Many are aware that discussion of politics and religion is frowned upon in Masonic lodges, but why? And when did this start?
Back in 1721, James Anderson was commissioned by the Grand Lodge of London to write a history of the Freemasons, and the resulting “Constitutions of the Free-Masons” contained a series of charges which dealt with rules of conduct for individuals and governance of lodges.
While Anderson’s Constitutions were not the first time these ideas were brought up, they are there, unmistakably and this particular document had huge impact on the Craft. Below is a picture from the 1723 printed edition.
Paraphrased in modern English: By all means, have fun brothers, but do not drink or eat too much. Particularly if it would prevent a brother from meeting his obligations, or cause him to say something offensive. To accomplish our purposes, we need harmony with easy and free conversation. Don’t bring personal arguments into discussion after lodge, and certainly don’t bring arguments about religions, countries, or state policies, because we are Masons – we are made up of all nations and languages, and don’t want politics (which never improved the welfare of lodges, nor ever will). This charge has always been followed, but particularly since the reformation of Britain, and since those nations left the Communion of Rome.
Notice that Anderson says that this had already long been practiced as of 1723. He’s saying that it goes back to the English Reformation back in 1532, so that’s….a long time. If it works, it works.
Because as any Senior Warden would tell you, harmony is the strength and support of all institutions, more especially this one of ours. Because Freemasonry is concerned with the unity of mankind, things which divide us are “not conducive to the welfare of the Lodge” as Anderson would put it.
The bit of what Anderson is saying that gets me the most is the part that deals with “easy and free” conversation, and this is specifically where he invokes harmony. I view Freemasonry as having a fundamental teaching purpose – to convey moral & philosophical lessons to the bretheren. And rapport in the lodge just makes sense as a key thing to maintain. In “easy and free” conversation, we can build bonds of trust and convey lessons to one another.
Imagine, by contrast, your feelings towards perhaps a Facebook friend, who is posting divisive political rhetoric. How do you feel towards that person? Would it be easy to learn from him or her?
Anderson’s injunction is about maintaining the harmony of the lodge, it is not a statement that Masons should not have political or religious opinions. Many choose a religion, and for important life reasons, many must have opinions on politics as well because political affairs drive wars, taxes, education and too many important issues to be ignored.
Outside of the confines of lodge though, it is an implicit reminder of how divisive these topics can be. If we think about the lesson of the Masonic trowel, it is clear that most discussions of these topics are probably not “using the trowel” so to speak. Words and choices have effects, and it isn’t for any person to say what you can and cannot say, but wise people need to consider carefully, always, what kind of effect they are trying to have with their speech.
By all means, discuss politics and religion outside of lodge. As to how to do that, to have positive effect – that will have to wait for another day, and perhaps a bigger discussion about the Trivium, the Fellowcraft degree, and Rhetoric specifically.
Let’s let one of brother Anderson’s original volumes take us out: