Religion is a strong presence in Laramie, and many people of different faiths are represented in The Laramie Project. For those people, the religious teachings with which they grew up tend to influence the prejudice or acceptance with which they view Matthew Shepard. Because of this, the town’s religious leaders have tremendous power to shape public opinion, and their reactions to Matthew’s death reflect the reactions of the town at large. Through its focus on several of the town’s religious leaders, The Laramie Project grapples, in particular, with the ambiguous ethics of situations in which religious doctrine seems to inspire or justify immoral acts.
Christianity is the predominant religion in Laramie, and the characters in the play include parishioners and religious leaders from the Baptist, Catholic, and Mormon faiths. In addition to the considerable 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 amoral murder of Matthew Shepard, they often invoke their religion to help them make sense of what happened, or to structure their moral judgment of it. For example, Aaron Kriefels, who finds Matthew’s body, sees his role in the aftermath of the murders as God’s will—he believes that God wanted him to help bring Matthew home. Other characters, many of whom have a very different vision of God than Aaron, grapple with religiously-driven aversions to homosexuality and use their faith to excuse Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson’s actions.
In addition to the everyday people who use religion to frame their understanding of what happened to Matthew, various town ministers navigate their role as representatives of their religion as they confront Matthew’s death. Stephen Mead Johnson, the Unitarian minister, roundly condemns the crime against Matthew, feeling that the murder is profoundly against official Unitarian teachings (which do not discriminate based on sexuality). The Catholic minister, Father Roger Schmit, meanwhile, 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. Despite the official church policy against homosexuality, Father Roger Schmit chooses to organize a vigil for Matthew immediately after he is found, believing that it is the right thing to do when weighing his beliefs overall.
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 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. Likewise, although being gay is a sin in Mormonism, the Mormon Church excommunicates Russell Henderson (who was a Mormon) for his crimes, seeming to make a similar evaluation about the paramount importance of resisting violence.
Meanwhile, the most extreme minister in Laramie, the Baptist minister, equivocates when asked about the violence against Matthew. Effectively, the Baptist minister weighs Matthew's sexuality against his murder, suggesting that Matthew may have deserved to be murdered because of his sexuality. The Baptist Minister, in believing that Matthew’s brutal death might be God’s punishment, seems to view God as a figure to be feared rather than a figure of love and mercy. Fred Phelps, a minister from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, provides an extreme example of hate-focused religious interpretation when he protests Matthew Shepard’s funeral, shouting horrible things about God’s wrath. Fred Phelps’s church is a Christian church, and so it is based in the same texts and traditional doctrine as the Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon churches. Through Fred Phelps’s presence, the play shows how the same general religion (Christianity) that Father Schmit interprets as obligating him to hold a vigil for Matthew can also inspire someone to promote the same kind of violence that killed Matthew.
Through these different ministers and churches, The Laramie Project gives the reader a spectrum of examples of how different individuals and institutions grapple with morality, doctrine, and religious interpretation. These religious leaders’ reactions embody the complexity and plurality of responses that the townspeople have to the murder, and suggest that while some religious doctrine can be inclined towards violence and hatred, it is really how one engages with religious doctrine that determines whether a religious community is accepting or not.
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Religion, Morality, and Prejudice Quotes in The Laramie Project
They were both my patients and they were two kids. I took care of both of them…of both their bodies. And… for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids…Our bodies…Our souls…And I felt a great deal of compassion…for both of them…
I thought, “You know, should we…call the bishop and ask him permission to do the vigil?” And I was like, “Hell, no, I’m not going to do that.” His permission doesn’t make it correct, you realize that? And I’m not knocking bishops, but what is correct is correct.
You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but, you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a…dyke…Do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence. And I would resent it immensely if you use anything I said…to somehow cultivate that kind of violence…Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.
Now, those two people, the accused… I think they deserve the death penalty…Now as for the victim, I know that that lifestyle is legal, but I will tell you one thing. 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.
And as I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this…I guess I didn’t understand the magnitude with which some people hate.
I decided that someone needed to stand toe to toe with this guy and show the differences. And I think at time like this when we’re talking about hatred as much as the nation is right now, that someone needs to show, that there is a better way of dealing with that kind of hatred. So our idea is to dress up like angels.
It just hit me today, the minute that I got out of the courthouse. That the reason that God wanted me to find him is, for he didn’t have to die out there alone, you know. And if I wouldn’t’ve came along, they wouldn’t’ve found him for a couple of weeks at least. So it makes me feel really good that he didn’t have to die out there alone.