UPDATE 2022: I am no longer affiliated in any way with the Elks. Please read A B.P.O. Elks Update From a Former Officer & Member for details and further information.
I am honored to be the chairman of the board of trustees for my local Elks lodge. I have “gone through the chairs,” serving as an officer for most of the last ten years. The Elks is a great organization that does good things for our community, and I’m glad I have an opportunity to help.
This is a year of big changes for the Elks. Our ritual will most likely be shortened, titles may change, bylaws are being amended. Like most service organizations, overall membership is down, and the Grand Lodge is scrambling to fix the problems. In our Lodge, membership is on an upward trend. I’ve never seen the organization so active. Membership is up, and we’re breaking all kinds of new ground. We have our first woman as Exalted Ruler (what most groups would call “President”) in the 110-year history of the Lodge. Our Lodge is working closely with other area nonprofits for the benefit of the community. We have cash in the bank, we own our building, we’re giving out more scholarships than ever, and things are looking good overall.
Except for one issue.
I took a break from the Elks a few years ago after my second term as ER (Exalted Ruler), and then came back for a third term and started a full-on membership drive. I approached a lot of people in town, and they asked what is required to be an Elk. Officially, you must answer “yes” to two questions: “Are you a United States Citizen?” and “Do you believe in God?”
The first question is an easy one. The Elks is a patriotic U.S. organization with no branches outside the country. People who want to become citizens generally can (my father did, for example), given enough time living legally in the country. For the most part, people who don’t want to become U.S. citizens won’t have much interest in becoming Elks.
The second question is more complex, even if the Elks Grand Lodge (the national organization) considers it a pretty easy question. Whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, or Muslim, the answer is yes. Even many agnostics can honestly answer yes to that question. They may not believe in the Christian God, but they believe something. I didn’t give the issue a lot of thought until I approached a friend that I thought was perfect for the Elks.
This friend (I’ll call him Mr. K) is very community-minded. He’s smart, he’s involved, and he’s willing to put time into organizations he believes in. He has leadership potential and leadership experience. He liked our scholarship program and many of the other things we were trying to accomplish at the Elks. He was exactly the kind of person I was looking to recruit. But he’s an atheist.
Mr. K has a sense of honor. It’s one of the things I like about him. He’s not going to say “I believe in God” in front of a room full of people when he doesn’t. And I’m not going to ask him to. That incident really bothered me.
The Elks are looking to make a lot of changes over the next year or two. But the atheist issue isn’t even on the table. It’s not likely to be. There are close to a million members, and every single one has stood up in front of a room full of people and said, “I believe in God.” I’m one of them. But what I didn’t say is, “I believe that people like Mr. K aren’t worthy to join our organization.”
Atheists, agnostics, Christians, Wiccans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all just people. No one group — whatever they might like to believe — is any more community minded than the rest. Charity and love for your neighbor come from within you, no matter what your religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I have friends who are atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and Buddhists, and they are good people. Many of them serve their communities through various nonprofit organizations or committees and help their neighbors in various ways.
I am an Elk. I’m happy to be an Elk. But I’m disgusted that the organization locks out good people like Mr. K because he believes differently. With membership declining nationwide, it seems silly to ignore the 16% of America that isn’t religious — especially when that percentage is growing. I hope that the Elks can move past its history of religious discrimination just as it moved past its history of gender discrimination. I hope that I can be one of the first to hang the jewels of office on an atheist and say, “I’m glad to have you on board.”
UPDATE 2022: The number of Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist or simply having no religion is up to 22.8% now.