To better understand American Freemasons, it is important to take into consideration the sociocultural context in which they have lived and evolved since the beginning of their short history. In fact, their markers and reference points are fairly different in many respects from those of their continental European brethren, especially those of Mediterranean cultures. This is truly the case despite the common sources from which Freemasons on both sides of the Atlantic draw. Since their beginnings, the first North American lodges incontestably bore the mark of the extremely singular context of New England, which some have outfitted with a very specific name that means exactly what it purports to mean: WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant).
The spiritual filiation of Pastor James Anderson, author of the Constitutions of Freemasonry, is undeniably interpreted with a zest, or added touch, of Protestantism that is quite different from the thought that prevails in Europe. This Christian spiritualist mind-set may be even more accentuated and underscored in light of the famous Morgan Affair, which we shall examine later in this chapter and which took place in nearby New York State in 1826 and left behind profound impressions. In a country whose motto is “In God we trust,” identifying oneself as a freethinker is poorly viewed, even today. This can be an inconceivable incongruity in the mind of an American Freemason, for whom the Great Architect, a notion of intangible reference, can be nothing other than God—a revealed god, in all cases. Secularism itself is a notion that is foreign to the American universe and, consequently, is quite difficult for the normally educated mind of the average United States’ citizen to imagine.
A poll taken at the beginning of the year 2001 by the Pew Research Center is quite significant in this regard. Seventy percent of the individuals questioned felt it was important for them that the president of the United States have religious convictions, whereas even the United States Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state. It is, moreover, because of the First Amendment guaranteeing the absolute freedom of religious practice, a legacy of the Mayflower, that this nation has such a profusion of sects and tiny religious groups of all sorts, more than anywhere else in the world.
This is displayed most notably by the proliferation of religious buildings, which also confirms the dominance of a consubstantial spirituality in America and which is in such sharp contrast with Europe that it cannot help but surprise visitors from the Old World. In this regard, it is also significant that 45 percent of the people questioned in that same 2001 poll stated that they attended a religious service at least once a week. However, American society is, by definition, dynamic; another poll taken in 2011 revealed that at that time almost one out of four Americans admitted that they did not believe in any god.
By considering all these elements, it is easier to see that Freemasonry and a variety of religions get along rather well in the United States. But, as nothing is ever simple, the relations of the Order with some ecclesiastical institutions are worth examining and are required for a more accurate evaluation. The debate on the separation of church and state figures, in a completely different way than in France, into the agenda of the causes certain Masons defend. The principle behind this appears evident in the museum of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in Washington, D.C.
The analysis of what distinguishes American religious spirituality and that of the United States’ Freemasons is so essential that it is crucial to devote several substantive assessments, backed up by citations from famous Freemasons, to this topic. Faith in God and the obligation to refer to a revealed deity are of such capital importance in American Masonic tradition that they form the veritable pivot around which Masonic doctrine revolves in this region. It therefore comes as no surprise that Albert Pike gave his major work of Masonic teaching the title Morals and Dogmas. One of the other best-known theoreticians of American Freemasonry, Albert Mackey, was also the author in the mid-nineteenth century of important reference works that still command authority today, such as his Lexicon of Freemasonry and his Symbolism of Freemasonry.
In 1908, Arthur Preuss analyzed this situation in his book Étude sur la Franc-maçonnerie américaine to cast “more light on American Freemasonry as a religion.” In chapter 4, we find this:
The idea of introducing Masonry as religion must appear so novel to a good many of our readers and the protests it will inspire will be so vociferous and prolonged that a little light shed on this matter will not be out of place. Let us allow Dr. Mackey to take the trouble to instruct us. . . : “There has been a needless expenditure of ingenuity and talent, by a large number of Masonic orators and essayists, in the endeavor to prove that Masonry is not religion. This has undoubtedly arisen from a well-founded but erroneous view that has been taken of the connection between religion and Masonry, and from a fear that if the complete disseverance of the two was not made manifest, the opponents of Masonry would be enabled successfully to establish a theory that they have been fond of advancing, that the Masons were disposed to substitute the teachings of their Order for the truths of Christianity.
“Now I have never,” he adds, “for a moment believed that any such unwarrantable assumption, as that Masonry is intended to be a substitute for Christianity, could ever obtain admission into any well-regulated mind, and, therefore, I am not disposed to yield, on the subject of the religious character of Masonry, quite so much as has been yielded by more timid brethren. On the contrary I contend, without any sort of hesitation, that Masonry is, in every sense of the word, except one, and that its least philosophical, an eminently religious institution—that it is indebted solely to the religious element that it contains for its origin and for its continued existence, and that without this religious element it would scarcely be worthy of cultivation by the wise and good. But, that I may be truly understood, it will be well first to agree upon the true definition of religion. . . .” This piety that could accommodate itself to any notion of God would be strange.1
And Preuss concludes by underscoring the reference to a revealed deity in that “this is sufficient proof that Masonry is not only religion, but it is clearly a religion,” a hypothesis he would develop more fully and strongly backed by supporting arguments drawn from American Masonic literature.
In chapter 18, he then asks:
Does American Masonry in fact form one entity with European Masonry? It is to be regretted . . . that this simple question has too often garnered equally simple answers, with no attention given to the fact that the same words can have very different meanings. The affirmative, just like the negative, is thereby exposed to serious difficulties. If one is dealing with a Catholic, if he refuses to accept that the identity of Masonry in Europe and the identity of Masonry in America are definitely two different things, it will be difficult for him to defend the procedures of his church that rejects all Masons without distinction . . . and excommunicate all American Masons, just like their European brethren. If, to the contrary, he asserts the identity of the two Masonries, he will inspire a storm of protests from Masons and non-Masons alike, and place himself in the position of having to explain the difference of mind and behavior that seems to exist between the two bodies of Masonry, with that of the continent being a fervent adversary of Catholicism, which is not the case with American Masonry. If both are one entity, how are we then to explain this difference?2
It could be tempting to expect that ways of thinking have evolved since the beginning of the twentieth century and to extrapolate the effects of secularization that can be seen almost everywhere in Europe into twenty-first-century America. But this is not the case whatsoever. Even while some obediences of the Old World have maintained the traditional obligatory evocation of the Great Architect of the Universe—which is the freely chosen case in more than a hundred lodges of all rites in the GODF—it is not at all a reference to a revealed god; there is still the longstanding difference with the American lodges, in which God is always placed at the pinnacle of Masonic philosophical thought.
This remains such a sensitive subject today that it continues to be the subject of booklets and position papers. For example, two high American Masonic officials of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris, devoted a book, published in 1997 by the Masonic Information Center, to this topic under the title Is It True What They Say about Freemasonry? In it we find, in the domain of religion, a refutation by one of the authors in response to one of the Order’s detractors. “Masonry is not my religion; Jesus is infinitely more important to me than the lodge. I have studied the Bible more than the Masonic ritual. . . . In fact, it was through the Masonic ritual that I became interested in studying the Bible.”3
This is a response that is difficult to imagine in Europe, including in the regular lodges. It quite simply reveals a certain American reality. However, the nature and the editorial origin of these writings leave no doubt as to their “authorized” nature.