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the Great Experiment, Part II
In this follow-up to Part I, Helen and Peter Evans interview Akram Elias, a Lebanese immigrant, and discuss, in sort of a modern Alexis de Tocqueville way, why the rule of law is important - particularly natural law - the separation of church and state, and other fundamental characteristics of our republican democracy and what they mean to us.
Peter: In our last interview you spoke of three elements of democratic government: 1) freedom, 2) the right to govern oneself, 3) the rule of law. Many people bristle at the idea of rule of law, thinking it means something like "stay off the grass" or merely a list of "thou shalt not" regulations. Please tell us why you believe the rule of law is important, and then explain the other two elements of democratic government.
Akram: Well, why is the rule of law important? The old cliché is, if you don't have the rule of law, you have the rule of the jungle. Let me just expand a little bit about this, because it's very important to have the rule of law. We are talking about the rule of law based on a democratic form of government, where people reach some sort of consensus among themselves, elect officials who are supposed to represent them, pass legislation, hoping that that legislation will help them work with one another, while at the same time preserving their individual liberties, which are guaranteed by the Constitution and considered the supreme law of the land. Now, prior to this whole concept, think a little bit of what was going on in Europe, and I say Europe because the first settlers coming to the United States at least having to do with the establishment of the American experiment, came from Europe. Well, you had an emperor, you had a king, an absolutist type of government, and whatever that person felt like became the law of the land. How can a people plan ahead, strategize, even at the very mundane level of day-to-day life, if it at any point in time just one person can issue a decree and dramatically alter their lives? And that person would be, of course, above everyone else. So, the idea of the rule of law is that there are common denominators, people agree to certain common ways of dealing with one another, they discuss among themselves in a civil manner, they participate in an election and pass those laws accordingly, to help them plan. At least they know the framework, within which they can operate and it's something in which they had participated in establishing. It is not something that has been imposed upon them by one individual. By the same token, no one individual, not even the ruler in a democratic form of government would be the highest elected person, would be above that same set of rules, the Law.
Helen: When we were in California, we met a person who had come here from Iran. He was a student at the time of the Shah, and he had said that his father would always tell everyone around him how poor he was, because the Shah could, and, in many cases, did say, "well, since you have all this wealth, don't you want to pay tribute to me?" And he would just assume; just take the money. How could someone in that situation plan for their children's education, or we think of summer homes, or a new car, or even basic living expenses?
Peter: "How would you like to give that summer home as a tribute to me?"
Akram: If you go back to our experiment... remember tea, you know, the Boston tea party? The whole rebellion against taxes? Here was a situation where taxes were imposed on people by a ruler, but at the same time, the people had no way of participating in the Parliament which passed those laws. They were basically forbidden from participating by one person.
Peter: "Taxation without Representation", to quote the District of Columbia license plate.
Akram: This is to "bring the point home."
Helen: We could even go back to the King Arthur myth. To get rid of the idea that "Might is Right."
Peter: So, I guess that the value of the rule of law is that gives an element of predictability to the life of society, and its justification on a higher level is that it is not imposed arbitrarily. As long as it is generated by the people themselves, then it appears to be justified.
Akram: Absolutely. This is why this trio, it is like an equilateral triangle of three equal parts: Individual freedom, Liberty; the right of the people to govern themselves by themselves; and the Rule of Law. All three are of equal importance. It is like a stool with three legs, if you remove one of them it falls. And if one of them is not equal to the other two, is not well- balanced. So, the rule of law is an extraordinarily important component, but it is just one among the other two. That's why the three come together, to make what the Experiment's all about. Because then, when you have individual liberty, you think about guaranteeing as much as possible the freedom to the individual. On the other hand, people, themselves, have the right to govern themselves, in other words, they participate in an open, transparent system of elections, where they elect their own legislators and pass their own legislation and that becomes the law of the land. You also have the body that enforces, that makes sure that that legislation is done. The three working together, in tandem, really provide for this great experiment.
Peter: If you think about the 3-legged stool, if one leg happens to be a little longer or shorter than the others, it still balances. It's still stable. It has to be way out of balance before you fall off.
Akram: Exactly. You can adjust. This allows for adjustments. Let's stick with the example of the stool. Say you had some pain on the right side. Maybe you want to sit a little bit on the left side. You adjust, obviously, according to your needs, your circumstances, whatever you happen to be going through.
Helen: It's a dynamic balance.
Akram: It's a dynamic balance. Right, right.
Peter: You mentioned about the arbitrary nature of the rule of kings, for instance, or tyrants, authoritarian rule. In our writings we talk about the law of cause and effect, and explained that we can't even move toward the goal of freedom without the limitation of rules, or discipline. In other words, we need the rules of the game in order to be able to play the game. For instance, someone might at first feel that their freedom is limited by the law of gravity, but once that law is understood, they can use it to fly airplanes. If gravity wasn't actually a law, but changed from moment to moment, we wouldn't know how to interact with it. In more practical terms, in relation to what you said, if the state acknowledges property rights one day and arbitrarily takes them away the next day, we wouldn't even know how to conduct our business. So... what are your views on all this?
Peter: "Chaos" seems to be another name for "I don't understand how this works."
Akram: Right, right. That's why really, this was the major change which sparked the American experiment, as a result of the age of enlightenment. It was moving toward the concept of the law of nature. What is really important is to study nature, to study the universe. "Nature" encompassing us ourselves, looking at who we are as human beings, how we are made, and the universe in which we live and how that impacts on us and how we impact on it. It's an ongoing education. We discover something and we find out how much lack of knowledge we have, but that pursuit of knowledge empowers us become more and more free in the universe in which we live. This was a major departure, probably one of the most important contributions of 18th-century, Western thinking, to really focus on the law of nature. And to place the concept of the deity within the law of nature, rather than in superstition... which is very important.
