Summer travels off the interstate highways and onto byways, where vestiges of earlier American civilization(s) linger, often lead to passing visions of neglected, boarded-up, or refashioned Masonic Lodge buildings. Just as numberless Catholic church buildings have been deconsecrated, demolished, and remade into clubs and bars, or, most creatively, into churches for African-American congregations that are at home in inner cities, so these buildings speak of a lost past. And just as great numbers of mainstream Protestant church buildings meet similar fates because their congregants have moved on, to suburbs or to nowhere, so these edifices are abandoned. Masonry, though a secret society, made a public splash in countless communities; it now falls out of public consciousness to an unanticipated degree.
Press coverage of this decline has been sporadic. In some cases it has not been noted because not enough people cared to read about it. In other cases, as typified by Holly Lebowitz Rossi's article in the Dallas Morning News (April 15, reprinted widely since; see References, below) there is good coverage. Rossi celebrates the fact that the Shriners, a Masonic expression, find ways to continue supporting children's hospitals and other charities. The headline, however, shouts "On Wobbly Ground: Masons, Once a Bedrock of U.S. Culture, Face Aging, Declining Membership." Statistics: Membership has fallen from 4 million in 1959 to about 1.5 million today. Some picture death, before long, for such secret societies.
Read all the analysis and you will find that certain explanations stand out: 1) "bowling alone," citizens head for solitary enjoyments and shun communal commitments such as those offered by Masonry; 2) "boys' night out," once an old attraction, now has lost its cultural slot, as men need to or like to be home; 3) "nights out" suffer in general, as work has become portable and men find it harder to get away from cell phone- and laptop-"offices"; 3) "not our game": While the open warfare between Catholicism and Masonry is now in a cease-fire, armistice, or who-cares-to-fight-anymore phase, Catholicism, especially in the expanding Hispanic sector, has never shared Masonic culture; 4) "too staid": The quasi-religious (religious critics have called it Masonry's "religious" expression) is too wan in a time of noisier public evidencing of faiths.
Masonry is not alone in being a victim of such cultural changes. General Motors, Sears, Korvette, Marshall Fields, and hundreds of others were tied to one phase of the culture and could not readapt fast enough. While mainline Protestantism, with its cultural diversity, is not quite so closely wed to a waning part of the culture and adapts in many ways, where it does decline, the declines often parallel those in Masonry.
Now an abrupt end-note on the Zeitgeist: Recalling Dean Inge's old warning about how one soon becomes widowed if wed to the spirit of the times, it is time to ask about the future of currently prospering and often boasting leaders of religious movements that are overly tied to the new scene of pop culture, partisan political identification, and market-based choice of religious themes and strategies. Next time you pass a vacated Masonic building, think of the folly of swaggering today and ask: Who and what are next?
Holly Lebowitz Rossi's Dallas Morning News article may be accessed here: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/religion/stories/DN-masons_15rel.ART0.State.Edition1.22d46e68.html.
This article originally appeared on July 24, 2006.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Original Source: Sightings A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.