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Friday, August 16, 2013

The UK Conversations, Part IV: Religious Relations

[This final conversation comes with a caveat.  On our way back to Montana to bury my Grandpa Wolf, my mother and I drove through the small coal-mining town where I lived from kindergarten to seventh grade.  On Main Street, I saw the old church where I went to VBS for most of my entire childhood: it's an American Baptist church.  This also means that the sweet old grandmother  down the street who taught me Old Testament stories on a Flannelgraph when I was in second grade was also an American Baptist.  

Therefore, the conservative, evangelical presence in my memory is far more prominent than I previously gave it credit for.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions.     ~~Jackrabbit] 

St. Matthew's Episcopal, Laramie
"Andrew," a cast member from a UK production of The Laramie Project last spring, had one more question for me as his cast prepped their roles:
I'm also playing the Unitarian Minister. I've gone to my local church the past couple of weeks and its been great! Did you know of the Unitarians? Do you have any thoughts on the dominant far right traditions of religion of the state? Baptist, Mormon etc….
It makes me laugh to look back and realize how little I knew about the far left and far right religious traditions when I was growing up.  Neither of my parents are particularly religious, although my mother made some attempt to raise me as a mainline Lutheran when I was very young.  (Since going to church also meant wearing dresses, I fought her tooth and nail.)  I didn't know a lot of religious people when I was a kid, but the ones I knew where I grew up in Montana where usually mainline: Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian.  And if they weren't mainline, they were Mormon.  The exception to this rule was an uncle of mine, an itinerant vaudeville-style preacher out of the Assembly of God tradition.  It never occurred to me that he was an "evangelical" or something different from the others; I just figured he was crazy. 

I can still remember my first introduction to Baptists when I was thirteen, on the bus back from swim practice at my new home in Wyoming: 
"Hey, you!" This girl yelled at me from across the aisle. I knew her as the daughter of one of my dad's co-workers. "Do you believe in Jesus?"
"Um… sure…" I quavered. 
"And do you believe you're gonna live forever?" she continued. 
"I guess so."  Her friends were all laughing. 
"All right!" she crowed and slapped me with a high five, and I spent the rest of the drive back to school wondering what the hell just happened. 
Of course, the irony to this is that I myself became a Baptist for several years, but only after I was in college.  In case you didn't know, the church I attended in Laramie was "The Baptist Minister's" church, but I didn't go there until after "The Baptist Minister" left back to Texas.  It's also the same church that Jed Schulz attended. 

I guess this goes to tell you that Baptists were an exception to the "rules," or so I saw it, to Rocky Mountain culture.  They just don't seem to fit the rest of the society.  Most people in the Rocky Mountain region are pretty, well, hands-offish when it comes to deeply personal matters, so evangelicals and their need to insert themselves in one's spiritual lives and moral health feels very out-of-place.  So, to refer to the "dominant far right traditions" means realizing that some are more common than others, but none are "dominant" in the culture as a whole. 

As a denomination, there have been some kind of Baptists in Wyoming for a very long time, but the Southern Baptist churches only arrived in the state back in the late 1950s, all planted by the same missionary.  Therefore, while these evangelical groups are an established part of Wyoming culture, they have always been a small section of the culture, and not predominantly Baptist.  Evangelical Lutherans, Nazarenes, and Assembly of God always seemed to be more prevalent to me, but that was just my childhood impression.  

St. Lawrence O'Toole Catholic, on Grand Avenue
Actually, if you have a look at the ARDA report for Albany County in 2000, it's pretty fascinating: you discover that about 75% of the town doesn't affiliate with a home church, and that there were more estimated adherents to Islam back then than there were people holding a Southern Baptist membership.  You also discover that Catholics are the largest stated religious majority out of that remaining 25%, followed next by mainline Protestants and Mormons, in that order.  You have to take the numbers with a grain of salt, however: Catholics and Mormons [as well as Muslims] are highly encouraged to formally join local memberships while the Baptist congregations always seem to have a lot of Sunday visitors who never officially get on the membership roll.  Nevertheless, one should never mistake "non-practicing" or "areligious" with "progressive."  As a whole, the culture has very tightly held moral and social codes whether the people who espouse them are religious or not. 

