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by Conrad Goeringer
May, 1998

Americans love conspiracies. From the early days of the republic to the latest Arbitron ratings, we have demonstrated a dramatic penchant for fearing hidden plots, cabals, secret agendas and cover-ups. Turn on the television set and you can feast on a bacchanal of paranoia. Afternoon talk shows, when not entertaining us with the pugilistic antics of Jerry Springer, remind us that Satanic cabals, elaborate and powerful rings of child abductors or some other threat to the civic order is loose upon the land. The claims get a bit wilder as one edges into prime time. Chris Carter dishes us a steady diet of paranormal angst in “The X-Files,” or a darker apocalyptic vision with his latest series, “Millennium.” It may be fiction, but what is to distinguish those scripts from the claims echoing from “unsolved mysteries”-type programs which blend anecdotal accounts of alien abductions, ghosts and government concealment with the graphic imagery of the evening news? It is no wonder that surveys over the last decade suggest that increasing numbers of us believe in the existence of marauding sexual perverts from space, or the likelihood that Uncle Sam is obscuring the existence of craft from other worlds at a place in Nevada known as Area 51.

Such claims manifest an incredible immunity to the truth, and Americans seem increasingly unable (and uninformed) to critically question many of these accounts. Part of this may be due to the fact that there ARE conspiracies, and that we know this because conspiracies often do not succeed. Richard Nixon and the White House Gang were flirting with a dangerous suborning of the Constitution, and perhaps only the clumsiness of the Watergate burglars in leaving a strip of duct tape on a door to be noticed by a passing security guard, led to the unraveling of that would-be imperial presidency. The fundamentals of the Iran-Contra debacle are well known, and in autopsying the cold war and its aftermath, it is difficult to ignore the fact that America’s vast intelligence apparatus -- indeed, even perhaps that of the Russians -- can best be described as “The Armies of Ignorance.”

“Ah,” proclaims the conspiracy peddler. “But those are only the ones you know about...” Proving the nonexistence of a conspiracy is somewhat of a philosophical Iron Man contest which few people are trained for, or willing to endure. And like those description of Satan, conspiracy theories are legion. Fueled by self-publishing, injected with pop-culture steroids on the internet, accounts of conspiracy proliferate and spread like some sort of electronic virus. Is there anything that isn’t part of a cover-up?

Besides, this is the stuff of excitement. Conspiracy theories often reflect a potent, albeit cumbersome attempt to impose some order on a world which often does not make sense and which we do not understand. Who wants to believe that Oswald might have been just plain lucky that day in Dealey Plaza? Or that AIDS is really part of a natural mutation process? There are no limits on how far these sorts of suspicion can go, since one can continually question the very facts which refute or contradict them.

The Masonic order, a fraternal group founded in the eighteenth century in England, has often figured in accounts of those who suggest that history is influenced, even controlled, by secret cabals. As a result, Freemasons have often found themselves outlawed in totalitarian societies. Masonic lodges were shut down after the Russian revolution, and the group was banned by the Nazis shortly after Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. Its semi secret rituals, passwords, and an exotic history which mainstream historians dispute, has often proven to be tantalizing and fertile soil for all kinds of speculation.
The first organized opposition to Freemasonry came, not surprisingly, from the Roman Catholic Church. Papal Bulls, official declarations and other pronouncements from the Vatican have condemned the order which requires its members to have a belief in a supreme being, and takes an eclectic and tolerant approach to the world’s various religions. Some say that the involvement of intellectuals, many of them with anticlerical political and social philosophies, has contributed to the belief that the Masons were a revolutionary group threatening the stability of autocratic regimes and theocracies. Others feared the Masonic ideals of religious toleration and the notion of political liberty which percolated through 18th century culture through the Enlightenment. Leading Enlightenment figures from Voltaire to D’Alambert were initiated into the lodges, along with scientists, writers, and freethinkers. Even some clergy joined, but the secrecy of the lodge meetings, along with peculiar rituals prompted some -- especially in Catholic countries -- to suspect what might be taking place under the mantle of Masonry. In 1739, Pope Clement condemned the order, and even into the twentieth century, the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law prohibited church followers from joining “Masonic sects or any other similar associations which plot against the church.”

