As narrow and divisive voices rise, we must adhere to and defend the great Scottish Rite lesson of toleration.
In an earlier Grand Commander’s Message (“Great Expectations,” June 1998), I mentioned the Masonic Information Center’s new booklet “Get a Life: Thoughts on Freemasonry and Religion.” I hope you have had a chance to read this publication. It sets out in clear and simple language the differences between Masonry and a religion. The differences between a fraternity and a religion are instantly and completely clear to me and, I would hope, to any Mason. It seems impossible that anyone could confuse the two.
But on occasion some religious zealots still loudly and constantly claim that Masonry is not only a religion but also some kind of pagan religion. In order to “prove” this they usually deliberately misquote Albert Pike, either by taking his words out of context or changing his meaning by adding words of their own or by omitting words from what Pike actually wrote. If you do that, you can make anyone say anything you want them to say. The more we hear these narrow voices raised to battle pitch, the more we must adhere to and defend the great Scottish Rite lesson of toleration.
This profound lesson of toleration is implicit in the teachings of the Blue Lodge and is made explicit in the teachings of the Scottish Rite. It can be very simply stated: I do not have a right to tell you what you should believe, and you do not have a right to tell me what I should believe.
Men of all faiths are welcome in Masonry. That fact has led some of our more unthinking critics to shout that Masonry claims all religions are equal or that one religion is as good as another. Not so! That is a judgment a fraternity cannot make and has no business making. What we do claim is that everyone has an equal human and civil right to follow the dictates of personal conscience and of his or her own faith without interference. What we do teach is that no religious or, worse yet, civil authority has the right to say, “You must believe thus and so, or else.”
No one should be “persuaded” of any religious truth by use of the rack or the stake, or by threat of political, social, or economic persecution, or by any means by which men have bullied others against their will. What we as Scottish Rite Masons do demand is that no law shall ever be passed which tries to work in favor of one religion and against another. And that is not new. Brother George Washington insisted on this principle, as did Brother Benjamin Franklin and the many other Masonic Brethren who helped form and then build this nation.
From time to time, this means confronting, as we have in the past, those who would destroy toleration in favor of intolerance. Toleration is always in danger from the darker side of human nature. It is easy to be tolerant of someone who agrees with us. It is less easy to be tolerant of someone with beliefs we personally consider wrong. That, in modern jargon, is where “the rubber meets the road,” where our commitment to and understanding of the great principles of Scottish Rite Freemasonry are tested. That is where, to paraphrase Brother Voltaire, we must proclaim: “I disapprove of what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to believe it.”
Of course this is not easy. No one ever said that being a Scottish Rite Mason is easy. It is a constant challenge to commit to building bridges rather than walls. In some ways the hardest of all things to do is to give to others the same freedoms we demand for ourselves.
But our Masonic forefathers understood that no one is free unless everyone is free. No one is secure unless everyone is secure. If I deny you the right to follow your conscience freely, sooner or later someone will deny that same freedom to me. Toleration is fundamental to the next century if we are to avoid more bloodshed than has ever marked our planet in the past. May every Scottish Rite Mason be, as his obligations require, a champion of that toleration.