Freemasonry has had a pervasive influence on Anglo-American culture.
Usually open and generous in its racial and religious attitudes, there is one enormous exception to that rule: Roman Catholics.
Much of European and American politics over the past two centuries has involved an often-bitter confrontation between Masons and Catholics. Why is that?
Modern Freemasonry developed in the British Isles in the early 18th century. Devoted to the idea of brotherhood, it admitted anyone who could subscribe to belief in one God.
Christians, Jews and Muslims all qualified under that criterion, as did any Hindus who could assert that the various gods of that faith were manifestations of a higher monotheism. So why not Catholics?
Initially, the hostility derived from Catholics. Masons were quite happy to admit Catholics, but the Roman Catholic Church was highly nervous about what they saw as a Protestant-derived cult that taught radical ideas of broad religious tolerance.
Also arousing suspicion was the very strong ancient Roman dislike of secret societies on the basis that secret groups must have something wicked to conceal.
That assumption was all the more likely when the group in question demanded that its members swear oaths of secrecy, framed in astonishingly bloody terms.
Various popes sternly forbade Catholics from joining lodges. By 1917, a Catholic who joined a Masonic Lodge faced automatic excommunication.
At the same time, Masons became viscerally anti-Catholic and anti-clerical, and lodges became the foci of radical political movements aimed at undermining the established church.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Freemasonry became the principal vehicle for militant secularism and anti-clericalism.
Those struggles almost led to overt civil war in France in the late 1890s, and they actually did spark armed violence in Spain and Mexico in the 1930s.
In fact, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that if you ignore Freemasonry, you have no hope of understanding Mexican history over the past century.
Meanwhile, Masonic support of Jewish emancipation in Europe provoked reactionary denunciations of the “Masonic-Jewish” conspiracy, which was later expanded to include Bolsheviks. Masons came to occupy a primary place in Nazi demonology.
Matters were, of course, very different in the Anglo-American world, but Freemasons had a progressive bent. At least nine of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons.
Through the 19th century, Freemasons and Catholics remained at odds over such issues as Catholic Emancipation, public education and immigration.
Masonic lodges tended to be anti-Catholic and to be linked, explicitly or otherwise, to anti-Catholic mass movements. This rivalry existed at all levels of society.
Protestants enjoyed the great advantages of the Masonic order, in supplying mutual support in times of trouble, and also in creating invaluable networks in business, law and government.
Feeling themselves excluded, the growing immigrant population (mainly Catholics) created their own pseudo-Masonic counterparts, most successfully the Knights of Columbus, which dates from 1882.
Although not well remembered today, the great American popular movement of the late 19th century was the American Protective Association, which preached radical anti-Catholicism and prepared to resist a feared Catholic coup d’état.
Founded in 1887, the movement’s support ran into the hundreds of thousands at least, chiefly in the Midwest.
Its founder was Henry F. Bowers, a Freemason, who structured the movement on Masonic lines, with regalia, oaths and initiations.
The APA oath included explicit anti-Catholic commitments, such as: “I will never allow any one, a member of the Roman Catholic church, to become a member of this order, I knowing him to be such.”
Similar Masonic precedents marked the post-1915 Ku Klux Klan, which became a national U.S. phenomenon between 1921 and 1926, drawing perhaps 5 million members at its height.
And at this stage, the KKK was at least as heavily devoted to anti-Catholic and anti-immigration causes as to anti-Black racism.
The Klan found its local leadership in Masonic lodges, and especially among local clergy.
In order to appeal to Masons and other fraternal organizations, the Klan offered a rich mythology and heraldry, with all the mystique implied by its hierarchy of “Hydras, Great Titans, Furies, Giants, Exalted Cyclops, Terrors,” its distinctive secret language, and an elaborate system of progressive initiations, of signs and countersigns.
This political alignment created some outcomes that look distinctly odd today. If you look at Klan or Masonic literature in the 1920s and 1930s, you find a list of political concerns that look surprisingly “left-wing.”
Masons favored strict secularization in the public schools, as a bulwark against Catholic incursions.
They also fought hard against foreign interventionism while Catholics were pushing for armed U.S. intervention against the anti-clerical Masonic regime in Mexico, and later against the anti-clerical left in Spain.
In the U.S. and U.K., these interfaith tensions declined in later years, but they remained strong elsewhere.
This long and complex history has had political ramifications across the West.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR). He is the author of numerous books, including “Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses” (2011). A longer version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly, and is used with permission.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.”