Peter: Discovering a law of nature, is, in a sense, searching for a diety that is comprehensible, rather than an arbitrary monarch, who is sort of "up there, somewhere." The idea has come about that nature is understandable. One of the prime observations in the Declaration of Independence, "these things which we take to be self-evident", they are not demonstrated. They are taken as self-evident, that, for instance, "all men are created equal." That is definitely a departure.
Akram: Absolutely. In Masonry we speak of the"Great Architect" of the universe. And by choosing the word "architect," that says a lot. In other words, it is not chaotic. Reason is applied, art is applied, so by exploring what we call the arts and sciences, and by learning about nature, we discover the nature of the deity.
Helen: When we say "self-evident", that's a very important term, I think, because it IS is only self-evident, it could never be proven to someone else. It is part of our role in nature, to make it "self" -- evident. There is no evidence anywhere else.
Akram: It has two meanings, actually. There are two parts to the meaning of "self-evident" or two consequences of that. It's a very powerful statement. The first one is that each person, therefore, would have to discover it for himself or herself, because it within us. It is, in a way, a call to the individual to be introspective, and to understand who you are, in order to discover that self-evidence. And the other part, which is of equal importance, is that it sends a message, basically, that no institutions, no forms of government, should be allowed to violate these things, because they ARE self-evident. They are not established by some kind of a hierarchy or authority, they're not subject to removal or change, they are part of us, part of that nature, so nobody can mess with them. So it does have two very powerful messages.
Peter: These are the premises of our political science, so to speak. This connects with the second question, and the one after it is well. In America, the members of the Supreme Court are not elected by people. Can you explain more about this institution, and its physical place in Washington D.C., and its role in our system of government?
Akram: This is one of the really interesting aspects of American government. The American democratic system is really an attempt to balance two kinds of rule. The rule of the people, what the majority wants... through elections and passing legislation. And then, the rule of law, that is, making sure that whatever is legislation is passed is implemented and enforced. So in practical terms we have the Constitution being the supreme law of the land, which guarantees individual freedoms through the Bill of Rights, and then, a structure through which legislation is passed and how the people can govern themselves.
That has to be respected, because it was the choice of the people to establish this form of government. There is a mechanism if you want to change the Constitution, which we would go through, if we wanted to amend it. So, it's a constant balancing act and the reason that I say that is that the mood of the people changes from one generation to another depending on the economic conditions of the country, depending on all kinds of things. People can be tempted, for emotional reasons, to move drastically in one direction or another, maybe even become extremists. This is where the rule of law reminds people that we have to check that. We cannot just go along with that. There are certain things that have to be respected. But who was going to enforce that, to make sure that balancing act takes place? The responsibility was given to the Supreme Court of the United States, heading the judicial branch, as an independent but equal branch of government.
Now, here is the dilemma which was faced, how to constitute the Supreme Court? Well, if you go through elections... elections, as they were perceived back then, by the founders, means you are dissatisfied with what the majority wants. The desires and the emotions and passions of the people will influence things one way or another, and then things can drastically move. Change is important, but it should not be erratic and just based on the pure emotional reactions of people when it comes to the rules which are supposed to establish some form of stability through which people can plan ahead, as has been mentioned earlier. For other things, yes, and this is where we have a branch of government called the Congress, and if we don't like something, two years later we throw out these members of the house, and the pendulum can swing this way or that way as dramatically and quickly as possible, but this is not what we should have for the rule of law. So, the idea was that the Supreme Court should not be elected, so they would not be subject to that sort of emotional and political pressure.
Obviously they're not going to be anointed, so they should be appointed. They have to be selected somehow. The idea behind the appointment process was that it would insulate them somewhat. Once appointed, relying upon the belief that an individual of a certain caliber who goes through the tough process of selection, that is, the nomination and the confirmation process, that that person with a certain degree of integrity, once in office, would no longer be subjected to political pressures. Because they are appointed for life, they would have the opportunity to really rely on their conscience, those things that are self-evident. Plus with the knowledge of the law they would try to be as objective and as truthful as possible to the intent, to the spirit, of the Constitution. As Adams said, "we're human, we are no angels." We have our weaknesses, we have our problems, but we have to select these individuals one way or another. The lifelong appointment gives them independence.
So, what is important, therefore, is to focus as much as possible on that process of selection. The nomination process and the confirmation by Congress. The way I look at, it should be more difficult to become a justice on the Supreme Court than to become the President of the United States. Why? For this simple reason: the President's supposed to represent the mood of the people at the time, and provide some leadership, some vision of where to take us. He or she is limited by time and he or she is answerable directly to the people, because of the elections. The Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be answerable to the immediate or, should we say, current mood of the people, but rather, to this great framework, which is supposed to help us govern ourselves through time, independent of space and time. That's the beauty of the Constitution, it is not a dogmatic document, and there is a lot of room for interpretation and for change; but not erratic, not moody change. It is difficult to make changes, and that is important.
Peter: It seems to me, that the purposes of the Supreme Court justices is not to reflect the mood of the moment, but to shine the eternal light of the Constitution, if that is not too grandiose, on the mood of the moment, and interpret it in ways that are relevant to the moment.
Akram: Beautifully said. Absolutely.
Helen: I think that the geographical location of the Supreme Court is important too.
Akram: Oh yes. First of all, being in Washington D.C., in the capitol, sends the very simple, basic message that all three branches are equal, they are all here in the seat of power. But then we get into the symbolism of where it actually is right now. In the original plan of the city, l'Enfant had the capitol, the most majestic building of the country housing both the Supreme Court and the Congress. But then the court grew in size and it didn't have a permanent home. For a while it was quite erratic, and finally landed in its present location in the 20th century. I think it was by 1925. But it's on the Hill, and that sends a message, because the Supreme Court is on Capitol Hill, while the executive branch is lower down, at the White House. You have the legislative and judicial branches on the Hill, and I think this is where the message of the balancing of the rule of people and the rule of law is really highlighted in the physical placement of the buildings just across the street from one another. It is very important that the Supreme Court is in Washington, and on the Hill.