In the United States, the first Masonic circles began to appear in 1733; by the time of the American Revolution, nearly 150 lodges existed throughout the colonies. Many masons were active participants in the uprising, and the Masonic ideals of tolerance, brotherhood and political liberty resonated in the institutions, documents and even the symbols which soon came to define the new American Republic. Historian James Billington noted that Freemasonry was “a moral meritocracy -- implicitly subversive within any static society based on a traditionalist hierarchy.” Today, American freemasonry represents nearly three-fourths of the total membership of over 6 million.

As official religions were “disestablished” in the new states of America, religious groups quickly saw Masonic order as a threat to clerical authority and orthodoxy. When a secret society in Bavaria, the Illuminati, were ostensibly exposed for plotting against the civil and religious order, fears quickly spread to the new world. Churchmen saw their own fate in the violent downfall of the “ancient regime” in France. In the early republic’s more conservative quarters, particularly the Federalist politicians and Congregationalist religious leaders, the Illuminati hysteria became virulent and contagious. Suspect of democracy and the Enlightenment, the Congregationalists feared a mob uprising which would overthrow their “Standing Order,” the church-state alliance of aristocrats and clergy. Alexander Hamilton proclaimed, “The people! The people is a great beast!” By 1789, anti-Masonic and anti-Illuminist tracts and books were circulating throughout the states. The Rev. Jedediah Morse, a member of the Standing Order, promoted the dubious claims in works such as John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy, and the even more lurid opinions in the Abbe Barruel’s three volume treatise on the “anti-religious” conspiracy of Masonry, Illuminism and Jacobinism. President Adams ended up proclaiming a day of fasting and prayer for the new republic, and Rev. Morse warned his audience at the New North Church in Boston...

“Secret and systematic means have been adopted and pursued, with zeal and activity, by wicked and artful men, in foreign countries, to undermine the foundations of this Religion, and to overthrow its Altars... These impious conspirators and philosophists have completely effected their purposes in a large portion of Europe, and boast of their means of accomplishing their plans in all parts of Christendom.”
“So, it is not surprising to see the Freemasons now appearing as the latest villains in conspiracy scenarios involving everything from an Atheistic one-world government, to a cover-up about The Face on Mars.”

Anti-Masonic hysteria erupted again in 1821, when William Morgan, a Freemason who had threatened to reveal the secrets and beliefs of the group, was allegedly kidnapped by his fellows. An Anti-Masonic Party was formed, and by 1832 had grown sufficiently powerful to nominate a candidate, attorney William Wirt, for president. He was defeated by Andrew Jackson, a Freemason, but incredibly Wirt himself was purportedly a member of the order as well.

Into the nineteenth century and beyond, American Masonry became increasingly identified with political and social elites; the order has counted among its members dozens of presidents and other elected officials, as well as leading industrialists, bankers, and economic movers-and-shakers. Whatever revolutionary ideals the group once had have, at least in the United States, been subsumed by the rise of what sociologist C. Wright Mills termed “the power elite.” Masonry is known today as primarily a charitable institution and “country club” network, although it still carries on the tradition of quasi-secret signs, rituals, and an embellished history which, with considerable license, attempts to trace the origins of the order back to ancient times.

None of this has stopped the gnawing fear in some quarters of American society that “something” dark and sinister was really going on inside of Masonic lodges, that the antics of Shriners in miniature cars, the Order of the Eastern Star cake sales, or the charity works of the fraternity were simply camouflage for a political agenda in the service of Protestantism or, later, perhaps the devil himself.

So, it is not surprising to see the Freemasons now appearing as the latest villains in conspiracy scenarios involving everything from an Atheistic one-world government, to a cover-up about The Face on Mars. Pat Robertson, who never could resist a good tale no matter how ill-founded, and Art Bell -- does he really believe this stuff? -- have both pointed the finger of suspicion at those staid Lodge dudes in recent days.

