Sunday, March 10, 2019

Guest Article: "The Problem with Banning Politics and Religion" by WBro. Robert H. Johnson

I am honored to be publishing a really intriguing article touching one of the third rails of Masonry by a friend of mine, WBro. Robert H. Johnson, podcaster and wonderful all-around brother. Enjoy!

It’s one of the first things we’re told regarding the fraternity, whether due to the instruction of a new member or explaining some basics to the profane (uninitiated). “We don’t discuss politics or religion in lodge. It’s divisive.” We may also hear something along the lines of, “No two topics divide men like politics and religion.” The hope is by adhering to these “rules” a more unified organization emerges. We as members of this fraternity are intended to be brothers, not in title alone, but in the fullest import of the term. We are to cry with our brothers, rejoice with our brothers, to be intimately connected with them—to have Storge. Storge is the Grecian term for a familial love. C.S. Lewis considered it, “... responsible for 9/10ths of all solid and lasting human happiness.”

This love is of the utmost importance. It provides a basis for our relationships and gently guides us in our actions when interacting with our members. Unity is the goal. We cannot have men angry with each other and also be unified, not in the way we want. We want to promote a unified vision of making good men better, of uplifting the human condition and the conscious mind. Above all, we treat our members as family. We are a diverse collection of people, who all have different backgrounds, customs and beliefs. Just like in the profane world where we have biological families with beliefs different from our own.

In our various interactions with family, do we stray from the discussion of politics and religion? In recent times, that answer is “Yes.” According to a 2018 CBS poll the majority of Americans don’t talk politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Currently political opinions are more than divisive, they are accusatory, they are defining, they are misunderstood. Absolutely polarizing and disruptive. This is a trend that has reached fever pitch in 2019.

The apprehension, fear and trepidation we have as a society in terms of the discussion of our ideologies and other beliefs stems from some simplistic shortcomings.

When discussions of any type are taking place there is an inability of the average person to listen, think, and ask refining questions as to the ideas being proposed. We hear a few trigger words and our attention is immediately drawn to our own minds, instantly retorting, and taking a series of mental tangents. We’ve lost the ability to ask and listen, and repeat.
Once we’ve heard the position, we can then ask the person, “Can you tell me if I understand you correctly?” Wrap up the position as you understand it and get that persons approval--”Is this what you mean?”. Then, if you disagree, present your position. This is proper, polite and allows us to grow through the mutual expression of ideas.
Secondly, we have a problem with cognitive dissonance. This is the emotional aversion to learning something which may not support or which may be in complete contrast to an idea we’ve spent years believing in.
A man goes to prison for a murder ten years ago. Eyewitness testimony along with top investigative work was used in the man’s conviction. The idea that this man was guilty was something believed by the prosecution. His conviction was proof of his absolute guilt. Years later there is an appeal. DNA evidence is available and for the first time, our convicted man has a chance to prove his innocence. The case is reopened, the DNA is tested and his innocence is proven. The man is still convicted in the minds of the people who put him in prison. This is an example of cognitive dissonance. When we fail to acknowledge new information regardless of what it means for us, we fail to progress mentally and emotionally.
If we may learn to address these things as a society, then perhaps there is a chance at growth and effective compromise. This however, is only a start.

Addressing Our Vulnerabilities

We have an inability to admit vulnerability to our peers. Specifically, we won't admit when we don’t understand something. There is no shame in admitting that we don’t understand a political or religious concept to our peers.

We all have apprehension in this, because by admitting we don’t understand something, we’re egregiously labeled as something, whether that's a “bleeding heart liberal” or a “bible thumping conservative”, choose your own insult here. Instead of assisting someone to understand, we label them ignorant and a part of the problem. This is wrong.

Strengthening the Mind

We have a general illiteracy of mind which is only further weakened by an inability or a willful ignorance to try and understand better. This “try” is an action--an exercise which without its use atrophies our minds and the consequence is a blank slate by which politically charged media may imprint their own version of events.

Succinctly, this is an eisegetical subjective message which is presented on a network, whether conservative or liberal. It will promote a way of thinking or narrative which is designed to either win over a simple mind or solidify the existing belief of the observer. The only way to combat this is to practice your own critical thinking skills. It’s hard. We all know the dangers of sharing articles on social media without reading them, basing our share on a great headline. This is relevant because this is an example of not critically thinking, not reading, not absorbing the actual information for yourself.

