SCOTT SIMON, host:
Secret codes, hidden treasures, plots to take over the world. Those are just some of the conspiracy theories that have surrounded Freemasonry for centuries.
(Soundbite of movie, "National Treasure")
Unidentified Man: The most spectacular treasure in history. It grew throughout the ages and moved across continents until it was hidden by America's founding fathers, who left clues to the treasure's location right before our eyes.
SIMON: The Hollywood film, "National Treasure," was all about Masonic secrets or alleged thereof, but as NPR's Rachel Martin reports, there's a new generation of Masons trying to dispel those rumors and bring Freemasonry back to its roots.
RACHEL MARTIN: In the 18th century, the word on the cobblestone street was that the Freemasons were an occult group promoting a pagan agenda through the American government. After all, members themselves call Masonry "the craft." And the Masonic founders of this country built the roads around the Capitol in the form of a five-pointed star, a pagan symbol. And there is that seeing-eye pyramid on the dollar bill, a known Masonic sign. But the reality of Freemasonry sounds less like this.
(Soundbite of movie "National Treasure")
Unidentified Man: The clues of 10 generations...
Mr. NICHOLAS CAGE (Actor): (As Ben Gates) There's more to the riddle.
Unidentified Man: Will reveal a mystery 20 centuries in the making.
MARTIN: And more like this.
Unidentified Woman: So grab a plate and have something. Can I get you chicken?
Unidentified Man: Yes. Gravy?
Unidentified Woman: You want more?
Unidentified Man: No, this will be fine.
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
MARTIN: The Scottish Rite Masonic Hall in Washington, D.C. is full of elderly men dressed in suits and ties, some in tuxedos, with squarish hats - some purple, some red - set atop their heads. They're here for an annual ceremony to honor the Masons who've passed away in the last year. The event starts with a nod to the Masons' patriotic roots.
(Soundbite of "Star-Spangled Banner")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed...
MARTIN: Then a list of names is read commemorating 65 brothers who have died, or as the Masons say, journeyed on to the celestial lodge.
Unidentified Man: Hobson H. Heather(ph), 32nd degree K.C.C.H., August 5th, 2006. Robert B. Ackers(ph), 32nd, December 30th, 2006.
MARTIN: But while the World War II generation that makes up the bulk of Freemasonry membership in the U.S. is passing away, a new generation of Masons is picking up the torch.
Mr. ALAN PATTERSON (Senior Warden, Naval Lodge No. 4): All the stuff you see on the Internet, you know - from devil worship to sacrificing virgins - I always, I joke, I say, you know, we do have a couple of New York Yankee fans, but I guess they weren't considered Satan. Yeah, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: That's 39-year-old Alan Patterson. He and some of his Masonic brothers talked with me in the dining hall of Naval Lodge No. 4 on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. He's an I.T. manager and the first African-American to be a senior officer in this lodge.
Unlike older masons who joined because their dads did, Patterson is the first Mason in his family. During rituals, he and other officers wear large silver neckpieces, which they call their Masonic bling. And while they discount the conspiracy theories, they clearly enjoy the idea.
Thirty-six-year-old David Johnson is the junior warden of this lodge.
Mr. DAVID JOHNSON (Junior Warden, Naval Lodge No. 4, Mason): And it's not that we're, you know, sitting in here, polishing the Holy Grail every Thursday night when we meet, or anything like that.
MARTIN: But wouldn't that be cool if you were?
Mr. PATTERSON: Oh, yeah.
Mr. JOHNSON: No, we drink out of the Holy Grail, but we don't polish it. I mean, you know, that's it. It couldn't take it - it's very old, but the...
MARTIN: Masons describe the fraternity as a brotherhood that teaches moral lessons through allegory and secret ritual. It spells out a structured code that Masons are to live by - truth, honor and charity. Masons pledge to take care of each other and their families for life.
There are at least 200 Masonic charitable foundations or programs in the U.S. that fund everything from hospitals to charter schools. It's not a religious organization, but Johnson explains that you do have to profess a belief in a higher power.
Mr. JOHNSON: Masonically, we talk about God as the great architect of the universe. It really doesn't matter how a brother defines his faith, as long as he believes in a deity.
