SCOTT SIMON, Host:
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.
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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: Unidentified Man: The clues of 10 generations...
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NICHOLAS CAGE: Unidentified Man: Will reveal a mystery 20 centuries in the making.
MARTIN: And more like this.
SIMON: Unidentified Woman: Okay.
MARTIN: Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed...
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MARTIN: 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.
ALAN PATTERSON: 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...
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MARTIN: Thirty-six-year-old David Johnson is the junior warden of this lodge.
DAVID JOHNSON: 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?
PATTERSON: Oh, yeah.
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: 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.
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 churchgoing man himself, says all that stuff about undermining religion is just bunk.
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: To explain all this, I sought out an expert.
MARK TABBERT: 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: 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.
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.
TABBERT: But beyond - but, 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: 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.
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: 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.
DEAN KLATTERBACH: 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.
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: 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.
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SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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