So, when Stephen Mead Johnson says that both Baptists and Mormons are like "jam on toast," he's only really half right.  Mormonism is a major influence on Wyoming life (especially southwest Wyoming), and Laramie is home to a large, lavish temple building on the expensive side of town that was nicknamed "the Bellagio."   If you want to talk about the conservative traditions which have largely shaped the moral codes of Wyoming citizens, regardless of their individual religious leanings, I wouldn't pick Baptists.   With an exception for the majority's religious neutrality, we're really a mix of Father Rogers and Doug Lawses. 

As for the Unitarians: I had no idea what they were until I was well into college, and it wasn't until I went to the 2009 production of "10 Years Later" at a Unitarian church in Appalachia that I really learned to appreciate them.  It's a very tiny church in Wyoming, maybe three or four churches at the most, and I never grew up in a town that had an active Unitarian congregation until I moved to Laramie.  The Laramie UU church was my first, and I learned about it when one of my out-of-state residents when I was an RA was a practicing Unitarian.  In general, most people think of it as the "liberal church" and that it's where all the secular college professors go.  My fundamentalist roommate once referred to them as "that church that doesn't believe in God" (an unfair characterization, to be sure.) Pretty much anybody not intimately familiar with the church or their mission, I'm afraid, thinks of them more as "outsiders." 

On the flip side, the congregation has a great reputation around town for being socially active and caring people, particularly because some members of the church are professors who then also involve themselves actively in the rest of the community.  That level of cross-community involvement can be hard to find sometimes.  But just like the Baptists always seemed just a little out-of-step with the rest of the Great Plains society around them, you can say that the Unitarians are as well, but for different reasons.  The Baptists have rigid social codes that line up with Plains society, but their evangelistic roots set them apart from a private, hands-offish culture.  The Unitarians stand out because, although they embrace the "live and let live" tolerance philosophy of the Plains, they also see the social injustice in the dominant culture and constantly strive to change it.

The LDS church on 15th street, Laramie.
Both faiths are "guilty," so to speak, of a level of social interference out of pace with the culture at large: while the Baptists involve themselves with the individual, the Unitarians try to engage and change the larger social order.  As for which one had the easier time fitting in to the culture, the answer is clear: it's the conservative, highly individualistic faith that doesn't muck around with social mores.  Baptists can blend in quite well; the Unitarians, however, are always to the outside, because while their love of tolerance and non-confrontation would seem to fit the Plains character well, their interference with the established order of things is deemed more offensive to the culture at large.  

And so, while it might seem strange to put Stephen Mead Johnson and The Baptist Minister in the same boat, this is where I will leave you. 

Until next time,


I'd like to extend one last thank-you out to "Andrew" and the rest of his cast/crew for allowing me to publish these conversations.  I hope your production turned out to be wonderful. 


  1. Hey there, Steve!

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this. I saw an article on HuffPo about it last night, and I'm planning on writing a short post about it-- well, after I finish this dissertation chapter that's two weeks overdue.

    The long and short of it is that I'm willing to bet most of Jimenez's so-called "bombshells" are either hogwash or old news. Most of what I've seen in the few articles about it are allegations mentioned in the 20/20 special done by Elizabeth Vargas. There were questions about McKinney's tortured sexuality during the trial-- in fact, the "gay panic" defense originated, not because he was unacquainted with same-sex desire, but was very emotionally conflicted about it-- and it's no secret that McKinney and Henderson were into drugs. These are mostly things that were being talked about during the interviews going on about TLP, and Tectonic, for better or worse, chose not to explore. Details are always much, much messier than the clean-cut narratives we tell ourselves.

    As for what actually happened on the night Shepard died, I might point you to these:

  2. On the topic of your caveat: Your recollection of the conservative evangelical presence (or lack thereof) in your childhood isn't given the lie by American Baptists. They're a distinct denomination from the more prominent Southern Baptist Convention, and generally mainline, though that might depend somewhat on the community, as the ABCUSA organization puts a high value on autonomy of congregations.

    Certainly the church one of my college roommates grew up in was very mainline to my liberalish-Catholic-raised ears (her mom was music director there, and we sang in the choirs at each other's churches), and nothing like the evangelical rhetoric I've encountered elsewhere.

  3. And, after a bit more reading back through your blog, it didn't take long to realize that you know perfectly well the distinctions! I should have read further before commenting. But my impression that you quite likely didn't encounter much conservative/evangelical influence from childhood VBS at an ABCUSA church remains.