Consuming Ideas

It was not always this way. There was a time before social media, before headlines were underscored with the number of minutes it will take to read. e.g. “3 minute read.” appearing under an article posted to Facebook. In the past we would need to get the paper or book, open it and read it. Digest it, talk to our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers in order to work the information over in our minds. To swish around the wine if you will. If we travel farther back in time, you could note that the title of books came at the end of the text. e.g. At the end of gospels, it might say something like, “This is the gospel according to John.” In this way, you would read the book, and then get a title. Today, we have a title and if not enticed by it, we pass it up.

In the days of yore, pre-internet, pre twenty-four-hour news coverage, I presume, evidence lacking, that we may have been better at discussion and critical thinking. Likely, because we had to be. Now we’re too busy to do our own research, to busy to form our own opinions and rely on what we trust to be accurate and objective news and information. Like Bing Crosby said in “White Christmas”, "everyone’s got an angle." You know who doesn’t though? You. Us. The only angle we might have is that of trying to understand and by our understanding, improve the outlooks and current conditions humanity is existing within.

What this does to the Fraternity

So why have we banned the topics of religion and politics within the lodge? They are divisive, yes, but only when we decide not to practice those first three pieces of the liberal arts and sciences. Those three arts whose foundation is predicated on faith in intent, hope in understanding and love of our Brother. The trivium-- Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, which are glossed over in lodges and emphasis is almost entirely given to the quadrivium.. But let’s be honest, how many truly study these when we’ve been told to? What I outlined above are just a few techniques on how we can begin to utilize the trivium in order to understand and hold polite discourse with an objective of finding common ground and solve our issues.

Freemasonry is said to be a Progressive Moral Science. So much of what we speak about within the craft is of a language unknown. While we maintain that we understand the words and meaning, the reality is that we do not. We infrequently look at the meaning of the words within the time the words were written. Words change over time and so do their meanings. WB Scott Dueball is well known in my home jurisdiction of Illinois of explaining this to our constituency. A wonderful example is the word “Condescension.” In current use it is something negative. When the word was written however, it meant something wholly different. It meant to meet on the level.

Where It Comes From

Let us look at the words, Progressive Moral Science in their contextual use--that is, how those words were meant when they were written. This exercise will enable us to comprehend whether or not we are truly acting according to the dictates of Freemasonry, something we often are
concerned with, in other words protecting the vision as laid out by the sacrosanct documents; The Ancient Charges and the Landmarks.

The word “Progressive” has since the 1600s, been used in the majority of the time to describe idealizm and moving it forward. While this may not be news to you, it will be news to those who say the word “Progressive” is only meant to convey that we “Progress” from degree to degree. Because it’s more likely the former, when we say a “Progressive” moral science, we are setting the tone for a purpose. That purpose is to enact a system by which we may influence an idealizm that promotes acceptance and, social reforms. This point is further supported when we look at the next word, “Moral.”  

The word “Moral” can be traced to the 1400s and its use there is one depicting the ideal of character and the ideas one displays in his day to day life. His behaviors are defined as his morality. As we progress in time, likely to about the period the language was used within our fraternity, the word changes very little. It’s now taken on not only the behaviors, but also the concept of customs. Finally in 1752 we see the use in order to describe one's principles, good conduct and confidence. Interestingly it maintains the idea of customs as well, which is very relevant when we consider that there are various customs the world over. Further, that each of these customs is of a subjective nature in the country from which they were born. E.g. Does one use the left hand for a greeting? And if so, is that “Moral” in the region in which the greeting was given?
This information supports the idea that the word “Progressive” means or is tied to “Social Reforms.”

Next we must look at the word “Science”. From the mid 1300s, we see it used to describe knowledge, the application of knowledge and learning. This has remained the case to this day.
By this exploration, one must necessarily ask ourselves how we would practice this Royal Art? Obviously we are going to run into a conundrum. Don’t see it yet? Let us continue.

The Conundrum Explained

There is a point where our governments have provided us leaders through the process of democratic means. These leaders are titans built on idealizm and funded by donations from constituents, lobbyists and by companies. These leaders give us the laws by which we are to live and yet, where do they get these laws from? Our laws stem from, in most cases, our philosophical take on life-- the majority of this is given to us through our various faiths, and at other times, it is derived from simply reflecting on the human condition.

Our political system as it exists has taken on idealizm given by our religious texts.To make matters more complicated, it’s largely based on the issue of interpretations of those texts. This is human nature, to make sense of things and to want to govern and rule with a set of ideas which one believes in, to impart the best way of living, to promote the aforementioned idea of unity.

