The Scottish Rite Cathedral sits on the northern boundary of Indianapolis’ Mile Square, plopped down like a Gothic wedding cake on steroids, dominating a full block of Meridian Street. Every bit as impressive as the medieval European ancestors it was patterned after, it is a colossal monument of stone and symbolism— every measurement is a multiple of 3 or 33. Most city residents can drag up the name of the building from their memory, but what they can’t nail down is precisely what it is. “Scottish Rite Cathedral” vaguely calls to mind some sort of well-heeled orthodox church populated by kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing parishioners. The confusing truth is that the cathedral isn’t really a church, the “rite” isn’t a religion, and the whole thing isn’t even Scottish. The Scottish Rite is actually an appendant organization of one of the world’s largest, oldest, and best-known secretive societies, the Freemasons.
While the cathedral is the largest of its kind in the world and the grandest, most beautiful Masonic building in the state, it isn’t the Indiana headquarters of the fraternity. To find that building, you need to look a block south, on Illinois Street, at its frumpier, less dazzling, more Greco-Roman neighbor. You’ve probably driven past the austere, nearly windowless Indiana Freemasons’ Hall innumerable times and never noticed it. But in many ways, that’s like Freemasonry itself— hidden in plain sight, yet everywhere and easy to spot.
You might not have thought about the Freemasons in a while—or, if you’re under the age of 50, it could be you’ve never thought of them. Their noble roster has included Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, right up to local boys like astronaut Gus Grissom and Governor Frank O’Bannon. But in more recent times its reputation has been marred by a Baby Boom generation that distrusts any institution of its forefathers, and a pop culture wave that has turned anything related to Freemasonry into a mysterious, symbol-laden conspiracy.
I’ll come clean right up front: I am a Freemason here in Indianapolis, at Broad Ripple Lodge No. 643. In fact, you could say I wrote the book on Freemasons, because I did—Freemasons For Dummies, published in 2005. Yes, we Masons wear aprons in our meetings. Yes, we exchange secret passwords and handshakes. And no, I won’t tell you what they are. I’m no stoolie.
OFFICIALLY STARTED IN 1717 in London, the generally accepted theory is that the Freemasons based their fraternity on the structure and symbolism of the medieval stonemasons who built the cathedrals and castles of Europe. Others think they secretly grew out of the disbanded Knights Templar, the crusading order of warrior monks who rose to great power and wealth only to be hunted down and torched by order of the king of France in 1314. Older still is the mythological birth of the Masons going back to the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 1000 B.C. But modern Masons aren’t stonecutters. Instead, they took the tools and vocabulary of their medieval predecessors and used them as allegories for building character in men. Counting Washington, 14 U.S. presidents have been members. Masonic concepts of equality, democracy, and freedom of religion became part of America’s founding documents, and Freemasons were among the first promoters of public education. A century ago, one out of every 25 adult men in the United States was a Mason, and by the 1950s, there were just over 4 million of them. But the fraternity began to fall on hard times in the 1970s, and today, there are about 1.5 million Freemasons in the country; Indiana has about 71,000 members and close to 450 lodges.
Of course, the flipside of the story about Freemasonry is the “secret” part that gets so much hype in the marketplace. The graphic novel From Hell and its film version, for example, presented London’s “Jack the Ripper” murders as part of a Masonic plot to save the royal family from scandal. When The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, author Dan Brown had people peering into the darndest places in search of cryptic codes, peculiar patterns, and suspicious lineups of shapes and images. Brown’s book has sold on the order of 70 million copies, and the public’s insatiable interest in The Da Vinci Code has spurred nonfiction books, novels, documentaries, and movies about Masonic lore. Depending on whose breathless Web site you go to, the Masons are Satanic, anti-Christian, anti-American, founders of the Ku Klux Klan, or just part of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over publishing, banking, the world oil supply, and Hollywood. Whew.
The Masons have had centuries to get used to the conspiracy theories. The most common one goes back to accusations made after the French Revolution: namely, that the Masons are just the cheesy front organization for the really secret society of global control, the Illuminati, and their plan for universal takeover, the New World Order. Never mind that the Illuminati was a small group of intellectual bomb-tossers in late 18th-century Bavaria who were exposed to the public and disbanded after less than two decades. And that those oftquoted “New World Order” accusations come from mistranslating the Latin motto of the Great Seal of the United States, Novus Ordo Seclorum, which actually means “New Order of the Ages,” referring to the United States and its birth in 1776 as a democracy.
