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Is the Overall Decline in Membership the Herald of Profound Changes?

An update is called for at the end of this quick scan of the history and singular features of the Masonic order in America: Freemasonry of the United States has recorded a significant decline over the past several decades. This is an implacable reality, even if the rate of this shrinkage is currently experiencing a slowdown. At the end of the Second World War, we saw a tangible increase in membership, which reached a height of four million Masons in 1957. In 1964, the arrow on the chart began pointing downward at an annual rate of 3 percent, and by the year 2000, membership was already no more than two million.

These figures are smoothed over and cover realities that vary from one state to the next. California, the fourth largest Masonic reservoir after Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas, has lost 42 percent of its brothers between 1998 and 2010, while the grand lodge of the state of New York has recorded a decline of 34 percent, and that of Montana is only 5 percent.

The total number on December 31, 2013, was estimated to be 1,300,000. Out of the entire population of the United States, the average ratio remains 0.4 percent, which is comparable to that of European countries, which in the best of cases never goes higher than 0.25 percent. Nobody will contest the significant decline in the number of American Masons. But what some are quick to label a “descent into hell” is worth putting into perspective and can be explained by several parameters.

The first parameter is of an almost universal order and touches on a social phenomenon that has produced a general estrangement that affects group activity within a context of many competing demands of all kinds. In American society, where the individual tends to be judged, with a strong dose of pragmatism, on his or her achievements and work performance, the place made for philosophical commitments has been necessarily reduced. Furthermore, the original social function of American Freemasonry, which has long made up for the deficiencies of the government in regard to social, sanitary, medical, and educational matters, has recently been assisted, in some aspects, as the result of protective legislations enacted by the Obama administration. Certain traditional niches of activity occupied by the American brothers and their lodges have been fortunately taken over by arrangements modeled on the social safety net that Europeans have long enjoyed.

But these arguments cannot fully explain everything. After a prolonged analysis of Freemasonry’s evolution, reflecting on what distinguishes and sometimes opposes French and American Masonry, with their two fundamentally different notions of the Order, it is clear, with no arrogance intended, that French Freemasonry in all its elements, as opposed to its trans-Atlantic counterpart, continues to inspire an unfailing interest among people, including the young, who are flocking toward the lodges of the different obediences. Of course, the strong constraints imposed by daily life, as well as the impact of greater equality between the sexes, lead the profane to knock on the door of the temples a little later than was the case a few decades past, but the flood remains and, this is undeniably more important, the diligence as well.

This now consistent numerical erosion of the Masonic entity in the United States, while it seems to delight certain denigrators given to analyses lacking all subtlety, cannot nor should not be a matter of indifference to Masons elsewhere. In fact, everything that saps the strength on any one Masonic entity is harming the whole of Freemasonry on a universal scale. So it is no longer a question of taking satisfaction in a display of Schadenfreude and thinking that the space thus freed could simply be occupied by those who have a more progressive vision of the Order. This is a notion that is, moreover, quite bizarre—one that no one could confuse with the progressive nature of the initiatory process and which could provide the subject of more extensive considerations already studied elsewhere, as the confusion of the terms could lead straight into veritable misunderstandings and not only semantic ones.

The Demographic Pressure of Immigration and the Difficulty in Predicting Its Effects

Since the arrival of the first European colonialists in the sixteenth century, more than fifty million immigrants have settled in the United States. Until 1940, the vast majority of immigrants came from Europe. Their numbers were small until the 1830s, but they began arriving in more massive numbers from 1840 to 1850, initially the British and Irish. Immigration expanded in the final quarter of the nineteenth century to include people from the countries of Mediterranean Europe (especially Italy) and Central Europe (often the Slavic countries). More than twenty-three million immigrants flocked to America between 1880 and 1920.

Starting in the 1920s, the United States, wishing to put the brakes on immigration, established a system of quotas. The economic crisis of the 1930s only reinforced this tendency. A new form of immigration developed after the Second World War. These immigrants were mainly political refugees from Eastern Europe, anti-Castro Cubans after 1960, and Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians) after 1974.

Today, immigrants essentially come from third world countries: Latin America (primarily Mexico) and Asia (Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so forth). In the 1990s, a new migratory current appeared that came from the former Communist nations in Europe. Moreover, illegal immigration has probably become larger than legal immigration. This, by definition, remains difficult to quantify, and the numbers are based on questionable extrapolations. It is commonly accepted that this has increased since the 1990s because of the economic downturn that affected Latin America, because more than half of the clandestine immigrants come from Mexico.

