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Written by Gene Edward Veith
Want to know how to win the culture war? Watch The Laramie Project, a textbook, in dramatic form, of how homosexuals use emotionalism and the media to sway public opinion.
Christians have a lot to learn from homosexuals about how to wage a culture war.
Religious and cultural conservatives have concentrated on political activism – electing conservatives to positions of power, passing laws and exerting pressure on politicians – with some success. In the meantime, the gay-rights lobby has, in only a few years, turned around the culture’s attitude toward homosexuality in a way that is nothing short of revolutionary. Homosexuality has gone from being considered a vice and a psychological disorder to being considered just as legitimate as heterosexuality, with special rights and status. Attitudes have changed from disapproval to tolerance to acceptance.
Christians and other cultural conservatives are right to oppose attempts to privilege sexual immorality with all of their energy. But as the homosexual movement has proven, politics does not lead culture; culture leads politics.
Gay activists have prepared the way for their power plays with a monumental act of persuasion – through the arts, the media, the intellectual establishment and the pop culture. Though the majority of Americans still have an instinctive disapproval of homosexual behavior, they feel guilty about it. As “homophobia” replaces homosexuality as the immoral vice and the shameful psychological disorder, a complete moral inversion has taken place. A vice has been turned into a virtue, and – just as importantly – a virtue (standing for sexual morality) has been turned into a vice.
A case study of how homosexuals have manipulated public opinion is the play The Laramie Project, a powerful drama based on the brutal murder of a homosexual man. The play was a Broadway hit, traveled to regional theaters and is now a popular production for high schools, where it’s used to promote “diversity,” “tolerance” and “hate-crimes” legislation-laws that increase the penalty when a crime is motivated by discrimination.
The play is a classic example of “agit-prop,” the use of a work of art for “agitation” and “propaganda,” as developed by the old-school Marxists. Christians need to understand how this kind of work operates, so as not to be duped by its manipulations.
A Brutal Crime
Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old, openly homosexual student at the University of Wyoming. On Oct. 6, 1998, he got picked up in a Laramie bar by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, construction workers who had been in and out of trouble with the law. According to some accounts, they pretended to be gay. According to others, Matthew made a pass at them. There is evidence, though, that they had made a practice of robbing weaker folks. Driving away in their pickup truck, they took Matthew out into the country where they beat him mercilessly and hung him on a fence. After 18 hours in a snowstorm, he was found unconscious and taken to a hospital, where he died five days later.
McKinney and Henderson were tried and convicted for murder. Shepard’s family refused to press for the death penalty, and the killers are currently serving life sentences.
A month after Shepard’s death, 10 members of a New York theatrical company, the Tectonic Theater Project, came to Laramie (population 27,204) and recorded interviews with 200 members of the community, including Shepard’s friends and acquaintances. Director Moises Kaufman edited the transcripts, combined them with excerpts of courtroom testimony, news accounts and sound bites and formed them into the play.
Instead of presenting what happened to Shepard in a straightforward narrative, the play portrays some 70 townspeople – cab drivers, cops, college professors, hospital workers, ministers – talking about the crime, homosexuality and their community. Shepard is never depicted, but his character emerges from what these people say about him, as do the grisly details of the murder. The play is not just about the Shepard killing but about the ordinary folks of Laramie, Wyo. – and thus, America – and the extent to which their “hate” contributed to the mindset that led to his murder.
The dramatic genre of tragedy works, as Aristotle pointed out, by depicting terrible human suffering in such a way that it creates in the audience an overwhelming feeling of compassion, “a catharsis of pity and fear.” The Laramie Project piles on the heart-rending details. For example, it reports that when he was found, Shepard’s face was covered with blood, except for where his tears had washed it away.
The play does more than evoke compassion, though. It also demonizes the other side, not just the murderers but those who “hate” – and, by association, those who oppose homosexual behavior.
The real villain of The Laramie Project is the Rev. Fred Phelps, an anti-gay crusader from Kansas who preaches that “God hates fags,” an actual person who occasionally shows up at performances of the play, yelling at the “faggots” and holding up signs condemning them to Hell.
The play recounts an actual event, when a screaming Phelps tried to disrupt Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Townspeople drown him out by singing “Amazing Grace.” Later, Phelps tries to disrupt the trial of one of Matthew’s murderers, preaching about how the Bible speaks more about God’s hate than about God’s love. Activists, dressed in white angel costumes, surround this minister of hatred.
It is perfectly clear that the activists are on the side of the angels and that Phelps is on the side of the devil. The angels point out another dimension of the play that makes it extremely powerful and persuasive. It is explicitly religious.
A New Christ
One high point of the play is the soliloquy of the emergency-room physician on duty when Shepard was brought in. Earlier that night, the doctor had treated one of his killers, Aaron McKinney, who got in a fight after he brutalized Shepard.
“They were just kids,” the doctor says. “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.”
Religious references abound. The views of different ministers are presented, with those critical of homosexuality in the name of the Bible coming off badly, while those who are more tolerant come across as true moral authorities. Matthew is said to have not been alone after all, that God was with him.