At the same time, we should never underestimate the importance of the presidency. The presidency was an incredible contribution by the founders, and I'll tell you why. There is absolutely no historical precedent that one can point to of the concept of a presidency that is independent from the legislative branch of government, and the two balancing each other. This was really a novel idea. Philosophically of course, Charles de Montesquieu, of France, articulated the idea very well in 1757; which is the need to have three separate but equal branches of government. But really, it's the American Experiment that established the importance and the role of the presidency, in a very interesting way.
Going back to the debates in Philadelphia, Jeffersonians, principally, were opposed to a powerful presidency. They thought that this would be a monarchy in disguise. "We're trying to get rid of one-person rule. Why should we now have something called a President?" There was historically nothing to point to it. They were worried that ultimately we would move toward a form of tyranny with one-person rule. There were others who argued for the need to balance the various special interests that, ultimately, would be represented in Congress. Governor Morris really spearheaded the argument in favor of the presidency. He said that we ultimately expect Congress to be a bunch of people representing a variety of narrow interests. The argument was needed for someone to represent the interests of the nation as a whole, to balance the various interests represented in Congress. It's funny, because today, you hear a lot of people saying that interest groups are really taking over, and that there are nothing but special interests in Congress. But when I look back at what happened in Philadelphia, they knew from the beginning that there would be a lot of special interests. The president is supposed to be elected to represent the whole, to try to balance these things. Probably the most vague article in the Constitution is the one describing the office of the president. It says, the executive power shall be vested in the president of the United States. Well, what does it mean? They were arguing in Philadelphia that "executive," coming from the Latin, means you were supposed to execute, to be something like a general manager. In other words, Congress tells you what to do and if you don't do it you can be fired. Morris and the others, many of whom were Masons, were arguing for the presidency, because, in their minds, they were thinking of the Master of the Lodge. Masons elect the Master, but he is not subject to the faction that elected him. He represents the whole.
Helen: The President, according to his job description anyway, is supposed to defend the Constitution. That's it. He should be trying to go above the rule of the people.
Akram: The clearest responsibility of the president, according to article two of the Constitution, is that he is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. But being the chief executive means all kinds of different things to different people. This is why the prestige of the President in America, the stature of the Presidency, can go up and down over time, depending on who is in the White House. This is where the character of the person becomes very important. Finally, the only reason Morris, and those who argued for the presidency, won the debates was that everyone's eyes were on George Washington. They knew that he would be the first president, and they basically shaped in their minds, or envisioned what the presidency would look like, by focusing on the man, the man who refused to have power go to his head, the man who refused to be enslaved by power, who understood the importance of limiting power and truly being a servant of the people. That was the deciding factor.
Peter: The president's suit was designed to fit George Washington.
Akram: Yes. And this is why article two is so vague, because the idea was that he would shape it, and he would set precedents that would be extremely difficult for succeeding presidents to undo.
Peter: I think that having one person as President is important, because if we were just governed by Congress, it would seem as though it were government by committee, and that is enough to put the hair up on the back of everybody's neck. The president, being only one person, and being the chief executive, represents symbolically, if not in fact, the unanimity of Congress. Congress means "coming together", and what comes together eventually is the president's execution of the decisions of Congress.
Helen: We still need leaders... we need that "one."
Akram: There are two things, this is the beauty of our system. The President really fulfills two things: on the one hand, yes, from an efficiency perspective, when Congress agrees on something, is much more efficient to have one person direct a hierarchy of agencies and departments to execute it. But there is something more important I think, and this goes to the heart of the argument that was back in Philadelphia, it's the visionary leadership. This is where we marry of the importance of the role of the individual with the role of what the majority wants. So, it's a very powerful role and so, who gets into the White House is also very important. It is really an expression of that individuality, that individual freedom. Balance can say, "you all wanted this but I'm going to veto it, because I don't think it's right."
There is a mechanism, of course, to override him, and it was designed in a very smart way, because if you are able to get two-thirds of the members of Congress to agree on one thing, given the various interests, it means that there is really no dogmatic control possible. But the idea is to have the individual be able to stand up to the crowd. That is really very American.
Peter: I was considering this at another time, and in a democracy, when an individual looks up, it is important that they see some "one." It would be disorienting, and I think frightening, to look up and just see "some." But if you can see someone, even if you don't speak to someone, at least there is someone there, and that is the reflection of the ultimate of my individuality, up there. It helps me to recognize the unity of the nation, the soul of America. I think that it's very important psychologically and, as you mentioned, it is a representation of the supremacy of the individual, the sovereignty of the individual.
Helen: I think this leads into the next question, the symbolism of the layout of some of the major buildings and the monuments. I think that symbolizes some of the ideas that we've just touched on.
Akram: Well, there is a lot of symbolism in the design of Washington D.C.. In a way, Washington D.C. was itself designed to be a monument. To remind generations of Americans as they come to visit their nation's capital and ponder and ask themselves the important questions, "why is it the way it is?" Why is the Washington Monument an Egyptian- style obelisk, for example? Why is the Lincoln Memorial designed like a Greek Parthenon? Why is the capital on a hill? Why is it marble? Why is the White House at the bottom not marble? What is the significance of this? The idea behind this is when Americans visit their capital and ask themselves these questions, it will help them re-immerse themselves into the essence of what the Experiment is all about, and help to revive and renew, what I like to call the "spirit of 76." Hopefully it will charge their batteries and when they go back to their communities they will be active and participate in that Experiment.
Helen: One day we while visiting monuments, which we never tire of, we met someone from out-of-town and he said, "I love Washington. When I'm here and see these monuments, I almost don't mind paying taxes."