Robertson is no amateur when it comes to, well, trying to scare the hell out of his followers. A week of watching “The 700 Club” sends a polarized message that while God “is working” to cure select medical maladies of some viewers, from gastritis to pains in the limbs, the world is about to careen out of control and into an abyss of the worst sort. Robertson informs us that tornados, earthquakes, climatic conditions, plagues and that all important spectre of nuclear confrontation in the Middle East is a sure sign that we are in the “last days”, flirting with apocalypse. Before Jesus and Lucifer slug it out on the plains of Armageddon, though, the faithful must endure the risk of the Great Tribulation. Already, hidden cabals are at work with their devious plans to erode American sovereignty and establish a One World government. For Robertson, the cold war and a host of other subsequent geopolitical events are just so much puppetry for the REAL masters lurking in such nefarious organizations as the United Nations, the Bildeberger group, or the Council on Foreign Relations.

Robertson’s conspiracy theories have led critics to charge that he has drunk deeply at the same well waters as classical anti-semites who see a “Jewish plot” to control the world. Professor Berndt Ostendorf, Chair of American Studies at the University of Munich, says that the powerful American televangelist peddles fear to his audience, and “is a deeply religious anti-Semite.” In a lecture to a college audience titled “Conspiracy Nation: The Fundamentalist Thought of Pat Robertson,” Ostendorf identified five key areas which underpin his apocalyptic global view. They included:
  • Fear of deviating from a core set of “Christian values.”
  • Fear of the possible decline of the United States as a global power, and its replacement by an amorphous “world government” run by a godless cabal.
  • Fear of “Populist Centralism.”
  • Fear of multiculturalism
  • Racism. Traditional ethnic targets might include Blacks or Jews, but recently Robertson has targeted UFO believers (he feels that they may qualify for the death penalty according to one report) and people with AIDS.

While Robertson eschews the hard-edged rhetoric of more extreme groups like the Christian Identity church or Aryan Nations, his Christian Broadcasting Company recently took a swipe at that old bugaboo of conspiracy paranoia, the Freemasons. On the Friday, April 24, 2020 installment of “The 700 Club,” a CBN reporter presented the second of a three-part series titled “Secret Societies, Behind the Mask of Freemasonry.”

“What goes on behind those bricked and shuttered windows? Why do men meet in private, wear costumes, and conduct ancient rituals? Why are Masonic secrets protected by violent blood oaths?”

Actually, the imagery of grown men conducting a overblown version of a pre-adolescent Boy’s Tree House (“no girls allowed”) is cause for a degree of curiosity, but I suspect that the real answers to these queries are more prosaic and less flattering than Mr. Robertson would care to believe, or indeed than most Freemasons would choose to admit. But “Behind the Mask of Freemasonry” continued on to quote a former Mason who told the audience, “The definition of a cult, as I see it, would be any organization or group of people that embraces any kind of teaching that’s contrary to historic established Christianity, according to the Word of God...”

How’s that for investigative reporting and analytical insight?

The gist of the CBN piece was that Masonry teaches a kind of universal religion that happens to tolerate faiths of the non-Christian variety. There is a fair sprinkling of twisted argument as well, like the charge: “We should note here that the very secret of Masonry makes it impossible for a good-standing Mason to explain or defend the Lodge’s practice in details.” And there’s the admission that Freemasonry has had a “tremendous influence on U.S. History,” and some of the figures I’m sure that Pat Robertson wouldn’t want to denounce in public as devil worshippers or one world government cabalists... guys like George Washington.

The CBN piece wraps up with the claim of another renegade Mason who “believes (that) the ultimate god of Freemasonry is Lucifer -- Satan himself -- not only because Satan seeks worship, but also... ‘if Satan can keep you away from knowing Christ, that’s the key...’”

Fear of Masonic intrigue has appeared in another even more unlikely place, the radio show of paranormal radio shock-jock Art Bell. This, too, is a tangled tale which begins not in some Masonic lodge (although it ties in...) but on Mars.

Start with a guy named Richard Hoagland, science writer and author of a controversial book titled The Monuments of Mars. Hoagland argues that photos from reconnaissance missions to the Red Planet show an enormous artificial construction or artifact in the shape of a face. Surrounding this, says Hoagland, is evidence of other structures, a virtual Martian city from ancient times. Most astronomers and NASA scientists were highly skeptical of this claim, arguing that the “face” on the planet’s Cydonia region was really an artifact of a different sort, caused by geological features, shadows, and a fair amount of anthropomorphic projection and imagination thrown in for good measure. That didn’t stop the buzz on the internet or in numerous fanzines and UFO periodicals. So when probes such as the NASA Global Survey and Pathfinder relayed new high resolution photographs of the Martian surface, inquiring minds wanted to know; “what would we see at the Cydonia area?”

