and belief systems.

Express spoke to Horowitz about the human need to believe, the influence of Freemasonry on America and whether he has been touched by the supernatural.

It’s also very easy to get carried away with that because people use these things, and sometimes they find something insightful, and many other times they find nothing of any use but they keep going back to the well in hopes that they’re going to get another drink of water. But sometimes all it takes is just the suggestion that, even if it’s strictly psychological, there may be something there.

That, hand in glove with an intellectual interest in the topic, is what drives me.

» EXPRESS: The book is very evenhanded in its approach toward esoteric beliefs that are now considered kooky — even though mainstream religions are just as tricky with their notions of what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil.
» HOROWITZ: I made a point in the book to stay away from the questions of the truth or the falsity of some of these supernatural claims. I had a very specific reason for doing that. I thought, with the passage of time, it was appropriate to look at occult religions and occult ideas in America as religious ideas, which is what they really are. These were communities of belief that formed around a certain idea, that may be provable or that may be disprovable, but they had a theology, they had an ethics, they had a psychology, they had an outlook.

I often say if any religion, including the historic-based, [such as] Judaism, Christianity, were held up to the mirror of truth or falsehood, almost none could pass. The question of whether Moses really parted the Dead Sea, or whether Christ really rose from the grave, doesn’t detract one way or another from the ethical and theological traditions that those religions are.

In this country, we have new religions — religions that really started in the 19th century, that were found on supernatural claims. These include Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism. These were all homegrown American faiths that were founded be people who believed them had some kind of divine visitation or supernatural experience, and they created a whole theology around it. In many cases, that theology really touched people’s lives and continues to.

In a sense, that’s how religions always begin, so many of thew New Age beliefs, whether they grow out of spiritualism or talking to the dead, or the idea that you can engage in positive thinking and change your world — these are really religious beliefs.

I wanted to look at occultism as a religious tradition, which is a treatment that I don’t think it’s ever really received in America.

Holding up a religious or supernatural claim to the mirror of truth, it’s going to be very difficult to prove any of man’s religious systems. There’s a place that faith goes that logic can’t. But there’s also a place where ethics and a kind of rational judgment can go and can measure whether a theology, a psychology, a point of view is helpful. Does it promote ideas of commonality among people or does it promote exclusivity?

Getting into the game of proving or disproving the truth of a supernatural claim would probably require us to just throw out all religious all together. … [And] I suspect if we threw out all religions tomorrow, humanity would just find some other reason, over night, to resume killing one another.

» EXPRESS: Dan Brown’s fictional book “The Lost Symbol” is all the rage in publishing right now, and people are refocused on Freemasonry and its alleged influences, nefarious and otherwise, on America. What did you find in your research?
» HOROWITZ: The earliest records that we have depict Freemasonry as a radical thought movement that came out the Reformation, that wanted to create a safe-haven, or a safe space, for people to explore religious and civic ideas without any government or church control. At the time — we’re talking about the mid- to late 1600s — that was a very, very radical idea. … Masonry used occult symbols like pentagrams, obelisks, the all-seeing eye, pyramids, as codes for inner or personal development. They became symbols for ranks within Masonry.

These early Freemasons were very purposefully selecting symbols that came from a pre-Christian past. They were really declaring that the search for God, or the search for meaning, cannot be bound by any one culture or any one church. It was a truly radical organization. So, I would say both Masonry as a group and individual Masons had significant influence in America, at least at its founding. I think the influenced tended to fade as decades passed.

There are different currents of thought in Freemasonry. You have some Freemasons who want to wash their hands entirely of the idea that there’s an esoteric or occult philosophy underlying Freemasonry, or that there ever was, perhaps in the past. And then you have others who go to the other extreme and want to treat Freemasonry as this very mysterious hidden brotherhood, and I think neither extreme is true.

» EXPRESS: So, Freemasons aren’t controlling the universe right now?
» HOROWITZ: I don’t know why it is people always look for these sinister connections, as if Freemasonry must be this nefarious hidden hand that’s manipulating our politics and or our finances behind the scenes. I don’t think Freemasonry has any political influence at all in America today, but it did have an influence in the country’s founding — and I think it was of an entirely positive sort.

Photo by Becky Llanos