Akram: Isn't that something. Take the Washington Monument. It really sends two messages. It is a monument to George Washington and a question, of course, is why is it shaped as it is? Obviously Washington had no connection to ancient Egypt. So the question is, "why an obelisk?" Well, in Egyptian history, obelisks were dedicated to the sun god and obelisks represent a ray of light, and light, white light, which represents unity, is made up of seven colors. You have the spectrum and they come together to form a white light. Now, Washington unified 13 diverse colonies into one nation, the United States. In Latin, "e pluribus unum," "out of many, one" that's what it is. This monument is to George Washington, because he is the one who did it. Its second message is to remind us that it is also, in a way, the architect, immortalized in marble, the motto of the United States. The "e pluribus unum." It is a beam of light. And what is fascinating about it is that there is no metal in the structure, and you may think that with no metal in it would be fragile, it would not be solid.
Peter: I don't mean to contradict you, but there is metal in it. The actual capstone is a single piece of aluminum.
Akram: Yes the capstone is aluminum. I mean there is no metal in the structure holding it up. This is why we call it a masonry structure. It is freestanding.
Peter: It is the design, it's shape and intention which gives the structure its stability.
Akram: Right. As we mentioned last time, it is the American idea. Strength and fragility.
Peter: It doesn't matter how many the "pluribus" is... there are 50 flags around its base right now... but the "unum" is still there.
Akram: There is still something interesting to be said... I'm still researching it... about Pennsylvania Avenue. It separates the White House from the capital. Jefferson argued that architectural design and political thought were inseparable. Those were the times when architecture meant a lot, and it really reflected political philosophy. The concept of separation was accomplished physically by Pennsylvania Avenue. But esoterically, coming from a Masonic perspective... and this is where I'm still researching, to see how much thought went into this... the heart of planned Washington, the main axis being east-west of course, and the capital is in the East and, of course l'Enfant had the mall in mind right from the start but he didn't know what would be built there ultimately, but he did have Pennsylvania Avenue separating the White House from the capital. These two were fixed from the beginning. George Washington laid the cornerstone of the White House in 1792 and then the capital in 1793. And you have the Lincoln Memorial in the West and the Jefferson Memorial that's in the South, of this rectangle.
Peter: Those last two both happened in the 20th century didn't they?
Akram: Of course. The Lincoln Memorial was completed in 1922 and in 1943 the Jefferson Memorial was dedicated. Now here is the interesting idea. This rectangle, lying east-west, is very similar to the layout of the Lodge-room. Now the Master of the lodge always sits in the East. It is considered the source of light. And at the east of the mall, of course, we have the Capital. From the East is coming the light of freedom and democracy, in our system, from the legislative branch. It is like "first among equals" in relation to the Presidency. It's interesting to note that President George Washington was the first one to lead the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1793. He led the Masons, in full Masonic regalia, up to the hill to laid the cornerstone of the capital in full Masonic ceremony.
Most of the key buildings in Washington DC, their cornerstones were laid according to the Masonic ritual, including the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the George Washington university administration building, the Washington National Cathedral, several of the Episcopal churches, St. John's, called the president's Church, the list goes on. There are certain symbols, representing freedom, happiness and prosperity. This country, this new experiment, is being done based on certain principles that advocate 1. the freedom of the individual, 2. happiness, that's why the pursuit of happiness is so important in this country, and 3. prosperity for all. So he led the procession. Thomas Jefferson picked it up from him, as the first president to have gone down Pennsylvania Avenue in the inauguration ceremony.
The White House, of course, was not finished until 1800, the capital was not completed at that point. George Washington himself had already left office, he had died in 1799, as you know. John Adams who was the first president to have lived in the White House, but it was Jefferson who lead that procession, based on the procession that George Washington had made. It has become ever since the tradition. And it is fascinating, because in the rectangle, the White House is in the North, and in a lodge room the North is considered, symbolically, the place of darkness. An Initiate, before becoming a Mason is placed in the northeast corner of the lodge room, that is, coming from the North, the darkness, traveling East, toward where the light is. This "East" thing has to do with ancient mythology, with where the sun is, so it became the light of freedom, the light of democracy, this sort of thing. It is no coincidence that the statue of Freedom on top of the capital dome is facing East, and not toward the Mall.
Helen: You mentioned that the capital is built of marble and the White House is not...
Akram: In architecture, marble symbolizes eternity. In a way, it is to state that to, as far as the rule of the people, which is one of the components of American democracy... to ensure the rule of the people, Congress is necessary, it is a must. Because this is how people will be able to govern themselves in the electoral process. The presidency is important, as we discussed before, to do the balancing and to provide the concept of the individual. But the rule of the people, this should come first. That's why we say it is "first among equals."
The decision was made, we want to establish a new seat for our government, and you had people in charge who were quite enlightened and who understood the importance of accurate architecture in sending a message. "We're a new nation but, in a way, in the sense of the experiment, we are a synthesis of some of the greatest ideas which have developed over a long time, and to which we are adding a new level, a higher level." The idea was the we're going to build a new nation's capital, and it was absolutely no coincidence that George Washington insisted that the District of Columbia would be a ten mile square. The square is an important symbol in masonry. It is the symbol of the master. It represents virtue. This country, this new form of government, is going to be based on virtue.
Helen: The symbolism is extraordinary. I can tell you personally that we have found that the town is speaking to us. We're learning a new language. All we have to do is keep our eyes open. It's fantastic... and we recommend it to everyone. Now, with all the buildings we have here, we have cathedrals, we have lots of churches, but yet we have the separation of church and state. Would you like to read this into the record, Peter?
Peter: We do have the separation of church and state. Some, therefore conclude that we are a godless nation, and that this allows, or condones, all sorts of terrible behavior, while others have said that the separation is essential to allow people the freedom to grow into their highest and best. What is your view of this separation of church and state and how does it relate to the Masonic tradition?