For NASA, the skeptics, and science in general, it was a no-win situation. If the Global Surveyor happened to malfunction, a distinct possibility when you’re launching delicate equipment a few hundred million miles into space, the conspiracy buffs might argue -- as they had suggested at the fate of a Russian probe -- that it was destroyed so that no evidence of extraterrestrial civilization would be revealed. (Why send the probe in the first place? we might ask.) There was the possibility that Global Surveyor just might confirm the existence of the “Face on Mars,” and much more. And there was the probability that the “face” would be just what photo interpretation and other evidence had earlier suggested -- light and shadows, illusion and imagination.

When the pictures of Mars from began streaming in, Art Bell’s late evening talk show “became Conspiracy Central for the view that NASA was somehow still covering up the existing of an ancient civilization in the planet’s Cydonia region,” noted Art Levine in a special dispatch posted to MSNBC. An anonymous caller to the program who would only identify himself as “Kent Smith” said that during his tenure at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) he had accidentally seen photos of the mysterious face, along with other compelling evidence of cover-up such as a picture of giant pyramids and a “building minus a roof and with one of the walls knocked out.”

Art Bell
According to Levine, Hoagland and Bell set out to try and verify “Kent Smith’s” incredible story. One technique involved “reverse speech” analysis that claims to be able to uncover phrases and words imbedded in everyday talk when played backwards. These hidden messages are said to reflect the musings of the subconscious mind. Bell, whose program was already a platform for nearly every conceivable kind of paranormal claim, no matter how outrageous, was now flirting with a pop-culture belief once confined to America’s fundamentalist loonies. Remember the hysteria over “back masking” on rock ’n roll records, where heavy metal and rock groups were supposedly seducing America’s youngsters with concealed messages about sex and the devil?

Neither “back masking” nor “reverse speech” analysis have really withstood the test of inquiry. But reportedly, Hoagland and Bell saw all of this as evidence of “remarkable cult religious references among various members of the NASA team,” a “rogue group” in the nation’s leading space and technology program. Levine says that for Hoagland, the purpose of this cabal is to “fulfill Masonic traditions by carrying out ‘Egyptian ritual philosophy’ through space exploration.”

Levine adds that Hoagland is so convinced of the existence and perdition of this Masonic group that he even suggests that the July 4 landing of the Mars Pathfinder mission was faked, as were photos from the lander of a “howitzer on Mars.”

There’s an ironic end to the tale of Hoagland, Art Bell and “Kent Smith” -- at least for now. Hoagland says that Kent Smith “admitted” that he was part of a disinformation operation launched not by the Freemasons, but from the Defense Intelligence Agency, with the purpose of discrediting the Art Bell show. How’s that for stream of consciousness plot writing?

There is often an interaction between conspiracy theories and the claims of pseudoscience advocates. After all, if Oswald wasn’t just lucky, who’s to say that there is not a bevy of aliens coming-and-going from Area 51; or that NASA begs for billions of taxpayer dollars to fund Martian landers and reconnaissance of the Red Planet’s surface so that the evidence can be concealed? And why not play a conversation backwards so that you can weave a series of words and phrases you THOUGHT you might have heard into a conspiratorial tapestry involving some Freemasons hiding out at Mission Control?

It is entertaining stuff, though, just like “The X-Files.” The problem is that we may be losing whatever sense of skepticism and proportion our culture once had, as the area between fact and fiction disintegrates and broadens into an enormous epistemological netherworld where all claims are equally true, and nothing is really false. If we are all provided with our 15 minutes of media fame, logic suggests that all ideas enjoy their comparable period of exposure, and often acceptance, under the bright lights of studios, or the glowing screens which increasingly wire us to the internet.

So some, like Pat Robertson, gaze suspiciously at those Masonic Lodges; others stare into photographs of a distant planet looking for evidence of something they already believe in, for reasons know perhaps only to themselves. I look at the gauzy picture of terrain at Cydonia. Is it really evidence of a once great and wise alien culture? Or is really an artifact we, not Martians, invented, a countenance laughing at those who stare long enough, and believe?

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.