President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in Tuesday will incorporate several elements out of America’s Masonic past.
One-third of the signers of the Constitution, many of the Bill of Rights signers and America’s first few presidents (except for Thomas Jefferson) were Freemasons, a fraternal organization that became public in early 18th-century England.
Although it became fabulously popular in America, at one time encompassing 10 percent of the population, Pope Clement XII condemned Freemasonry in 1738 as heretical. The latest pronouncement was issued in 1983 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI - who called Masonic practices “irreconcilable” with Catholic doctrine.
Still, as the first president, George Washington had to come up with appropriate rituals for the new country. He borrowed many of them from Masonic rites he knew as “worshipful leader” of a lodge in Alexandria.
His Masonic gavel is on display at the Capitol Visitor Center. Until this inauguration, Washington’s Masonic Bible - on which he swore his obligations as a Freemason - was used for the presidential oath of office. President-elect Barack Obama will use Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.
The worshipful master administered the Masonic oaths. This was adapted to the president vowing to serve his country in an oath administered by the top justice of the Supreme Court.
I learned all this from Garrison Courtney, a 30-something government worker who gives Masonic tours of the District in his spare time. He is worshipful master at the Cincinnatus Lodge in Georgetown. Contrary to public perceptions of Masons being older white guys, current local membership is a racially and religiously mixed group of Gen-X men, he says.
They have, he adds, gotten a bad rap as a secretive organization.
“If people have questions, we will tell them,” he says. “We’re pretty open as an organization.”
Calling themselves a “spiritual organization,” Masons need only believe in a Supreme Being. Masons have grown nationally in recent years, he said, with 38 lodges in the District alone.
The late President Gerald R. Ford was the last presidential Mason.
“We actually had a Masonic procession to his casket while he was lying in state at the Capitol,” Mr. Courtney said.
The inaugural parade, he tells me, began as a Masonic procession [a parade of Masonic notables] from the still-unfinished White House to Capitol Hill, where Washington traveled on Sept. 18, 1793, to lay the cornerstone for the Capitol. Lafayette Park was the site of a makeshift Masonic lodge, in which the Scottish stonemasons - then working on the executive mansion - lived.
Washington also ensured the boundaries of the District - each 10 miles along - formed a perfect square, which symbolizes ultimate virtue in Masonry.
“The whole idea behind the building of Washington was to convey the message about the new experiment, a new way of thinking the Founding Fathers had in mind,” said Akram Elias, past grandmaster of all the District’s lodges.