Akram: Well: the separation of church and state is one of the cornerstones of this experiment. It is essential. How people understand this and interpret it is very important. Let me try to define it the way the founders defined it. And why they adopted it. Keep in mind that the founders were of European ancestry. In Europe, the church was in control, in bed, if you want, with the monarchy for centuries and that led to all types of abuses. The concept of separating church and state, the way it evolved in Europe, and specifically in France, and the way it evolved in the United States, was different. The ultimate goal is the same, but the motivation is different.
I insist on that because it will tell you a lot about the nature of America. Because of the European history of the church having the monopoly of all the abuses that took place, the French Revolution had a powerful anti-clerical dimension that was obvious to all, in reaction to the church having been in power for so long. The Revolution wanted to create a separation, a secular system that was almost anti-clerical. The motivation was really to take the church out of the state. Now, at that same period of time in Europe, because of the persecution, people who were religiously persecuted because of their views were seeking refuge in the new world, in order to find a place where they could practice their own religion in the way they wanted and not be persecuted. Their motivation was seeking religious freedom. So, in the minds of the founders, the separation was to protect religion from the state, rather than the other way around.
Practically speaking, the consequence of the separation was that, obviously, no church could take over the government and we won't have an established church. And on the other hand, the government will not interfere in the affairs of religion. But I mentioned the motivation... so in a way the separation is similar insofar as practice, to a certain point, but the motivation is different. This is why in this country the government really has no business defining religion. As we speak, in Europe, in European democracies, including France and Germany, discussions are ongoing regarding the Church of Scientology. Governments are discussing is this is a church is as legitimate religion or is it one of those cults or sects? The reason they are debating that in Europe, if they find that it's a cult, then it will no longer be able to benefit from certain rights and privileges that a recognized church or religion would. In this country, we don't have this. The government has no business defining what religion means and getting into the discussions about whether this is a religion, a cult or a sect. So we have, in this country, basically, almost absolute freedom of religion, freedom of conscience. We separated church and state with the motivation, primarily, to protect religion from the state. Now, by the same token of course, no one religion would be able to impose its own views on everybody else. However, the individual is very important and I'm going to take the example of George Washington. This country is very religious, in my humble opinion, and very spiritual in different ways, in spite of the separation. The separation in fact, the way I look at it is the cornerstone, an asset to our experiment, and in no way hampers or is an impediment to the development or evolution of spirituality, just the opposite. George Washington: when he came to take his oath of office, the original oath, as you may know, did not include the words "so help me God". He added those. And my personal research, and my personal conviction, is that he added those because it had to do with his Masonic obligation. In fact you'll find a lot of similarities in the oath of the president, the vice president and the Masonic oath.
As it happened he was in New York, and he requested the Bible. They they had not made provisions for a holy book. He said "if I'm going to take an oath I'm going to take it on the Bible." In a Masonic Lodge we take the oath on what we call "the volume of the sacred law," that is, the holy book of your own religion. This is to show respect for the individual, for the conscience of the individual. This is where I say the presidency is a very important thing, it is representing the individual. Yes, you are coming here to serve everybody else, but you still have "you." Your character, your personality, your individual liberty has weight. So, we say you swear, you take your own oath on the holy book that you believe in. Nobody asks you what your religion is, you choose the book that you want and you swear on it in a Masonic Lodge. This is a compact between you and your conscience, you do it on the thing that you believe in most. It's your individuality, your true self. George Washington wanted the Bible and, of course, they looked around to try to find one. Well, the master of St. John's Lodge was part of this ceremony, many of them were Masons, so he sent for St. John's Lodge Bible and this took about half an hour since the lodge was on the other side of town. It delayed the inauguration. It was scheduled for high noon, and it happened about 12:30. High noon has a significance in masonry.
Peter: At high noon the sun is shining straight down.
Akram: of course, at Meridian, absolutely. But anyway he brought the Bible, and George Washington took his oath on the Bible. This Bible became known as the George Washington Bible. In fact, it is the property of St. John's Lodge No. 1 under the Grand Lodge of New York, it still is.
Helen: I believe every president uses it now.
Akram: They request it, yes. Unfortunately, with our current President, he requested it, but it rained. Being such an historic document, they had to a keep it under cover and use another Bible. George Bush Sr. swore on that Bible. They don't have to, but they request it. And they bring it, under escort from New York, for the ceremony. It is the property of the Lodge. The same way the gavel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone of the capital is the property of my lodge in Georgetown. Anyway, by doing that there was very powerful message being sent. Individual conscience is very important. In fact, our system protects individual religious freedom. Much more than any system that I have studied, including our close European democratic systems.
Although we have the separation, institutionally, I look at it more as a coexistence because of the respect that the Constitution guarantees to individuals to exercise their religious beliefs in their lives as long as they don't try to impose them on others, institutionally. That's very important. That's why we have "in God we trust" on our currency. This is a very powerful message. Of course, it was not added until 1863, it happened in the Civil War. By the way, this is the motto of the Scottish Rite of Masonry.
Helen: Let me ask you something that came up as a result of these questions. Where do we say that civil law will take precedence over religious law? Within the last month or so there was an incident of the stoning of a woman in Nigeria . The government said that they were hoping that this sort of thing wouldn't happen, but the religious people were saying, "No, our religion says this is what we must do. Our religious law overrides the civil law."
Akram: You see, we don't have the concept of religious law, when we're talking about the American experiment. There is civil law. There is law made through the process of legislation, with the Constitution providing a framework, and freedom of religion is part of that. You can't mess with that. The Declaration of Independence, the concept of the self- evident liberty among the inalienable rights. That's says a lot. We can't have the situation where somebody could institutionally impose their belief on others.
Helen: So that's the difference between saying, "this is my religion" and saying, "I'm imposing my religious values on you."
Peter: It's sort of like the separation that Jesus mentioned when it came to paying taxes. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's."