MARTIN: That universality has put Masonry at odds with organized religion for centuries. The Catholic Church has long considered Freemasonry as an anti-Catholic cult. But Alan Patterson, a church-going man himself, says all that stuff about undermining religion is just bunk.
Mr. PATTERSON: We get together, we turn the phones off, we turn the pagers off, we close the doors, and we dedicate ourselves to bettering ourselves as men. It's quaint, but it's appealing to a younger group of people.
MARTIN: In its glory days in the 1940s and '50s, there were 4 million members in the U.S., and 50,000 Masonic lodges. Now, there are about 1.8 million. But many lodges say their average age is going down, like in the Naval lodge in D.C.
To explain all this, I sought out an expert.
Mr. MARK TABBERT (Director of Collections, George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Arlington, Virginia): This side is mostly Masonic history -symbolism, encyclopedias, dictionaries - that sort of stuff. This side is all the proceedings or annual reports of every grand lodge in the United States.
MARTIN: I'm sitting down with Mark Tabbert, the director of collections at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, which was modeled after the other Washington monument.
We're in his office 300 feet up on the top floor of the memorial's tower, overlooking Arlington, Virginia.
Tabbert is 43. He's a past grandmaster of his lodge in Massachusetts and he's really into Masonic history. He says, when membership plummeted during the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s, the Masons would take virtually anyone who knocked on the door.
Mr. TABBERT: In the quest to be larger and to do more good and to have more charities and to have more fun, they let in a lot more people and it dropped the standards of the fraternity.
MARTIN: But he says the renewed interest in Freemasonry has brought in men who take the ritual more seriously than older generations, and they want to tighten up initiation standards and raise dues. But, he says, the fraternity has to watch out for men who want to sign up because of some misguided theories linking Freemasonry to certain divine secrets.
Mr. TABBERT: But beyond - but, you see, once you get through the romanticism of a conspiracy that doesn't exist or a foolishness about the Knights Templar or the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, you'll find out that there actually is a quest; and the quest is the inner journey, is the self-improvement, is the desire to actually be useful to society and improve yourself.
MARTIN: Even today, conspiracy theories abound on how the Masons are trying to overthrow the U.S. government, undermine Catholicism and basically take over the world.
And what about the pyramid on the U.S. dollar bill? Is it a symbol of the Masonic conspiracy? Historians say no. It's just a coincidence. They say everything from secret handshakes to Masonic rituals have been published in books or online. Okay, so the Masons may not have any secrets, but they do have treasures.
Mr. TABBERT: The head is made from the same marble that was used in the original interior of the Capitol. And the handle is of Native American cherry.
MARTIN: Longtime Mason Dean Klatterbach is looking down at an altar in the middle of a lodge room in Georgetown. On top, resting on a piece of purple velvet is a gavel - the exact gavel that George Washington used to hammer in the cornerstone on the Capitol building in a Masonic ceremony on September 18th, 1793. It's one of the most treasured Masonic artifacts and Klatterbach's lodge is the gavel's guardian.
The gavel represents a bridge to the past and to Washington himself, the quintessential American Masonic hero. It's a powerful connection for Klatterbach and he gets emotional thinking about it.
Mr. DEAN KLATTERBACH (Mason): But he still stands as a man of indisputable integrity. It's pretty nice to be associated with someone of that stature.
MARTIN: But for new, younger members, masonry is less about the historical icons and the Masonic artifacts. For David Johnson, what bonds the fraternity together is the oral tradition, passing knowledge, experience and wisdom from generation to generation.
Mr. JOHNSON: So it takes another brother to show you the way and take you down the path to get to the enlightenment that we offer.
MARTIN: Do the Masons hold the keys to enlightenment? Who knows? But there is that part of human nature that wants to believe in some divine truth - some secret that will make sense of everything.
So while new generations may be joining Freemasonry because of a family legacy or the ritual or that sense of enlightenment, it's clear that having an ancient secret or making people think you have a secret connecting you to George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, maybe even the Holy Grail, is a treasure all its own.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
SIMON: And if you want to see one of the great Masonic treasures for yourself and hear some brothers share their secrets, you can come to our Web site at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.