David Icke (rhymes with “sick”), an infamously paranoid Illuminati-buster from Britain, believes that Masons and the Illuminati are, in fact, a race of alien lizards who can change their shape at will and are softening up the Earth for the Really Big Invasion. Feverish fans on his Web site claim that Indiana is under the direct influence of the Illuminati. The symbolic illuminating torch of the dreaded, super-duper-secret Illuminati adorns the state flag of Indiana, as well as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (just like the one in the hand of that creepy, menacing symbol of the New World Order, New York’s Freemason-designed “Statue of Liberty Illuminating the World”). Just in case you wondered, the Indianapolis monument’s architect, German-born Bruno Schmitz, was—you guessed it—a Freemason.
SO, IF THE MASONS are such a malevolent association of Satanic miscreants and malefactors, why is it that in the 1950s just over 4 million American men were tripping over each other to get blindfolded and initiated? And more to the point, what would make a child of the ’60s like me want to become a Mason—possibly the most Establishment enclave you could find?
Nearly 10 years ago, my wife and I were sitting in a motel room outside of Dallas. Her father, Bob Funcannon—a minor celebrity in Indianapolis whose booming voice was heard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 30 years when Tom Carnegie wasn’t on the PA—had just passed away. My wife recalled that her dad was a Freemason, and that they did some sort of funeral service for their members.
I picked up the phone and dialed every Masonic lodge I could find. It was late on a Sunday, and I was more than a little surprised when a lodge janitor picked up the phone. He said that the Masons did indeed perform a service, and left me with the vague promise that he would see what he could do.
The next day, when the tiny group of my father-in-law’s neighbors and family so far from his life in Indianapolis filed into the funeral home, we were joined by 10 Freemasons—men who didn’t know him, had never met him, and weren’t even sure if he was a paid-up member. Yet here these men were, introducing themselves as his Masonic brothers. Their service was incredibly moving (far more than the rented minister who kept mispronouncing his name). I did a lot of thinking on the flight home, and before we landed in Indy, I decided I had to be one of them.
Men join the Masons these days for a lot of different reasons. The generation raised on the mythical Lord of the Rings stories and the chivalric Jedi Knights of the Star Wars saga seem to be looking for similar legendary codes of honor and conduct in real life, and they are finding them in Masonic lodges.
What makes this a curious sociological development is that these Boomerangers and Gen Y’ers are lining up to join one of the most traditional, moral, patriotic, and, well, stuffy clubs you could name. While it is true that millions of dollars every day go to Masonic charities, if you are looking for a feel-good charity, the United Way does a better job of spreading cash around the community. And while the Masons encourage their members to not be strangers at their churches, temples, or mosques, Freemasonry isn’t a religion. What Masonic lodges are doing is something that has been lost in society for a long time: They are making gentlemen, as quaint as that might sound these days. They encourage local community involvement, personal charitable contributions, and spiritual as well as intellectual growth. In short, the Masons really are trying to take over the world, but not from some secret room buried in the bowels of the United Nations. They are trying to do it one man at a time.
The imposing limestone pile that is Indiana Freemasons’ Hall, home of the state’s Grand Lodge, is about to undergo a transformation as well. Thousands of drivers who speed past the building at North and Illinois streets every day will soon see a new entrance, as well as dramatic exterior lighting designed to make sure Indianapolis knows the Masons are still alive and well. Its auditorium has recently been reopened after 40 dark, dusty years, and several local arts groups have been on its stage already. With its two ballrooms, stages, multiple meeting rooms, and century-old details, it’s becoming a stone-and-marble metaphor for the new interest in the fraternity.
A series of Masonic television commercials featuring Benjamin Franklin have recently appeared across the state—something that was unheard of until recent changes in the longstanding rules forbidding Masons from recruiting others. And the Internet has had a powerful impact on the fraternity, as petitioners often arrive at their new lodges knowing more about the organization’s history than many of its longtime members.
Nevertheless, there remains a small, but vocal, coterie of non compos mentis nutbags who think the Masons are a race of shape-shifting reptilian aliens, hell-bent on world domination. And while Indianapolis seems like an unlikely staging area for the New World Order, the alarmists point to the three flat-topped pyramids (a Masonic symbol) at College Park and the All-Seeing Eye of the Children’s Museum logo as proof. Since the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was designed by a Freemason, I suppose it’s entirely possible that it was really constructed as an intergalactic beacon to guide in the mother ship when the Illuminati’s invasion of Earth begins. That’s just plain silly. But then again, that’s just what you’d expect a Mason to tell you.