Akram: Yes. Here's another example. In France, a few years ago, there was a big issue about one Moroccan girl wearing a headscarf covering her hair in a public school. They said, "We are a secular system and you are wearing a religious symbol and that is a violation of secularism." You have to keep in mind where they are coming from, historically. It is sort of the opposite extreme from the previous control by the Catholic Church. But of course, in this country, you read about that and you laugh at it. A violation of what? If this is the way she wants to dress... that's fine. We don't ask girls or women in this country, "why are you covering your hair?" If that's their religious belief, that's fine. You fulfill your duty as a citizen, in your job, by doing your work... we're much more pragmatic.
Peter: I guess it means that, in America, to be true to the concept, we should regard whether people are wearing crucifixes around their necks or shawls over their hair or specific styles of clothing that this is an exercise of free choice and that their motivation is freedom, and although the expressions may have religious significance to them. By wearing the symbols of their religion or acting in ways that are symbolically significant they are not, thereby, imposing that on anyone else.
Helen: Yes, we would not allow human sacrifice, because that involves imposing yourself on someone else. Now, let's move on to the next. When we visited the Masonic Temple, we were very struck by all the regalia, but we recall you saying that when you walk into the Lodge, everyone is equal. The hierarchy seemed paradoxical.
Akram: Let me explain. There is a hierarchy in Masonry, definitely, like in any organization you have different people in charge of different levels of leadership. We call them levels and degrees. What is important in masonry, when we talk about equality, is that one of our symbols is the level. The level is used to make sure that stones are level when we're building. It is taken from actual stone building. The foremost important symbols in masonry are actual stone building architectural tools. You have the square, the level, the plumb and the compasses. These we keep reminding ourselves, by using them, that they send a message. We say, "we meet on the level," that is, no matter what the background of the person is, intellectual, financial, social, religious... we meet on the level. "We act by the plumb." In other words, in our relationship with one another we should be straightforward and direct. "We part on the square." The concept of the square, virtue and equality, four equal sides, straightforward, right angles.
What do we mean by equality here? It means that no matter what the social and economic political conditions of the individual are, as Masons we are brothers, we are equal. Now, within the structure of the organization, to help manage things, to do things, we elect officers and obviously officers have titles, etc so there is a hierarchy, but no one has a vote higher than anyone else. It's one-man, one- vote. No one has the power of veto. Except the individual. This is the most powerful thing in masonry. Let me explain. When someone is to join the fraternity, there is a process of application. It differs from one state to another, from one country to another, or one jurisdiction to another, but the essence of it is really the same. A person asks to be admitted by talking to someone, he fills out an application, usually two people sign it, there is an investigation committee to check that person to see if he is of moral character. Then, there is a secret ballot. In most Masonic jurisdictions around the world, the vote has to be totally unanimous. So, every person has a veto. The individual has a power. That is what we mean by the concept of equality. In society, people sometimes tend to look at the external things of the individual, at how much money they have, how much status. Masonry tries to remind its members that it is the internal qualifications of a man, not the external, that count.
Peter: The inherent sovereignty is the equality. We all have that regardless of our circumstances.
Helen: And we all use it differently. Some will use it very well, some will not.
Akram: Let me describe the compass. In masonry we say that the compasses remind us that we are supposed to circumscribe our desires, and keep our passions within due bounds when dealing with other humans. In other words, emotions and passions can easily lead us to do extremist things. If we stick to the concept of the compasses... you see, with the compasses you do a circle. People may have larger compasses than others because people are different. But those two points both have to touch to create the circle. If you go way out you can't make a circle anymore. The idea is that within that circle that's where your individuality is. As long to stay within those bounds you're controlled, you're circumscribed.
Peter: Everyone has a moral center. You have to get taller, you have to get higher, in order to get broader.
Helen: Since we're talking about moral compasses, could you tell us about the concept of good and evil in Masonry?
Akram: Well honestly there is none. There is no Masonic conception of good and evil. Masonry equips the individual with tools for the individual to discover who he is, how he relates to others. There is no Masonic concept of good and evil, but there is a Masonic concept of darkness and light. Good and evil are left for the individual to explore. This has to do with freedom of religion. Different religions and spiritual traditions define good and evil, or set parameters for what is good and evil differently from each other. But masonry insists on freedom of conscience for the individual. That is why masons were instrumental in pushing for the separation of church and state. So that the might of the individual should be supreme in pursuing the kind of belief that he or she chooses. So, we don't get involved institutionally in good and evil. That is left to the individual. But it does get into the concept of darkness and light.
When a non-Mason is coming into Masonry, he is described as moving from darkness into light, in terms of esoteric knowledge. There is a duality in the world of what appeared to be opposite forces, but both are necessary. This goes back to the natural order of the universe, natural law. But light is more powerful than darkness, this is what Masonry teaches. With just the smallest spark total darkness is gone. Light has such a powerful impact. We're always going through the duality. This is why we have the checkered floor, with black and white squares. I don't know if we talked about this before, but the idea is that we constantly go through cycles of darkness and light, darkness and light. And the idea in Masonry is that we should always seek where the light is. Darkness has all kinds of meanings. One of the meanings is very personal, that is, you need to really dig deep into yourself, go into the darkness of who you are, into things that you keep veiled from yourself. When you face that, out of that comes light. So that's the individual aspect. In dealing with others, there is always the idea of asking yourself, whenever you are about to do something, what kind of impact will this have and will it make your environment and your immediate surroundings better. Better, meaning, will my increased freedom empower individuals around me, or is it going to cause more tyranny over them? The darkness is made up of the forces of tyranny, of ignorance, and of intolerance. These are the forces of darkness, and so his misery, by the way. Not poverty. You see the difference. Moving towards light is moving in a direction that is breaking the chains of ignorance, intolerance and tyranny in order to free the spirit of the individual. And it's a cycle. Because when you break some chains you fall into others.
Helen: Let's see if I can make a practical analogy. I have a toothache and I want to go to the 'light' of no toothache. I may have to go to the dentist which is darkness to me and get a shot into my jaw, which is darkness too. So I have to go through that little bit of darkness to get into my light. I can't constantly say I just want no pain, without having to go through some discomfort to get to the light. That initial discomfort may be something that I have to put up with.
