Religionis often the foundation of a person’s identity. The term religion originatesfrom a Latin word that means “to tie or bind together,” and “moderndictionaries define religion as an organized system of beliefs and ritualscentering on a supernatural being or beings” (Religion and Identity). It means somethingto belong to a religion beyond simply sharing its beliefs and participating inits rituals. It also means being involved in a community and a culture. Thereis variation within each religion concerning how it influences the lives of itsmembers.
While for some people, their religion’s spiritual beliefs and sacramentsof worship are central to their lives; “others are more drawn to a religion’scommunity and culture” (Religion and Identity). Many even feel part of areligion’s culture but choose not to participate in its rituals at all. Religionhas a strong presence in Laramie and there many different faiths representedin The Laramie Project. Prejudice or acceptance toward MatthewShepard is mirrored by many of the townsfolk of Laramie from theirreligious leaders. This shows that Laramie’s religious leaders have tremendouspower to morph public opinion, and their reactions to Matthew’s death reflectthe reactions of the citizens. The Laramie Project explicates the ambiguousmorals when religious doctrine inspires or justifies violent acts. This essaywill examine how religion has played a part in the identities of the charactersin The Laramie Project.
Christianityis the predominant religion in Laramie. The characters of the play are greatlymade up of congregations and religious leaders from the Baptist, Catholic, andMormon faiths. In addition to the significant Christian population in Laramie,there is also a population of Unitarians and at least one character who isMuslim. As these characters confront the disturbing and obviously immoralmurder of Matthew Shepard, they often invoke their religion to help them makesense of what happened, or to form moral judgment for it. Forexample, Aaron Kriefels, who finds Matthew’s body, asks “why did God wantME to find him” (Kaufman 1630). After some contemplation, Aaron believes thatGod wanted him to find Matthew so, “he didn’t have to die out there alone”(Kaufman 1640), and that God wanted him to help bring Matthew home. Othercharacters in the play have a very different vision of God than Aaron.
Thesecharacters have religiously motivated hate towards homosexuality and use theirfaith to justify AaronMcKinney and RussellHenderson of their actions. Murdock Cooper describes that, “If youstep out of line you’re asking for it… it made me feel better because it waspartially Matthew Shepard’s fault…” (Kaufman 1631). In Cooper’s mind, Matthewhad it coming. Simply for being a homosexual, which is a sin in Cooper’s eyes, McKinneyand Henderson were almost justified in killing Matthew.
There are manycharacters throughout The Laramie Projectthat share similar views.Inaddition to the everyday people who use religion to frame their understandingof what happened to Matthew, various town ministers give themselves wholly totheir interpretation of their religion as they confront Matthew’s death. The Catholic minister, Father RogerSchmit, must weigh some church teachings against others as he reactsto Matthew’s death. While the Catholic Church officially disapproves of gay andlesbian relationships, it also condemns violence.
Guided by conflicting religiousbeliefs, Father Roger Schmit ultimately stood up for what he believed wasright. When Father Roger Schmit wanted to hold a vigil for Matthew, no otherministers would get involved. For a moment, Father Schmit thought that heshould get permission from the bishop first, but decided that he would simplygo ahead and hold a vigil because he believed that “what is correct is correct”(Kaufman, 1633). Although Catholicism condemns being gay, Father Schmit clearlyprioritizes compassion and anti-violence over condemning homosexuality, and heeven seems to feel that it’s not his place to pass judgment on Matthew’s sexualorientation. Essentially, Father Schmit’s interpretation of his religion isthat it is more important for Catholics to refuse violence and hatred than itis for them to believe that homosexuality is a sin that should be punished. FatherSchmit also tries to spread the idea of acceptance and coexistence. He believesthat even the most seemingly harmless acts against homosexuals makes an impact,stating that evening calling someone a Dyke is the “seed of violence” (Kaufman1634). Father Schmit shows how, while religious doctrine may establish thegrounding laws or principles of a religion, it is interpreting and evaluatingthat doctrine that determines whether a religion encourages love and acceptanceor not.
Meanwhile,the Baptistminister sort of beats around the bush when asked about Matthew’smurder. He does admit that McKinney and Henderson were wrong and that they,”deserve the death penalty” (Kaufman 1634); however, the Baptist ministerweighs Matthew’s sexuality against his murder, suggesting that Matthew may havedeserved his fate. The Baptist ministerclaims, “I hope that Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence, that he hadtime to reflect on a moment when someone had spoken the word of the Lord tohim- and that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on hislifestyle” (Kaufman 1634). The BaptistMinister seems to view God as a figure to be feared rather than one of love andmercy, believing that Matthew’s death might be God’s punishment for his sin ofhomosexuality. While he doesn’t justify McKinney and Henderson’s actions, he doesseem to justify Matthew’s death itself. His wife states on the phone that “hehas very biblical views about homosexuality- he doesn’t condone that kind ofviolence.
But he doesn’t condone that kind of lifestyle…” (Kaufman 1623). ReverendFred Phelpsis a religious leader from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps and hiscongregation protest at Matthew’s funeral and shout horrible things about God’swrath and how homosexuals deserve to go hell.
Phelps provides a very radicalexample of hate-driven religious interpretation, exclaiming, “God’s hatred ispure. It’s a determination- it’s a determination that he’s gonna send somepeople to hell. That’s God’s hatred…” (Kafman 1636). Reverend Fred Phelps spawnshate and judgement toward others through religion. He says that since the Biblesays that homosexuality is a sin, this gives him the right to hate homosexualsand that they deserve every misfortune from defying God’s will. Fred Phelps’schurch is a Christian church, therefore it is infused with doctrine shared by theBaptist, Catholic, and Mormon churches.
Fred Phelps and Father Schmit are twopages of the same book, one preaching of hate and the other of love. They are readingfrom the same texts, but are interpreting them differently. One of thesereligious leaders views his God as hatful and vengeful, and the other believes Godis loving and forgiving. These are just two of the many people who represent religion’simpact on identity in The Laramie Project.