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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to take a very short field trip for a moment. I'm still in Washington, D.C., on 16th Street, standing in front of an amazing building, the House of the Temple, headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States. It looks like it could be at the Roman Forum. There are a couple of sphinxes on huge pedestals that flank the steps. It's evidently a careful knock off of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in modern Turkey.

Well, yesterday, we heard from author Dan Brown whose latest novel, "The Lost Symbol," is set in Washington, D.C., and it's all about Masons, and this temple actually figures in it. So what actually goes on inside? We went inside and met with Brent Morris, a mathematician by trade, who's now the editor of the Scottish Rite Journal.

Mr. BRENT MORRIS (Editor, Scottish Rite Journal): It's not a bad place for your club to hold its meetings.

SIEGEL: Not a bad place. A little imperial purple on the throne.

Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: In the center of the temple room…

Mr. MORRIS: Yes.

SIEGEL: …is an altar.

Mr. MORRIS: An altar. It's a large altar. On the front, in Hebrew: God said let there be light, and there is light. When a Masonic meeting is open, a volume of sacred laws open, representing God's revelation to men. When a man becomes a member, he is asked to place his hand upon the book that he considers binding on his conscience. It's not the book that's binding on my conscience.

SIEGEL: So there's a selection of books of your conscience.

Mr. MORRIS: A selection of books. We've got a Bible, a Bhagavad-Gita, a Pentateuch, the Zend-Avestas, the Sutras…

SIEGEL: Koran.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, Koran. This will cover, we figure, 99.9 percent, and if it doesn't, we'll get whatever's needed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So what's happening here is at some level spiritual. It relates to religion. It is not a religion.

Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely right. One thing that we did in 1717, when the modern Masons were organized from a stone guild, we made the very radical statement that men of different religions can agree that God exists. They can agree that God compels them to do good in the community, and then they can stop talking about religion.

SIEGEL: In "The Lost Symbol," there are scenes set right in this very room.

Mr. MORRIS: Where we're standing.

SIEGEL: Where we're standing. And there are initiation rites, which I gather are secret, wine drunk from a skull. Tradition?

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, that's - we can trace that back to an 1880 anti-Masonic expose. There used to be another branch of freemasonry in the United States or another branch of Scottish Rite Masonry in competition with us, known as the Carnot Scottish Rite because it was founded by Joseph Carnot, I think 1806. It's now dead. It's been dead for over a century. And they apparently used a skull and wine. It does not occur in the Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite or the Northern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite.

SIEGEL: Of course, you know, somebody is listening now and saying, well, of course he'll say that. He's not going to own up to it right here on radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: You're right. I mean, why should anyone trust me as a mason?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: The idea of Masonic secrecy has not always been funny. In the 19th century, the Vatican issued anti-Masonic encyclicals, one of them branding the masons the synagogue of Satan. Hitler ranted against the masons. But even some masons themselves have had fun with the orders' secrets over the years.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Magic Flute")

Mozart was a mason, and his opera "The Magic Flute" is full of Masonic references.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Magic Flute")

Rudyard Kipling was a mason. His story, "The Man Who Would Be King," was made into a terrific movie. It's a playful adventure story about masons.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Man Who Would Be King")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (As Rudyard Kipling) But, what particular interest you have in these scoundrels?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Well, they happen to be freemasons like myself.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Rudyard Kipling) Freemasons? Those chaps, I'd think you'd strike them off your roll.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Oh, once a mason, always a mason.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Rudyard Kipling) Never could understand how perfectly puck-o chaps like yourself can go about on public occasions wearing aprons and sashes, shaking hands with total strangers.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Just what is masonry, Kipling?

SIEGEL: Which is what I asked Jay Kinney who has written a book called "The Masonic Myth." Like Brent Morris and like an estimated 1.4 million Americans, Kinney is a mason - there were over four million in the 1960s - and while there are secrets to being a Mason, Jay Kinney says the boundaries of secrecy of masonry are not very clear.

Mr. JAY KINNEY (Author, "The Myth of Masonry"): A lot of masons sort of assumed that everything about the organization is a secret, and they just sort of clammed up, and that gave them a real reputation for being close-mouthed. However, the actual secrets that are not supposed to be revealed tend to be just the modes of recognition, which boil down to a few handshakes and hand gestures, and the specific wording of decree rituals. But beyond that, the symbology is all over the place. Masons have traditionally had it on aprons, on certificates, on coffee cups. You know, I mean, it's all out there, and it's all fair game to discuss.

SIEGEL: Here you have a fraternal order, more than a dozen of whose members became president of the United States over the history of the republic. Often, the temples are beautiful, fairly opulent structures. Often, well-to-do businessmen belong to this. Can you see where the idea, a myth that inside those walls, in those secret rites, those guys run the world? Can you see the germ of that idea that would appeal to suspicious, perhaps paranoid people?

Mr. KINNEY: Well, certainly. You know, and I think there may have been a smidgen of truth to that suspicion at one time. I think in some, particularly in probably smaller towns, you had the shakers and movers of the community who were masons, and you know, it provided a sort of private venue for them to discuss things. So I'm not saying that there's never been a sort of use of the connections within masonry among members, but obviously, on the whole, on the average, that's just not happening. It's not going on. You know, it's largely at this point a social organization that people enjoy each other's company, but there isn't any discussion of power politics or how we're going to run the universe in the lodge room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You don't have the secret stairs to go down and find the secret of life down there?

Mr. KINNEY: No, no. And you know, I'm…

SIEGEL: It's very disappointing to hear, actually.

Mr. KINNEY: I know. It is a little anti-climactic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: That's Jay Kinney, author of the book "The Masonic Myth."

And you can hear our interview with Dan Brown from yesterday's program at npr.org.

BLOCK: And we'll leave you with a more modern composition about the masons. If Mozart's "The Magic Flute" or the Kipling story aren't quite your cultural touchstones, this is "The Stonecutter's Song" from "The Simpsons."

(Soundbite of song, "The Stonecutter's Song")

Unidentified Group (Actors): (As characters) Who controls the British Crown? Who keeps the metric system down? We do, we do. Who keeps Atlantis off the maps? Who keeps the Martians under wraps? We do, we do. Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do, we do. Who robs cave fish of their sight? Who rigs every Oscar night? We do, we do.

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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