Akram: Here you are getting into that duality which is very important. Pain is necessary, it's needed. It's like death and life. We say the seed has to die so the plant can live.
Peter: It's like a roadsign. The pain indicates the need to change direction.
Akram: In a sense. But it's also a passage, not only a signal to change.
Peter: Well, if you anticipate it and then you can put up with it. Like the pain of going to the dentist for the purpose of achieving the relief from the misery.
Akram: But you will need to go through that, obviously, to achieve the relief... to make the passage through the pain to the relief. Death, too, is looked at it as a passage because the spirit is eternal. Light always overcomes darkness. Death is just a passage to something else. Masonry doesn't get involved in defining what that is. The individual, based on their religion, will define it in whatever way they want. The one thing however, that is probably a cardinal principle, is the concept of charity. Physically, we live in this world, but death is obviously a passage to something else. And when we die, the only thing we leave behind in this world is charity.
Helen: Define charity for us, please.
Akram: It is the good deeds we do to make this place a better one for others, that will survive time and place. Charity is immortal. By being charitable, we're not talking about state charity, we're talking you as an individual, extending a helping hand to someone, by making time for someone, to listen to someone. You can live your life, you can accumulate wealth, you can be successful, what ever... but it is that charity, those acts of charity that will be a immortal. And it is individual. That is important. In Masonry everything is on the individual. Masonry as an institution doesn't go to do things. It's individuals. Or it empowers the individual to go out and do things. Now a Lodge may promote a charity program or an educational program, but the action, the real work, is done by the individual.
Peter: Before going on to the next question I'd like to say something that may throw some different light on the concept of charity. I think it was Paul, in the Christian scriptures, who was asked about the best things to do and he replied that the virtues, or the important things for salvation, are faith, hope and charity. Of these three, love is the most important. And he was referring to charity, at least, according to the translation. That connected to something else that I had heard. In death when you get to the pearly gates, or when you arrive at the day of judgment or when you endure the passage of death, you're not asked what your name is, or where you lived, or how much you accumulated, but how have you expressed love.
Akram: That is the concept of charity, real love. In fact, in one of the Masonic lectures, basically the words were taken out of the scriptures, we talk about faith, hope and charity ; the most important being charity. It is in that concept of love and by the way, it is doing. You know how we say, "how are you?" I always liked the original in English, it is a very English thing, "how do you do?" Versus "how are you?" It's fascinating because when you say how do you do, it has the concept of action, of doing deeds. How do you do the kind of actions are you doing. If you're doing good things, you should feel good. If you're not doing good things, then you're not supposed to feel good.
Peter: The word "how" is the vague one there. We know about doing, but "how" asks, what is the quality of your doing? What is your feeling about what you are doing? Okay. Moving along to our next question... in our last interview, you talked about the National Council for International Visitors as an example of citizen engagement. Of course, we know about voting and writing to your Congress-person, but do you have any other suggestions about how the average citizen could become engaged? For instance, was there something in particular that engaged your sympathies and precipitated your decision to become an American? And also, in making such a decision, there are obviously losses and gains. In your case what were they and how did you reconcile them?
Akram: There's no question that, for me, individual freedom was the most important motivation. Talking about monuments, here in Washington we have the Korean Memorial, and carved on that is "freedom is not free." I love that sentence. The more you look into freedom, the more you realize that freedom is not free. We can never take it for granted. We have to pay a price to have it, and keep paying the price to keep it. In other words, it requires responsibility. You've got to work at it. If you really want to be free, you've got to get engaged. Citizens can do a lot, yes, aside from voting. The way I look at it, the person should look at his or her passions. No individual should go about his or her life without having a passion. That's really important. And then you use the tools of wisdom to keep that passion somehow under control so it doesn't consume you totally.
Peter: So that your passion can drive you, without blowing you up.
Akram: You need that passion. So, an individual should really take a few minutes and focus on what it is that they want to do... and then get involved, in the community, in the system, work to pursue that. I really like Voltaire's concept, in "Candide," when he said, "let everyone grow his garden." Again, it is giving it back to the individual, for if each individual works to grow his or her garden, the whole country would be beautiful. Instead of telling other people, "you should do this, you should do that." I use this analogy to say that there is no one specific thing, and I think the times also have a lot to do with it. In other words, what kind of situation our country is going through. To me, today, we're going through this very difficult time of waging this war against terrorism. This is something we have not done before and it requires participation at many different levels. And I mentioned, NCIV, which is a wonderful mechanism through which an individual can participate in this system and contribute to this by getting involved with the organization, by opening his or her home to people coming from overseas hoping to leave a positive impression, a greater understanding of what our country is all about, by meeting with them professionally, or by facilitating through NCIV for example, so that those visitors can meet with others locally.
Helen: Last time you suggested to ask oneself, "what can I do every day to become a better person?" It seems simple, but it is very profound.
Akram: It is very profound. Obviously, every individual is going to set his or her priorities. Nobody can do everything. That's why I think that passion is very important, because usually, when you feel passionate about something, you are more likely to succeed, in serving that objective. So there is the need for some introspection here. Just remove oneself from the world for just a minute and ask what do I really want to do, how can I make a real difference? And if you can identify a field, a drive, then it really becomes a strategy. You really have to work at it. For some people it may be luck, and they could just fall into it. But you can also strategize. Let's say, I really care about the quality of the water that I drink. So I say to myself, "Let's see, what can I work with where I live?" Obviously, the City Council, the county commissioners, but there are other organizations, there are NGOs, other governments. And then map them out, study how to get involved.
Helen: And if that's the passion... just as we talked about the "passage" before, we may have to plan our time a bit better, we may have to sacrifice that favorite TV program. It's like going to the "Enlightenment" of the toothache. Perhaps we may have to change our life right now.