In a country that establishes statistical differences that the European nations condemn, more than thirty-four million black Americans were recorded in the 2000 census. Latino minorities now represent more than thirty-eight million people in the United States. A name distinction is established based on the native region or country. Hispanics is the generic term for those who speak Spanish, while to designate Americans of Mexican origin specifically, the term Chicanos is sometimes used. During the closing decade of the twentieth century, the Hispanic majority grew by 58 percent while overall demographic growth was only at the rate of 13.4 percent.

Hispanics have therefore become the largest minority group in the country, slightly larger than the black community. They are concentrated in the western and southern United States, with half of this number in Texas and California, but their communities are growing visibly larger in the states of Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. Mexicans (or Chicanos) form the largest group (58 percent), but their proportion is shrinking as more immigrants arrive from the rest of Latin America, including South America and the Caribbean.

Regarding the white majority, Latinos have chosen to define themselves as a nonwhite minority. Asian immigrants, whose number was no more than 1.5 million in 1960, are now at five million, with the Vietnamese and Cambodian communities representing the lion’s share of that increase. Asian immigrants tend to cluster on the West Coast. For example, more that 70 percent of Japanese immigrants live in California and Hawaii, while more than half of the Chinese live in California and New York.

The most recent demographic projections forecast there will be a total of 420 million inhabitants of the United States in 2050. This population would include close to 105 million Latin Americans, 60 million African Americans, and 35 million Asian Americans. In less than fifty years, the American white demographic will thus be reduced to only 53 percent of the total United States population. And from 2050 to 2090, their part of the population is projected to shrink to less than 30 percent.

The keepers of a society that has been traditionally based on the WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) have good grounds to question their prospects in a changing melting pot. The American sociologist Herman Sullivan has already sought to replace this notion with five categories arising from American immigration: he establishes a distinction between assimilation, acculturation, domination, a cultural two-party system, and segregationist rejection. The limits of this book do not allow me to venture further into this approach, but it is interesting in more than one respect, as it is the reflection of the real America and projects us toward that of tomorrow. It is easy to see the serious challenge that will confront Freemasonry in the profound upheaval of a society that will then be constrained to build with totally exogenous and polymorphous contributions and will be forced to face the rising power of the religious sects that are brought in and spread by Latino immigrants. These sects have often been given new life by their importation into a Latin America that has lost interest in traditional Catholicism. The American spiritual constant finds here a new dynamic whose possible effect on Freemasonry, however, remains difficult to gauge in this large country in perpetual motion.

On another level, but one that is not entirely neutral, it has already become difficult today to claim that the United States is still a monolingual nation given the fast progression of Spanish that, despite its uneven progress depending on the state, has allowed it to pose a significant challenge to the monopoly of the English tongue. Even if right now there is nothing dire in a correlation between these changing American demographics and their various consequences, as projected today by the sociologists and forecasters, we are not seeing members of these new groups—which could have been a source of regeneration for Freemasonry—flocking to the lodges. Therefore we can’t foresee that they will have enough of an impact to make a difference on American Freemasonry. What we see here is a challenge that is entirely specific to the United States, which is paying the price of a fascination with the American dream on the part of many people in a good part of the planet, first and foremost the often disinherited populations living in the intra-American continental environment and, to a lesser degree, the Pacific.

Because of these changes in demographic perspectives and the effects they are causing, and the more extreme effects they will cause tomorrow, it is important to consider the evolution of American Freemasonry, and not merely in quantitative terms. What will be the consequences of the expected influx, which is already forming a heavy burden? Will the American Masonic order be able to prove itself up to the task of integration, which is one of the constants of this nation? Or, to the contrary, will the forecasts of Herman Sullivan of an increased partitioning of America find a counterpart in American Masonry, whose numbers are far from being the largest in the world?

Already in this last regard, it is important to put the numbers into context and compare them by drawing in several parameters that will permit a fairer evaluation. In fact, in many cases, the numbers are perfectly illusory. While the nominal membership lists remain fairly substantial, we saw earlier that American Masons, quite often, after entering the lodge, or as we would say “following their initiation,” are hardly diligent in their attendance. Rarely are members removed from the rolls for lack of diligence, and this is already a non-negligible element of distortion in the analysis of statistics in comparison with those of European Masonry. It is, therefore, important to focus our attention not so much on the number of brothers the grand lodges boast but rather on the broad tendencies that Paul Bessel’s studies have revealed.

Today, numbers would rather have the tendency to make way for quality, as shown by the debates conducted by the grand lodges in February 2014. In fact, for the first time they have dared to cross the Rubicon and, as indicated earlier, center their discussions on formerly taboo subjects. For example, they are assigning themselves the mission of working together to restore a civic spirit and claim the role of moral compass by placing Masonic virtues in the forefront. Freemasons are thus becoming players in the social debate, claiming their vocation is to be some sort of think tank and announcing the plan to make themselves heard in the agora, so as to make a difference!

