What is a lodge?

Americans seem to have a lot of these weird groups, and I’m still not sure what they are. There are Shriners and Elks or Whelks or whatever they call themselves, and there seem to be a lot of others, too. Maybe the Knights of Columbus; I know nothing about these beyond the name and that they are Roman Catholic. “Lodges” seems to be the usual generic term, but it’s one that doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for me. A “lodge” is a beaver’s dwelling or a communal house in a tribal society. Or possibly a ski châlet or Mediaeval hunting cabin.

My first encounter with the phenomenon was with some fez-wearing strangers collecting money, encountered shortly after we came to the US.

“What are they collecting for?” I asked my American wife. “And why are they all wearing Turkish hats? Are they some sort of religious cult?”

“They’re Elks,” my wife explained.

“Huh?” And internally:

Elk (n): A wild animal of cervine kind. In North America it refers to the local subspecies of Red Deer; in Europe it refers to the animal Americans know as Moose.

“Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks”. Puzzled look. “It’s a lodge”.

“You’re not helping me. Why are they collecting?”

Years later, and I still have no idea who these strange “Elks” are or what they’re about or why they think they deserve my money, nor really what this whole “lodge” phenomenon is.

I don’t think we have anything like this in Britain. Well, apart from the Masons, maybe, and they keep a distinctly low profile. You’d never, ever see Masons out collecting in an identified group; it defeats the point. If you’re a Freemason, no-one’s supposed to know about it except other Freemasons. So I don’t actually know if these “lodge” things are anything like the Masons or not, because the Masons won’t tell anything about their organisation to any non-member. Would they be defined as a lodge? I don’t know. I think so, but I can’t be sure.

It all looks rather suspicious from the outside, particularly as no-one I’ve asked seems to be able to give me a good answer for what a “lodge” is. You hear the phrase “Masonic lodge” mentioned occasionally in Britain, but public Freemasonry is as oxymoronic as dry water. Or “law-abiding criminal”. These Elks and Shriners and so on do public things like collecting money as if they are some sort of charity, but Freemasons, as far as I know from the UK, shun the limelight with a passion.

Sort-of-but-not-exactly-Freemason is no recommendation to me. Freemasonry is one of those things which the perception in my country – at least in the churches I attended – was that it’s not compatible with being serious about following Christ.

I don’t buy this whole satanism/Illuminati/secret-world-rulers-of-this-present-darkness conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with the idea that you can be a Mason and follow Christ with a whole heart. Where is your allegiance really? To the organisation or to the Son of Man? You cannot serve two Masters.

And the whole secret-society thing the Freemasons have going is suspect, too. I’ve seen Yes Minister. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby: “If they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong”. No accountability, no way to know what you’re really up to at all. “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil”. Together with the persistent rumour that you’re supposed to do whatever it takes to help a fellow-member, up to and including lying, preferential treatment over a more qualified non-member, and bending the law if within your power, it gives the firm idea that you can either be a Mason or you can follow Jesus, but not both.

From the outside at least, Freemasonry looks way too close to the ancient mystery cults of Mithras and Diana to be anything compatible with worship of Christ. So the fact that so many of the US Founding Fathers were identified Masons (and what’s up with that? I’ve never heard of any self-respecting Freemason identifying themselves as one) does not encourage me about the depth of their touted Christian faith, I’m sorry to say.

And this whole American “lodge” thing looks a lot like more of the same. You call yourselves “Benevolent” this and “Fraternal” that? Fine. That’s exactly what I’d do if I were up to no good and wanted to throw people off the scent. No-one’s actually going to call themselves the “Secret Megalomaniacal Federation of World-Dominating Evil Villains”, now, are they? Who are you in reality?

“It’s just a lodge” is no answer for what you’re about. I have no clue what a lodge is! “It’s just a blongsnarf”. Everyone already knows this.

Not me.

I lack even the most basic knowledge. What is a “lodge”? Is this apparent semi-secret society open to anyone? How do you join? Why would you join? What do you do? Why all the apparent secrecy? Are these different “lodge” things all related, or totally separate? Are they national or local, or even international? Are they just for men, or are there women’s ones as well, or unisex ones open to both? Why wear a Turkish hat – do you think you’re a reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire? What is the society for? What’s it supposed to be for?

And these “Fraternities” and “Sororities” – are they more of the same? I don’t understand them either. We don’t have anything called that in Britain, or anything that looks like it might be that by a different name. And my American wife’s university didn’t allow them, so she’s almost as clueless as I am and can’t explain it.

From what I hear, fraternities and sororities are about drinking, promiscuity, ritual abuse, and possibly racism. But if that was their real purpose they wouldn’t be allowed anywhere. At least, I hope not.

And if I’m right in my suspicion that fraternities and sororities are kind of like a lodge for students, this reputation doesn’t make me any more comfortable with this strange lodge business in the adult world.

My working definition of a lodge now has to include heavy drinking, possible promiscuity, racism and ritual abuse, as well as secrecy, lack of accountability, ultimate allegiance to an organisation that won’t tell you what they’re up to or who’s a member, and probable bending of the law and morality when it benefits a fellow member. And silly hats.

Yeah. Like that’s something I want to give money to.

The response I normally get at this point is “no, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s… It’s just a lodge, you know?”

No. I don’t. I don’t have this word. I don’t have this concept. It’s just a… beaver’s house? Mediaeval hunting cabin?

Now will someone that knows more of what they’re talking about than I do please explain in terms someone that really has no clue can understand? In the most general terms, if you insist on your secrecy. I’m hopelessly lost on the basic idea here.


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