Akram: You know, TV... it's nice to have TV. Every once in a while you want to be able to just get out of it and be passive. But I really say "every once in a while", personally this is how I feel. We have 24 hours in a day, some of those hours we have to sleep. We have very few hours during the day that we can devote to who we really are as individuals. That is, to fulfill what we really want and to interact with the community to make a difference. There are very few, because the work hours are getting longer and longer for most people . So, those few precious hours during the day, what we do with them is very crucial. We definitely have to sacrifice certain things. If we usually watch three hours of television during the day, then maybe we have to choose to watch only one hour, and then use those other two hours to devote to something else. If I want to make a difference. And I think everyone can do it.
You know, this country offers tremendous opportunities. One can get involved in almost anything and you don't need the permission of the government, this is the beauty of it. All these things are what has attracted me to deepen my knowledge of America because I became an American citizen after reflecting very little on that. Basically I fell in love with my beautiful wife. Now we've been married for 17 years, and in January we'll be celebrating 20 years of being together. Technically, from a purely paper perspective, having my citizenship, I was very proud of it, emotionally. I was writing all kinds of things about it, but my knowledge about it was not very deep. But once I became a citizen I thought, "Wait a minute, I took an oath, I made a promise... yes, I fell in love knowing I going to live here and had been given all these rights and privileges as citizen but I have a responsibility and that pushed me to start to learn more and deepen my knowledge much more. Yes, you give up things... In my case, I gave up a whole country, my friends, all kinds of things, not just watching television.
Peter: You felt that as a loss? It is not as though you were escaping your past. You did not come as a refugee. You made a conscious choice between two options that were both good.
Akram: It was not an easy choice to make. And I think that every immigrant who goes through this deepens his or her knowledge into the newly embraced country. The choice becomes more difficult, but becomes necessary, too. I don't regret that at all.
Helen: You did make a choice. You didn't say, "I can be a dual citizen and keep one foot here and one foot there." You finally just focused on what you wanted without distractions.
Akram: Absolutely. It's a passion. America has become my passion, and Masonry has helped develop that. I try to do this through my work. Everything I do. It's my way of giving back.
Helen: What do you have to say to those people who feel that patriotism isn't cool?
Akram: It's very cool. It's very cool to be patriotic. Sometimes people don't understand what patriotism means. Let me say that "patriotism" is different from "nationalism." And in this country it is very important to draw that distinction. It is no coincidence that on official papers, immigration papers when people are coming into the United States, you are asked about your "citizenship", not your "nationality." Nationalism is different than patriotism. We have not experienced it in this country, but in Europe, nationalism led to all kinds of horrible things. From the right and the left. It is taken to an extreme when people say my country is always right, or what my government does is always right, that is whoever is in power, whatever regime, and they follow blindly. That kind of nationalism.
Helen: Like Nazism?
Akram: Exactly. Based on ethnic or religious discrimination. That is the concept of a nation. It is the people... who share the same blood, the same land, the same religion... there's something that binds them and then they create the state. But America is different. People come from different nationalities originally, but they chose to become citizens of the United States, or they were born here and grew up as citizens of the United States. So, being patriotic is very different and very cool. Because being patriotic means, "I believe in the Constitution of the United States. I believe in this system and I believe in my right as an individual to engage the system and to keep developing the system to suit the needs of my current life as well as future generations of fellow Americans." That's what it means to be patriotic, and one should be patriotic. I shouldn't say 'should', shouldn't tell others what do, but I feel that it is great to be patriotic. And if I may say something to Americans in general, who were born in this country and maybe have not interacted much with people coming from overseas, one of the most striking observations that visitors from overseas make has to do with the patriotism in this country. They are struck by how patriotic Americans are. They do not look at it negatively. They see that Americans are very patriotic and they see that they're willing to do their civic duty, support their country in healthy ways, stand up for what is right. All that is what it means to be patriotic. To me, being patriotic, means being part of the American experiment. So, it is cool. You should feel good. You're making a difference!
Peter: We have the feeling that we are becoming engaged in the Experiment.
Helen: We were on Freedom Plaza the other day, reading one of the quotes inscribed there. This one was by Frederick Douglas and said, "It is our national center. It belongs to us, and whether it is mean or majestic, whether arrayed in glory or covered with shame, we cannot but share its character and its destiny." We heard someone behind us cynically saying "oh yeah that's one of those, my-country-right-or-wrong things." But we look at this more like a marriage vow, for better or worse, we have made the commitment together, a higher level of engagement rather than a submissive relationship. It's not for sunshine patriots.
Akram: In fact, citizens that don't feel the need to participate could easily become either cynical or unpatriotic because they're not engaged. The more one is interested in making a difference in the community, the more patriotic they feel. It's natural, it's simply what it is.
Peter: I like the way you describe it. You speak of nationalism as inherently more limited than patriotism. Nationalism is often just a way of saying, "we're better than them." "We're not them," is a separation. It is referential to the rest of the world. Whereas patriotism, as you describe it in the American context, is the affirmation of yourself, as an individual, and the system that enables you to be yourself, to be free.
Akram: Yes, it's not 'against' anybody else.
Helen: It's you and the ideal. It comes from within, rather than being imposed from without.
Akram: I think you describe it pretty well, the distinction that I was trying to make. Nationalism, in a way, sets people apart. It says, we're here, those guys are different, and there's us and there's them. Whereas, being patriotic is very positive. It has nothing to do with being against anybody else. It has to do with you being a better person and supporting the whole system, our experiment here, to keep it growing and to keep fulfilling ourselves as individuals. It's not against anyone else. It's a very positive value. It has to grow... it has to do with growing your garden, "that each person should cultivate his own garden." I studied that in French.
Helen: Well I guess we've ended. Thank you very much!
authors, Peter and Helen Evans, have published two books; "Freedom
Through Contemplation" and "Manifest Success!"