What is happening today is not the result of simple chance. What is at work here is that American Freemasons have attained duties on which they have founded their ambition to commit the Order to a path of renewal and openness based on unadulterated Andersonian fundamentals. Already, in discussions between the Grand Lodge of California and myself in May 2013, mention was made of reorientations that caught my attention. In fact, “observance lodges” have recently appeared on the scene. Their distinguishing feature resides in practices that are strangely close to those of lodges in France: the introduction of “boards” and oaths that had been totally prohibited before in the United States; passage through the Chamber of Reflection before initiations, which are not only an “entry” into the lodge; boards of initiation impressions; instruction cycles for apprentices, journeymen, and masters with the help of teaching software on a special Internet site (to make up for the inadequacies of the officials who should fulfill this duty and are not always capable); and an increase in the duration between moving to higher grades. However, all conflictive discussions remain prohibited in the lodge. They take place in the wet room and are already no longer restrained only to aspects of symbolism. This cannot help but open the way to an ad libitum consideration of social questions.

This rule had not yet been retained at the conference in Baltimore at the beginning of 2014, but it cropped up everywhere in discussions. And even if delegates at that time did not adopt the suggestion for a vote by the grand masters on a resolution regarding this direction, we are clearly witnessing a significant reorientation today. It will influence the historical direction of American Freemasonry, which has just taken a significant step. Despite doctrinal differences, this offers a platform on which all Masons (whom I will simply label as those of goodwill) can work together. This is far from a trivial change when we know that the classic American system barely encourages the work in the sense that we understand it. The only thing that counted until this time was the inner temple.Most often, entry into Masonry translates into a couple formalities, and the discharge of a modest capitation for life guarantees one continues to appear on lodge rolls without any obligation for diligence or even attendance at a meeting. Under these conditions, just what would the nominal membership numbers presented earlier actually mean?

Those who rub shoulders with the top officials of the obediences and jurisdictions of the American high grades like the Scottish Rite Research Society of the Southern Jurisdiction, as well as the American brothers of the strictest and most demanding symbolic lodges, will qualify their judgments. These fraternal relationships outside the temple give us grounds to confirm the great intellectual and moral qualities of our “separate brothers” as well as their often quite enviable degree of erudition. They make no secret of their ambitions to work for a renewal entirely worthy of the American traditions that the famous phrase “Yes we can” sums up so well and to also provide the means necessary for its realization. There are more than simple subtleties here that should commit everyone to be more attentive to this. As we can see, on a more global level, Masonic movements that can be compared to the shifting of tectonic plates. These are all excellent reasons to not let internal biases get in the way of what is actually happening in the North American Masonic galaxy here and now.

But the stakes in play are already leading us to tomorrow. I have just sketched out some of the principal considerations that should concern us, relying on recent objective data. To return to the present and pursue thoughts of the estrangement from which American Masonry is suffering in all its parts, and this is not to dismiss anything from the preceding observations, let’s stop for a moment and look at the possible factors for the origin of this estrangement.

The absence in all American lodges of any analytical debate touching on civil society—and the uncoupling that results in relation to this—could clearly constitute, outside any other consideration, the beginning of an answer to the veritable crisis of diligence and the vocation of initiation that is crisscrossing the majority of American lodges. Hence, the major interest aroused by the reorientations mentioned earlier. The extremely constraining and restrictive reading of Anderson’s Constitutions and Landmarks, as well as of their obligations, by the American grand lodges (of which we can also sense a still-stuttering beginning of an ad libitum reading) forms a powerful brake to the extent that no debate on fundamentals can be introduced into the lodge.

Even though the history I have unspooled in clips, and certain cultural indicators, have allowed me to explain American Masonic intralodge discourse (or lack thereof), it is so out of sync with how contemporary American society operates on a tradition in which ideas are debated that it cannot help but come as an even greater surprise to the outside observer. This is likely one of the decisive factors for the disinterest that translates into a shortfall of requests for joining and chronic absenteeism. With the exception of a few avant-garde lodges (and they do exist), we are only beginning to detect the shudders that still have trouble finding expression in the resolutions of the obediences, as we have seen confirmed in the last Conference of Grand Masters.

A fainthearted conservatism, which stands out in stark contrast to the innovative spirit of the society taken as a whole, has taken possession of American Freemasonry. It therefore labors against a younger generation of a more cosmopolitan mind-set. The weight of the old guard, and to a certain extent the United Grand Lodge of England (“Keeper of the Truth”) as well, forms an obstacle that has yet to be surmounted. Resolutely launching an attack here would presume a ferocious desire to attain that. Woe to those today who expose themselves by acting too audaciously and find themselves defenseless and working in a minefield! Who, moreover, would want to do this? It is this realistic attitude and this freely and reasonably adopted restraint that makes it possible to better grasp the slow pace of the developments that have been triggered. They need to be considered over the long term. We should never lose sight of the sociocultural context permeating American Freemasons, whose rhythms are different from those of European Masons.

