Monday, July 16, 2001 12:00 noon:

I'm at the U.S. Capitol to sit in on a press briefing in room H-157. Usually I take the Metro from our offices in Silver Spring, and walk the few blocks from Union Station to the Capitol. A little early, I decide to drive in and take a chance at finding a parking spot. I drive up and down the near-noon crowded streets to no avail. So it's back to the standby of parking at Union Station. I jog to the Capitol and arrive-still early-bathed in perspiration. The room is locked; no sign of the press corps and the politicians with something to say to the world. So I blend with the tourist crowd on the main level and look over some of the artifacts on display. I do love history, and this is almost a sacred spot for democracy. A largish glass case catches my eye. It's all about the laying of the cornerstone on September 18, 1793-a big moment to be sure. There under glass is the Masonic apron worn by President Washington as he led out in what newspaper reports gave as the most significant Masonic ceremony in the country to that point. H'mmm. No secret about the lodge activities of Washington and other major figures of the new republic, but this ceremony obviously went a bit beyond basic "club" activities. I had a little trouble picturing the scene happening today-even in our oft-lamented decline of Christian sensibilities. I could not see a public figure today daring to preside over that scene in such a garb and to the accompaniment of fellow members' chanting Masonic songs-as did President George Washington.

12:45 p.m.: The press conference in room H-157 gets under way. It's hot, and there's plenty of free soda for the press reps crammed into the little room. There must be 40 or so inside or squeezing into the doorway to catch a little of the moment. House Republican Conference chair J. C. Watts and Democratic friend Tony Hall are on hand to outline the arguments and immediate battle plan for H. R. 7, otherwise known as the faith-based initiative. We are told it will go to Congress the next day. Lots of confidence by J. C. Watts and advisers. Justified, it turns out, but even in that room there is some press disease that H. R. 7 is opposed by the Black caucus and most Democrats. I get the impression that to question the bill is a little like questioning Christianity itself. Midway through the briefing I look to the wall off to my left and notice with some sense of irony a medium-sized framed reproduction of the Ten Commandments-how recently placed there I cannot say. Is it reassuring or too obvious? 2:00 p.m., rear steps of the Capitol: It's a busy tourist day. The guards are overtaxed in maintaining a little decorum around the perimeter. I see one guard warn away a quiet fellow with a camera who'd been sitting on the steps, waiting no doubt for a powerful face to come by. And then in the center of those rear steps, about halfway up the empty rows, I see a familiar, startlingly lifelike figure. It's a life-sized figure of Jesus Christ, positioned to look down on the milling crowds of tourists. Next to it is a boom box blaring out Christian hymns. I wonder why the guards have not removed this curious display. Would they have removed a Mason in apron and boom box of chants? H'mmm. 2:30 p.m., hoofing it back to Union Station: I look past the Capitol and down the Mall to the Washington Monument. It's an imposing sight, at first rush a powerful symbol of democracy. Of course my head tells me that the symbol itself is a little more complex. The obelisk harks back to Egypt, and of course those Masonic symbols again. I've seen the obelisks in Paris (reminders of Napoleon's fascination with and conquest of Egypt), and in Rome in front of St. Peter's (I'm not sure why it should be there, actually, since, Egypt aside, the Masonic order
has often been under the most severe papal frown). But the Washington Monument retains persistent Masonic (see pre-Christian) elements. At the laying of its cornerstone July 4, 1848, Benjamin French, grand master of the District of Columbia, wore the same apron used by George Washington in 1793.

Back in the office: I mull over some of the symbols and what they might mean today. Oh yes, I take time to scan the Internet for Masonic meaning, and in the process uncover some way-out paranoid takes on even the layout of the city of Washington itself-at best I think they make too much out of what was probably an inside joke by Masonic architects. But the superficial and public aspect of these symbols does bear commenting on. The singing effigy of Christ; the Ten Commandments elevated when courts have in other instances removed them; the vigorous attempt to move the state toward an alliance with certain Christian churches-all show the power of the symbol, the pull of the cultural assumption. And the icons of the Mason! How at variance with the assumptions reality can sometimes be.

Much lamenting of late over the expulsion of religion (usually expressed as Christianity) from public life. But public display has seldom before been as aggressive and as enabled by Constitution and courts as today-it's just that a lot else is allowed too. Unfortunately the same enabling freedoms work to allow countervoices!

My worry is that a faith base untroubled and indeed unthreatened by Masonic dalliance in another age will today feel so threatened by vocal competitors that it will attempt to rearrange the assumptions of democracy for extra support.

After all, the strength of faith is belief itself. Faith has powerful icons of its own. People of faith should not need to rework the symbols of history to suit their ideal of a faith community. Faith does not need-in fact, cannot afford-to co-opt the state in reeducating the populace in faith. Among other dangers, that carries a risk to the state itself.

The United States of America has been a grand experiment in human governance. I tend to think that one of the reasons it has succeeded so well is the abiding godliness of a significant portion of its citizens. There have been people of faith at all levels and at all times. But any study of history shows it worse than naive and pernicious to equate faith with all the aims and actions of state and people. Symbols do matter, but they can easily be co-opted to a bad end if confused with the reality. The reality is that the American system, embracing Constitution and culturally informed views of freedom, has worked well in the past to enable religious liberty. What has changed is the faith component itself: the hard-to-quantify "moral" sense. It responds poorly to legislation and reorganization. The answer, I think, is best summed up in the prayer I have so often heard in meetings of concerned Christians of all denominations: "Lord, heal our nation."

That's the type of faith-based initiative I'm looking for. It might have a Christian origin, but it can be taken up by all and will best elevate the tone of discussion.

And then September 11:

Midnight in the garden of good and evil. "For us or against us". . . "axis of evil" and the "c" word (crusade). God bless America.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."