Presidents: Bible-Cutters, Mystics, Masons

A favorite volume of many founders, The Age of Reason was seen by the Anglican, Catholic, Congregational and Episcopal hierarchies of the day as a direct attack, since the book asserted that the rational person could ignore organized religion and come to his or her own conclusions about God. It would be as if, today, an American president were to declare that priests, rabbis, and ministers were mainly bureaucrats, scripture was a muddle, and each individual should arrive at his or her own spiritual beliefs through private meditation.

This is more or less what George Washington thought, and a reason he preferred vespers in rustic Mount Vernon to that Alexandria pew.

Washington and the Freemasons

And what of Washington's membership in the Masons? Today, Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that mainly raises money for charity, but then it had a hushed, secretive connotation. The goofy, internal lingo of Masonic temples, such as "the Supreme Councils of the Scottish Rite" or the "Grand Encampment of Knights Templar," was whispered about as evidence of conspiracy.

Masonry, which originated in Anglican England, was during Washington's time often anti-Catholic (In the 19th century, Masonry sometimes was anti-Semitic, which would not stop the Nazis of the 1930s from denouncing many German Jews as secret servants of the Freemasons).

The Masons are not a religion — their only spiritual requirement is that members accept the existence of a supreme being — but at various points in history have been viewed as attempting to usurp or circumvent established faiths.

Even today, people don't know what to make of Washington's Masonic ties. The largest privately built monument in the nation's Capitol area — the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, a huge pseudo-Egyptian spire that dominates the skyline for airplanes approaching Reagan National Airport — is routinely absent from tourist agendas, as if it were something about the father of our country better left unmentioned.

It's fun to consider the delightful negative ads a modern political consultant might be able to generate off candidate Washington's Masonic ties. Secret society! Clandestine rites! What really goes on in that Supreme Council?

Minister Mocking

Now to Lincoln. When he first ran for Congress in 1840, Lincoln was derided by opponents for not belonging to a church. Indeed, Abe was not a member of any church, and was sufficiently skeptical of organized religion that on his drinking nights, he entertained friends by doing a stand-up parody routine about a pompous, hypercritical minister.

In 1858, Lincoln began using scripture language in public speaking — especially his popular "House Divided" speech, which extensively quoted Matthew. Northern abolitionists so embraced the "House Divided" speech that they began calling Lincoln the "new John the Baptist," playing on the fact that both shared an eccentric appearance and intense speaking style.

But being called the new John the Baptist did not seem to bring Lincoln to faith. Even after his election as president in 1860, he told friends he remained an agnostic, quoting scripture mainly because it was so powerful. His initial view of the Civil War was not religious, either. Though many northern churches from the outset called the war God's vengeance against slavery, Lincoln would tell Horace Greeley early on, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union," not abolish slavery.

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