- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Freemasons, the venerable “secret society” featured in blockbuster films “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure,” is back in the limelight — by choice this time — with a new attitude and a new marketing campaign to attract a new generation of members.

The group, one of the world’s oldest and largest secular fraternities, has been making an effort in recent years to “energize Masonry” and revitalize an aging membership using 21st-century media techniques — new concepts for the nearly 700-year-old group.

Maryland’s Grand Lodge this year debuted a radio spot encouraging men “ready to put your mark on this world” to visit the new group’s website, Askafreemason.org. Maryland Masons said the marketing push followed a similar membership drive in Massachusetts, which included television ads featuring an actor playing famous Mason Benjamin Franklin.

“We wanted to make an opportunity available for people to visit lodges and to find out more about what we are and what we do,” said Tom Foster, director of communications for the Grand Lodge of Maryland.

The fraternity has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. No solid facts are available about how or when the Masonic fraternity was formed, but historians generally believe that it arose from the stonemasons’ guilds formed during the Middle Ages. After the first recorded Grand Lodge formed in London in 1717, Freemasonry became popular in Colonial America, with Franklin, George Washington, Paul Revere and John Hancock among its more famous members.

Masons describe themselves as a fraternal organization dedicated to “making good men better.” The public image of the group includes a number of imposing architectural shrines in cities around the world and a tradition of public service and philanthropy that includes Shriners Hospitals for Children at 22 locations in North America alone.

But the murkiness of its origins, membership and rituals has given rise to critics, who have accused the organization of secret political and financial conspiracies and charges that the group is anti-Christian.

In the age of the book “Bowling Alone,” Masons have experienced the sharp membership declines that other civic and fraternal groups have endured in recent decades. A survey by the Masonic Service Association found that U.S. membership in the group was at its lowest point in 80 years — and was just half of the totals of the 1920s.

Maryland’s Masonic chapter began its public-awareness campaign last spring, following the lead of other grand lodges across the country that responded to a report released in late 2005 by a task force formed by the Steering Committee of the Masonic Information Center.

“Change is the one constant and Freemasons have done little to keep pace with change,” the task force concluded.

Members said one problem in reversing the decline was the organization’s traditionally passive approach to recruiting. Launching a public-awareness campaign is a way to communicate “the need to focus on making Masonry relevant to our changing communities and our 21st century lives,” the report said.

“The charms of Freemasonry are its age, ritual, customs, habits and traditions,” said Richard E. Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Information Center and a member of the task force. “We’re not trying to change that. We’re simply responding to the public interest and making sure to take advantage of the technology that’s available to talk about the fraternity.”

Masons also hope the campaign will help dispel conspiracy theories and misconceptions about the fraternity that “plague the country,” Mr. Fletcher said.

“We’re not a secret society,” said Mr. Fletcher. “We’re a fraternity that keeps part of our ritual secret.”

Mr. Foster said that any initial concerns about the changes from some of the members were easily overcome by the positive feedback from the public.

“There’s been a significant increase in petitions to join,” he said. “We’re at nearly double the petitions we had last year to date.”

He added that running advertisements and hosting open houses have made “a positive step in the right direction.”

Mr. Foster said there might not be a secret Masonic gold hoard hidden beneath New York City, as portrayed in “National Treasure,” but there is a “national treasure of Masons” that comes with Freemason membership.

“We have a saying that says, ‘Find your inner greatness,’” said Mr. Foster. “You can do that through Masonry.”