SAVANNAH, Ga. — Outside the nearly 200-year-old building of the former cotton exchange, couples and families stood snapping selfies with their faces married to the historic edifice towering in the background.
Inside, a handful of men dressed in business suits huddled in conversation in the center of the room that once was the epicenter of the economy here, brushing back the perspiration that is the common scourge of Savannah's summer's heat.
As more members of Solomon's Lodge No. 1 stream in, they fill into a Freemason's hall that was once the trading room floor of the cotton exchange. Three chairs stand here, including the one where George Washington once sat to hold court, and so does a pedestal holding a bible presented to the lodge in 1734.
"You see the stained glass window? Perfect, right? Look again," says Bryan Hoffman, a past master of the lodge. After a long scan, one out-of-place green sliver of glass in a sea of red finally emerges to the eye. "It is a reminder that nothing in this world is perfect nor should be perfect," he says with pride.
Freemasons are civic leaders, and the room is filled with men of all ages, races and backgrounds who are about to meet over what they can do next to further the betterment of their community. They are members of a dying American tradition that once drew young men by the hordes, particularly after the end of World War II when memberships in fraternal organizations like the Masons, Elks and Rotary Clubs swelled with young veterans reared on the ethos of community service.
Today, America has a recession of civic activity. We are emerging into a society that is less united in a common endeavor and has fewer people willing to listen to elders who could guide young men and women with the skills of cooperation and citizenship.
For the past 200-plus years, Americans eagerly formed countless associations within their communities. It didn't matter if their neighborhoods were in large cities or small towns, or spread out in expansive rural farming areas. We liked to form associations — a lot.
Some were serious; some were frivolous; some had ties to commerce in a town or were wedded to a church; and some were exclusive. But nearly all of them were formed to advance or foster a better community or a better city.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America's burgeoning democratic order and the rapid formation of civic groups, through example, "they form a society."
But we don't join things the way we used to. The question is: Why? The first obvious answer is we are busy, but so were our parents and grandparents, and they joined the Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis clubs.
The second obvious answer is technology. It does everything for us and connects us to people instantly, so why would we want to connect in person?
You can answer that one by looking around at an America with an eroded public square. Things are not going well.
Traditional member-based organizations, especially the do-goody ones, rarely included politics, and they brought diverse, different ideas together that helped make communities and societies form cohesively. They bettered the schools by providing funds for small projects. They bettered the parks by volunteering to weed, seed and keep the area tidy. They encouraged young people to join and mentored them toward improvement. And they avoided using the government for all of their tasks.
It was a way to network and a way to support worthy causes.
No politics. No handouts. All from within.
Today, all of these organizations face memberships in the decline, as their members die out and their influence does, too. And that may not be a good thing.
As the old trading floor, now complete with pale-blue seating on three sides, fills up with members, Hoffman says: "This country would not have grown to be the great place it is today without the civic engagement that all of these different fraternal organizations have provided. We have to think ahead as to how to maintain them, they are and can still be the core of a civil society."
The only groups we seem to join these days are political, and we have no tolerance, or at least little tolerance, for those who do not share our point of view.
Part of America's greatness comes from our willingness to strengthen, foster, grow and promote our localities. Our exceptionalism has never come from politics or government, a new impulse that neither educates our democracy nor restores our faith in one another. It might be time to redirect our energies and reflect on where to better utilize them.
You could start at your local Rotary Club.