The recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom have been a sad and bitter trial. The claiming of responsibility by ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever you wish to call them, and the immediacy of radical Islamist attacks has been especially jarring in a country that takes much pride in its considerable ethnic and religious diversity. Britons have an acute desire to avoid any appearance of treating the problem of Islamist terrorism as a problem with Islam as a religion, or with the wider Muslim community, and this is understandable.
In an effort to put some clear blue water between the fight against ISIS, both at home and abroad, and the positive place occupied in wider society by the majority of Muslims living in the West, it has become common for non-Muslim commentators, politicians, and even church leaders to condition their denunciations of terrorism with the explicit statement that “this is not Islam.” I am not sure what gives them the authority to tell Muslims (or anyone else) what is or isn’t Islam, but I understand their intentions.
In this same vein, in the immediate wake of the London Bridge attack, many people have invoked the catchy analogy that ISIS terrorists are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. This particular formula has been around for several years now. So far as I can discover, this comparison was first coined by Aaron Sorkin in an “after-school special” style episode of The West Wing following the 9/11 attacks. It is a tidy phrase that does an excellent job of communicating at an emotional level that ISIS is a universally reviled, radioactive, weaponized mutation of Islam. It’s excellent writing. But it also happens to be wrong.
The theology of ISIS is indeed a widely reviled, radioactive, weaponized mutation of Islam. What is wrong with the analogy is its implication that there is anything of Christianity in the roots of the KKK. In fact, the Klan could far more accurately be described as a reviled, radioactive, weaponized mutation of a different group: the Freemasons.
The Klan, as people may know, began life in Tennessee as a guerrilla insurgency by former Confederate troops after the Civil War. Its first Imperial Wizard was the famous Confederate cavalry leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Freemason, and the group spent its early years attacking African-American voters and white Republicans across the region. Secrecy, elaborate costumes, and intimidating symbols and ritual became a hallmark of the Klan, and the man who gave them their distinctive character was another former Confederate general, Albert Pike, who served as the Klan’s first Chief Justice.
Pike was not recruited for his military savvy, however. He came into the Klan through his position as Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry’s southern jurisdiction. Pike’s 800-page Masonic catechism, Morals and Dogma, and his time as Grand Commander were major factors in setting the ritual and philosophical tone for the higher degrees of American Freemasonry; it was this experience and authority that had the Klan knocking at his door as they looked to give their ragbag insurgency some ritualistic credibility and intimidating theatrics.
The Klan’s signature calling card, a burning cross, far from being Christian, is an act of Christian sacrilege.
The Klan’s signature calling card, a burning cross, far from being Christian, is an act of Christian sacrilege. It actually was chosen without any reference to Christianity at all. Instead, it harkens back to an old Scottish Highland signal declaring a blood-feud and summoning the clan for a vendetta campaign.
The first iteration of the Klan did not last long: It was suppressed by the Federal government in 1871. It was another Freemason, William Joseph Simmons, who later revived it in the 1920s, and the KKK began its spread across the country. During this period, it was the Masonic Lodges that proved their most fertile recruiting ground.
In Denver, the head of the local lodge met the Klan’s recruiter on the station platform to personally escort him to the lodge building where he made his pitch for members. In Chicago, in 1921, in the face of public protests against the Klan, and resolutions passed by the city council telling them to stay away, local Masonic Lodges hosted formal Klan meetings where Masons joined in their hundreds; by 1922, Chicago had the largest Klan membership of any city in the United States. By 1923, the Klan claimed to have more than half a million Masons as members.
The enduring cultural assumption is that since the Ku Klux Klan was formed in the deeply Protestant communities of the southern United States, the two must be linked. In fact, the Klan, like the Masons before them, were denounced by the local pastors. The group attracted a class of men far more interested in white power, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and esoteric philosophy than in Christianity.
While there is absolutely no evidence that the founding of the KKK was a deliberate Masonic project, it was the shared passions of segregation, anti-Catholicism, and preserving and advancing Anglo-Saxon status in America in the face of rising immigration and racial equality that led so many Masons to join. In Oregon, the Masons and the Klan fielded joint candidates for election to state office, and they even launched a successful joint campaign to outlaw religious schools.
Today, the mainstream Lodges of Freemasonry abhor the Klan and any suggestion that the two have historic ties, and one could no more say that the Klan is a legitimate offshoot of Masonry than one could claim . . . that ISIS is a legitimate expression of the Muslim faith.