Dianne Reidy, a stenographer at the House of Representatives, managed to wrest attention away from Wednesday evening's political drama for a moment after she grabbed a microphone and yelled about God and freemasonry, moments after Congress passed a bill in favor of ending the government shutdown. While we might look at Reidy’s outburst as bizarre and batty, conspiracy theories about Freemasons have been around in America for as long as… well, Freemasons.
“The greatest deception here is this is not one nation under god!” Reidy shouted, according to audio recorded by Public Radio International. “It never was. Had it been, it would not have been! The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons! You cannot serve two masters!”
Modern representations of Masonic conspiracy theories have permeated pop culture, from the books of novelist Dan Brown to Alan Moore’s intricate Jack the Ripper graphic novel, “From Hell.” One of the seminal early texts of Masonic conspiracy theories is “Proofs of a Conspiracy,” a 1797 tome by Scottish physicist John Robison, which links Freemasonry to the Illuminati – a real organization founded in Bavaria by the Jesuit Weishaupt in 1776 and blamed for instigating the French Revolution and any number of other historical events.
“It was then discovered that this and several associated [Masonic] lodges were the nursery or preparation school for another Order of Masons, who called themselves the ILLUMINATED, and that the express aim of this Order was to abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government,” Robison wrote.
One of the most common charges levied against Freemasonry throughout the ages is that it is an occult religion masquerading as a social network. All Masons must believe in some form of Supreme Being to become members, but the organization doesn’t discriminate between self-proclaimed Christians, Muslims, Jews or otherwise.
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Modern Masons emphasize that their organization is more like a fraternity than anything else, but the organization has been dogged by accusations of occult affiliation for centuries. Many of the group’s symbols draw from Babylonian and Egyptian imagery, and Masonic lore leans heavily on symbols: the square and the compass, the hourglass, Solomon’s Temple, and the pentagram (which, Masons hasten to explain, has not always had Satanic connotations).
According to various theories, Freemasons had a hand in America’s foundation from the very beginning. English philosopher and Mason Sir Francis Bacon supposedly outlined a plan for colonizing North America in the 1590s. Several of the Founding Fathers were Masons, including George Washington and Ben Franklin, and numerous signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were too. Consequently, conspiracy theorists think that the American War of Independence was orchestrated as part of a Masonic plot (despite that fact that several British generals who fought to keep the colonies English were reportedly also Masons)[PDF] and that America is party to an ongoing conspiracy to establish a New World Order. (Several modern American presidents -- Warren Harding, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- have taken their oath of office on George Washington’s Masonic Bible.)
In fact, America’s first political third party was the Anti-Masonic Party, notable for starting the practice of platforms and nominating conventions for presidential elections – but more widely remembered for its primary political issue of opposing Freemasonry. Ironically, the Anti-Masonic Party's first presidential candidate, William Wirt, was himself a former Freemason who lost interest in the organization.
In his 1831 letter accepting the party's nomination, Wirt said his decision to leave the Freemasons "proceeded from no suspicion on my part that there was anything criminal in the institution, or anything that placed its members in the slightest degree in collision with their allegience to their country and its laws."