If we tackle the Masonic question from the angle of international relations, this slow evolution is a source of hope as it heralds a leap forward, as does the realization—by some of the youngest brothers on taking on official responsibilities—that a common legacy and universally shared initiatory values truly do exist independent of the evolution of specific doctrines for the different obediences. This is something we have seen by analyzing the principal signals that have been revealed by the matter of research, and scholarship in particular.

Still, timidly but realistically, an informal dialogue has been unfolding, initially brother to brother. There are some 150 Masons of the GODF working in the five chapters of this obedience in the United States and Canada, especially those of the high grades of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. These Masons are particularly well positioned for historical reasons, and, appropriate to the rite (which can easily be labeled Franco-America throughout its history), they have a natural part in this. They are better armed to foresee, sense, and observe, but most importantly to become partners in the possible developments.

The men and women of the GLFB to the Grand Lodge George Washington Union who work in concert with the North American obediences with which they have established friendships will also have their role to play here.

The purpose of these contacts is historical research, exchanges, joint publications, conversations, and sometimes even a white robe meeting open to outsiders when a lodge feels sufficiently bold. I have seen and experienced such experimental actions conducted in the field over the past twenty years, without any useless media racket, but also without any grounds to make them a mystery. I was invited by the lodge Potomac n° 5 of the Washington, D.C., orient as a speaker to deliver an opening address, something that the American brothers were not accustomed to but which they allowed and welcomed with more than simple curiosity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this was a non-negligible turning point and the start of a reciprocal consideration. I have also mentioned the seminars that the Grand Lodge of California has held since the beginning of the previous decade.

From the East Coast to the West Coast, windows are opening this way. For the first time in a long time, dialogue has been opened by timidly avoiding the doctrinal issues that are a source of irritation. None of these sporadic initiatives have taken as an objective the search for institutional recognition. The innovation of this original dialogue is deliberately situated in a timeless space following the example of the approach taken by Albert Pike in his era. He was the wisest of the wise, an incontestable bearer of a universalist Masonic ambition that has gone astray in the meanderings of a long Masonic river in which he encountered so many shoals. The various entities and “Masonic streams,” as our American friends like to say, have evolved like the societies that carried them. There has been a drift of Masonic obediences and jurisdictions just as there was once a drift of continents.

We know from Senegalese anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop that African man set off to spread over all the continents, of which he gradually took possession by adapting to their different environments. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss opened our minds to the fruitful intermixing of men and their cultures. Galileo, although forced to abjure, also taught us that the Earth revolved, no matter what the doctrines of a given time said. Freemasons, perhaps more spontaneously than all men, would be well inspired to learn to take possession of their space in a world that is more multipolar and polymorphous than ever and to learn to live in harmony with the universal principles that have been the foundation of their approach since the beginnings of the seventeenth century.

Masonic families are certainly born from the evolutions experienced during what will soon be three centuries. The plasticity of liberated Masonic thought renders distinguishing features consubstantial to our approach; if it is a source of wealth through the diversity of opinions, it is also the source of our weakness when we have the ambition, with the best intentions in the world, to “gather what has been scattered.” Obediences and jurisdictions therefore assert that the regularity and sovereignty of each of them is legitimate. Taking this into consideration, each of them lives the way it deems best in its narrow sociopolitical, cultural, and geopolitical environment.

It would definitely be fanciful to set one’s heart on seeing everyone find agreement on a unique body of doctrine, which would be that of a reductive Masonic orthodoxy. It cannot exist, because instead of being the center of union, it would be the smallest common denominator. On the other hand, the Masonic heritage, rich through its great diversity, forms a common platform on which, proceeding by touch, tomorrow’s Freemasons of goodwill could build. In this way they could contribute together toward the improvement of the individual and society, but each in his own way, in the full respect of identities and on the duration of a long history. Don’t we say when forming our chain of union that we are enrolling into the lineage of the ancestors who preceded us? They are our ancestors, whom we all revere, the “children of the widow.” Let us make it so the universal chain of union is made richer with new links, and those who follow us will enter the richness of their fruitful variety. American Freemasonry reveals so much potential that there is no reason to skimp on it.

French and American Freemasons, let’s not forget the heritage bequeathed us by Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin! It is high time that we became more productive together by sharing our common legacy as well as our fine and generous ambitions with all Masons of good will!

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