by John Borst, Past President Rotary Club of Dryden

When I first joined Rotary my club held a Friday evening, all day Saturday educational workshop. We covered a lot of topics, but one comment has stuck with me to this day; probably, it wasn’t meant to have such an impact.

The trainer was discussing the role of Rotary in her life and said that “Rotary was her religion”. I was taken aback but I figured she was speaking figuratively to make the point about how important it was in her life.

Yet it seems to me that there is in fact, at the very least, a quasi-religious nature to the organization. Although Rotary professes to be secular, its guiding principles and ethical beliefs are grounded in all of the World’s great religions.

This takes two forms.

The first is the fervor with which some members support the organization. This manifests itself, particularly when someone is critical of some aspects of how Rotary is managed or the nature of one of its many programs.

Some members are so wedded to all aspects of how the organization is managed that it is too much like heresy to even suggest changes to the Manual of Procedures.

The furor over the change in the logo is another example of how symbols exert a strong pull on a person’s identity much as they do with religions and are to be tinkered with at considerable risk.

There is also a somewhat proselytizing nature to many of the key programs such as PolioPlus or the Peace Scholars program . Even such habits as the President’s annual theme appear inviolate to change.
The second form is more important and finds expression in the very mission and principles of Rotary itself. And in many ways, this for secularists and non-believers this is a far more serious issue.

When Rotary was formed American Society was overwhelmingly Christian. When Paul Harris argued that religion and politics should be banned from discussion for the good of fellowship, division was over the different denominations of Christianity not between different religions as it might be today.

This issue is addressed by the Rotary Global History Fellowship which states:

One of the more interesting things about Rotary history is to follow the thinking of Rotary leaders as they work to balance guiding principles that do not always agree. Rotary was originally imageconceived as a service organization that brought business people and professionals together to improve their community through club actions and through a shared commitment to ethical conduct in all aspects of their lives. All community leaders who adhered to these values were welcome, regardless of their religion. To create a harmonious environment for the fellowship that held clubs together, Rotary discouraged religious and political positions. However, the commitment to ethical conduct is essentially a commitment to the golden rule, which is a nearly universal religious principle. Consequently, in 1935, Paul Harris worried that the golden rule probably needed to be abandoned by Rotary to avoid religious overtones, but doing so would deny a core value of Rotary. The solution was the Four-Way Test, which is nothing more than a more detailed articulation of how to follow the golden rule.

The retention of the Golden Rule as a summation of the hopes and ambitions of Rotary has recently met with serious opposition from different quarters. It is not that any appreciable number lack faith in the Golden Rule as a guide in the affairs of men. The objection most frequently heard is that it has so long been identified with religious movements that its adoption by Rotary affords reasonable grounds for the assumption by the uninitiated that Rotary is in fact a religion. It being the case that Rotarians do not consider Rotary a religion, it is probable that the use of the Golden Rule in Rotary literature will be abandoned.
 (Paul Harris, This Rotarian Age, page 91)

Actually it goes beyond high ethical standards and the golden rule. Many if not most clubs say a version of Rotary grace which recognizes the existence of a deity beyond ourselves. This surprises me because I suspect there are many members who do not believe in a God or an after-life.

Even Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self” is imbued with religious principle, a principle common to all of the World’s major religions. I understand that during the discussion on the design of the new branding of Rotary thought was given to revising and updating of this motto too.

Sometimes however, an individual comment demonstrates just how fine the line between Rotary and religion may be.

In a post on a woman as president this response appeared at LinkedIn:

“A masculine privilege is be Rotary President in a honest couple with his wife, in name of the family & the harmonic unity of a legally union to be both one in God law & civil rights.” (The writer belonged to a club in Peru.)

To me it demonstrates the degree to which a very religiously conservative person can find within Rotary an organization she believes to be fully compatible with her religious faith.

One example might be the preference or is it practice within Rotary at both the District, Director and Presidential levels of showing the District Governor, Director and the President with his or her spouse. It is just a little thing but it does send a message that marriage, and family are the ethical norm to be expected within Rotary.

Interestingly, when one visits Christian churches in much of Europe, Canada, and even South America one finds a growing abundance of grey hair and dwindling number of young members not dissimilar to Rotary itself.

I expect this dilemma is not going to go away anytime soon. There is however, need for a review of Rotarian practices. Some through long time use may no longer be questioned, but which, if reflected upon for their hidden religious meaning, may be in need of reconsideration.