Religion is often the foundation of a person’s

Religion
is often the foundation of a person’s identity. The term religion originates
from a Latin word that means “to tie or bind together,” and “modern
dictionaries define religion as an organized system of beliefs and rituals
centering on a supernatural being or beings” (Religion and Identity). It means something
to belong to a religion beyond simply sharing its beliefs and participating in
its rituals. It also means being involved in a community and a culture. There
is variation within each religion concerning how it influences the lives of its
members. While for some people, their religion’s spiritual beliefs and sacraments
of worship are central to their lives; “others are more drawn to a religion’s
community and culture” (Religion and Identity). Many even feel part of a
religion’s culture but choose not to participate in its rituals at all. Religion
has a strong presence in Laramie and there many different faiths represented
in The Laramie Project.  Prejudice or acceptance toward Matthew
Shepard is mirrored by many of the townsfolk of Laramie from their
religious leaders. This shows that Laramie’s religious leaders have tremendous
power to morph public opinion, and their reactions to Matthew’s death reflect
the reactions of the citizens. The Laramie Project explicates the ambiguous
morals when religious doctrine inspires or justifies violent acts. This essay
will examine how religion has played a part in the identities of the characters
in The Laramie Project.

Christianity
is the predominant religion in Laramie. The characters of the play are greatly
made up of congregations and religious leaders from the Baptist, Catholic, and
Mormon faiths. In addition to the significant Christian population in Laramie,
there is also a population of Unitarians and at least one character who is
Muslim. As these characters confront the disturbing and obviously immoral
murder of Matthew Shepard, they often invoke their religion to help them make
sense of what happened, or to form moral judgment for it. For
example, Aaron Kriefels, who finds Matthew’s body, asks “why did God want
ME to find him” (Kaufman 1630). After some contemplation, Aaron believes that
God 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.

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Other
characters in the play have a very different vision of God than Aaron. These
characters have religiously motivated hate towards homosexuality and use their
faith to justify Aaron
McKinney and Russell
Henderson of their actions. Murdock Cooper describes that, “If you
step out of line you’re asking for it… it made me feel better because it was
partially Matthew Shepard’s fault…” (Kaufman 1631). In Cooper’s mind, Matthew
had it coming. Simply for being a homosexual, which is a sin in Cooper’s eyes, McKinney
and Henderson were almost justified in killing Matthew. There are many
characters throughout The Laramie Project
that share similar views.

In
addition to the everyday people who use religion to frame their understanding
of what happened to Matthew, various town ministers give themselves wholly to
their interpretation of their religion as they confront Matthew’s death. 
The Catholic minister, Father Roger
Schmit, must weigh some church teachings against others as he reacts
to Matthew’s death. While the Catholic Church officially disapproves of gay and
lesbian relationships, it also condemns violence. Guided by conflicting religious
beliefs, Father Roger Schmit ultimately stood up for what he believed was
right. When Father Roger Schmit wanted to hold a vigil for Matthew, no other
ministers would get involved. For a moment, Father Schmit thought that he
should get permission from the bishop first, but decided that he would simply
go ahead and hold a vigil because he believed that “what is correct is correct”
(Kaufman, 1633). Although Catholicism condemns being gay, Father Schmit clearly
prioritizes compassion and anti-violence over condemning homosexuality, and he
even seems to feel that it’s not his place to pass judgment on Matthew’s sexual
orientation. Essentially, Father Schmit’s interpretation of his religion is
that it is more important for Catholics to refuse violence and hatred than it
is for them to believe that homosexuality is a sin that should be punished. Father
Schmit also tries to spread the idea of acceptance and coexistence. He believes
that even the most seemingly harmless acts against homosexuals makes an impact,
stating that evening calling someone a Dyke is the “seed of violence” (Kaufman
1634). Father Schmit shows how, while religious doctrine may establish the
grounding laws or principles of a religion, it is interpreting and evaluating
that doctrine that determines whether a religion encourages love and acceptance
or not.

Meanwhile,
the Baptist
minister sort of beats around the bush when asked about Matthew’s
murder. He does admit that McKinney and Henderson were wrong and that they,
“deserve the death penalty” (Kaufman 1634); however, the Baptist minister
weighs Matthew’s sexuality against his murder, suggesting that Matthew may have
deserved his fate.  The Baptist minister
claims, “I hope that Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence, that he had
time to reflect on a moment when someone had spoken the word of the Lord to
him- and that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his
lifestyle” (Kaufman 1634).  The Baptist
Minister seems to view God as a figure to be feared rather than one of love and
mercy, believing that Matthew’s death might be God’s punishment for his sin of
homosexuality. While he doesn’t justify McKinney and Henderson’s actions, he does
seem to justify Matthew’s death itself. His wife states on the phone that “he
has very biblical views about homosexuality- he doesn’t condone that kind of
violence. But he doesn’t condone that kind of lifestyle…” (Kaufman 1623).

Reverend
Fred Phelps
is a religious leader from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps and his
congregation protest at Matthew’s funeral and shout horrible things about God’s
wrath and how homosexuals deserve to go hell. Phelps provides a very radical
example of hate-driven religious interpretation, exclaiming, “God’s hatred is
pure. It’s a determination- it’s a determination that he’s gonna send some
people to hell. That’s God’s hatred…” (Kafman 1636). Reverend Fred Phelps spawns
hate and judgement toward others through religion. He says that since the Bible
says that homosexuality is a sin, this gives him the right to hate homosexuals
and that they deserve every misfortune from defying God’s will. Fred Phelps’s
church is a Christian church, therefore it is infused with doctrine shared by the
Baptist, Catholic, and Mormon churches. Fred Phelps and Father Schmit are two
pages of the same book, one preaching of hate and the other of love. They are reading
from the same texts, but are interpreting them differently. One of these
religious leaders views his God as hatful and vengeful, and the other believes God
is loving and forgiving. These are just two of the many people who represent religion’s
impact on identity in The Laramie Project. 

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