More than that, the story itself is a re-enactment of the most powerful religious drama of all. An innocent victim is killed at the hands of sinful men. He dies because of – and for – the sins of the world. And, somehow, his death is redemptive.
The victim in The Laramie Project is a Christ-figure, as Matthew is portrayed in the play and as reinforced in the very details of the real-life case: His name evokes the Good Shepherd. The manner of his death-hung on a fence-evokes the Crucifixion.
No wonder The Laramie Project spurs such a powerful reaction in its audiences. It is irrefutable. A work of art is not just a matter of asserting facts, proving ideas and setting forth propositions. A work of art creates feelings in its audience. It does treat ideas and propositions, but it does so, not by arguing, but by establishing a framework that provokes a response.
Any human being – and certainly a Christian – will feel empathy and compassion for Matthew Shepard, both as he is portrayed in the play and as the real-life victim of a cruel murder.
This evocation of compassion is completely appropriate for such a horrific crime. Nonetheless, it can short-circuit moral reflection on lifestyle choices. For example, one would think that the AIDS epidemic would be powerful evidence that homosexual behavior is not a good idea. And yet, making the public feel sorry for those plagued by this disease (as Shepard was) has made people more sympathetic to the homosexual cause.
Compassion also can warp the process of forming public policy. Accompanying The Laramie Project, particularly when it is performed by schools, are study guides and lesson plans about “hate crimes.” The performances often are followed by panel discussions and actor talk-backs on “Is Hate a Crime?” The Matthew Shepard Foundation, started by his mother, is devoted to the implementation of legislation against hate crimes.
The fact is, nearly all murders are motivated, on some level, by hate. And the law doesn’t attempt to distinguish between one kind of murderous hate and another. It punishes actions, not internal thoughts or feelings. Trying to punish thoughts is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s difficult enough to prove that a murder was premeditated. How might the Shepard jury have decided that hatred of homosexuals was the killers’ only or primary motive? Might the whole thing have been the result of drunken rage directed at a physically vulnerable stranger, or a warped display of machismo or pathological self-hatred? Such speculation could ultimately be applied to religious expression if public officials decide that opposition to homosexuality motivates criminal activity.
Already in Sweden, laws have been passed that, in effect, make it a crime to express disapproval of homosexual behavior. Even churches are not allowed to teach publicly that homosexuality is immoral.
The point is, The Laramie Project conjures up valid emotions of compassion and outrage, but then associates them with completely separate issues of morality, political agendas and ideology. It is possible to want Shepard’s killers to be harshly punished without believing in hate-crimes legislation. Shepard’s killers surely deserve the death penalty. But it is not possible to make that punishment more severe.
An Evangelical Response
Ironically, Christians and cultural conservatives often play right into the propagandists’ hands. They come across like Phelps, thereby confirming the distorted and demonized image of Christians created by the play. The public sees the critics of the homosexual agenda as “haters,” and therefore, they are rejected automatically and their arguments never get heard.
Christians would do well to recover the biblical understanding both of sin and salvation. Human beings are under the curse of the Fall. We are in bondage to the world, the flesh and the devil. We cannot simply choose to be good. The doctrine of original sin means that sin is, in effect, genetic. But this does not mean it is excusable. Underneath homosexuality and the equally damnable sins heterosexuals can fall into, underneath murder and crime, underneath hatred and every tragedy, including what happened to Matthew Shepard, is the same intractable reality of our sinful condition.
The solution to this bondage is not laws (though laws are necessary to keep our outward behavior from the worst things it is capable of) or good intentions or willpower, but the Cross of Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world, took the punishment sinners deserve and imputes to those sinners His own righteousness.
This is the Gospel. The only thing that can change the human heart and all of its bad behavior is faith in Jesus Christ. The culture, by and large, believes that Christianity is just a matter of “being good.” The cultural stereotypes formed by the propaganda present Christianity as just another brand of moralism. There is little awareness that Christianity is a religion specifically for sinners, that it is really all about grace, forgiveness and the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ for our justification.
Homosexuals need Christ. Whether He will change their sexual orientation or help them remain celibate or keep forgiving them when they fall, their only hope – exactly as it is for heterosexual sinners – is in the Gospel.
The spiritual condition that is far more dangerous than homosexuality is self-righteousness. In another irony, this is something the Phelpses of the world and the gay lobby have in common. Christian legalists can be complacent in their own righteousness, shutting out their own need for Christ’s forgiveness and alienating the culture by their harshness and hypocrisies. In the meantime, the gay lobby is cultivating a self-righteousness of its own, insisting on its goodness, that homosexuality is not wrong at all. Both need to repent, to confess their sins, so Christ can set them free.
This is how Christians need to present themselves and their faith. This will counter the legalistic stereotypes of the propagandists and will project genuine compassion for those trapped in the snares of homosexuality. While pursuing not propaganda but truth and while fighting the legal and political battles, Christians need to communicate their message in a way that is at least as persuasive, effective and culturally savvy as what the homosexuals have been doing.
Gene Edward Veith is cultural editor of World magazine and author of Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.
This article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Citizen magazine.