By nature, a government is to address the issues of the people. Our United States constitution gives us the right to “[...] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” A sentiment similar in nature comes from Thomas Paine, in his book, The Rights of Man, in which he lists the role of government. In his case the British monarchy and parliament. “Government's sole purpose is safeguarding the individual and his/her inherent, inalienable rights; each societal institution that does not benefit the nation is illegitimate—especially monarchy and aristocracy.”

In order to assist the nation, a government takes it upon itself to address it’s social reforms, the “Progressive moral science.” Not surprising considering the Masonic connection to our country’s founding philosophy.

The Rub

So then, the eventual outcome is that religion has infiltrated the politics and has made the two inseparable. In addition the political system has taken on what the Masonic fraternity is charged to do. And, because these are now inseparable, we many not discuss the “Progressive Moral Science” in its proper context without violating our stand against the discussion of politics or religion in our lodges.

Today, if you tell me something you believe in, I can drop you into a bucket which would be labeled a broad definition of a political camp. Republican, Democrat but more likely, Liberal or Conservative, due to the extremism in America at the present. Alternatively, you could tell me which political party to which you are a member and I will guess your Religious alignment.

The Pew Research Center published a poll which gives us the data on this topic. Party affiliation has almost become the new religion due to the moral values which have been absorbed into the institution. A simple idea like assisting those less fortunate through a tax is Democratic and to support the those same people via voluntary donation is seen as Republican. The outcome is similar but the way we get there is different. The contention that exists is largely driven by the understanding of human rights as it pertains to our own property and its ability to be taxed or not, and a slew of other various philosophical minutia.

Returning to the beginning of this paper, I outlined a set of practices in which people could begin to hold social discourse and to work to understand each other. If we did this, could we then begin to talk about issues affecting society and raise more awareness than our tempers? I wonder if it’s okay to discuss in a tiled lodge, the safety of a group of local workers constructing a building? Could I do this in such a way, and organize a social program or even introduce a bill into local government to assist these workers? Could you use the Masonic lodge to speak to our benevolent minded brothers regarding a social injustice that’s happened in the community?

The answer is a resounding, “No.” There is a great confounding of politics and moral values. How do I know this? Because I have seen it shot down in lodge. Because I have seen men brought up on Masonic charges for attempting to practice the “Progressive Moral Science.” A simple idea to assist and organize something for the community, due to the local governments intellectual jurisdiction over all things relating to the welfare of her constituents is by nature political and as such, is banned from the local lodge. We’re left to donating money to benign causes. Donating money to organizations that do the work for us, and who likely contribute to the very politicians who promise to help. Have we abandoned Freemasonry’s original intent? Have we negated it completely? Or perhaps, is what we’ve been doing simply the best we can do since we’ve bound ourselves up?

A Charge

It’s my contention to assert a very real revelation. Directly, that by the exercise of removing our right to discuss politics or religion within a lodge, we have effectively neutered our ability to practice the Royal Art within the context of our original stated purpose. Abandoning our tradition, without ever even realizing it. On one hand we vehemently oppose changes to anything, on the other, we stand ignorant of what’s changed already and accepting of the limitations we put on ourselves.

If we are to take control and practice Freemasonry, then we ought to learn how to effectively communicate, listen, digest, ask further questions, listen again and comprehend. By this action, we may be able to have these discussions within a lodge and hence affect our local communities, truly working for the betterment of the human condition. Maybe even leaving the world a better version of what it was before we came into it. Perhaps instead of banning talk of a religious or political nature, we should instead train how to hold proper discourse?

Undoubtedly there is no recourse in separating political ideology from religious ideology. The bond is indissoluble. Perhaps rightly so. There are throughout the ages, philosophical discussions about whether humanity can have a set of morals without having a codified religious dogma from which it would be bourn. Again, two sides, who ardently disagree over the revelation of human rights, and morality.

In closing out this dialogue I wish to leave you all with an ask, and that is to be mindful. To listen before formulating a response and to attempt, however uncomfortable it may be, to see things from your fellow’s point of view. Walk a mile in their shoes, truly. Only through attempting this exercise in perception can we see the foundation of an idea all the same foreign to us, and from there, where we can align our values and endeavor to embody Unity. Then, we can practice Freemasonry’s Royal Art, the Progressive Moral Science.