Bad Minnesota Lutherans Cancel Community Theater Production Of ‘Inherit The Wind,’ For Freedom
As a perfect finale to the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, we have this story from New Ulm, Minnesota: a New Ulm Actors Community Theater production of the 1955 play Inherit the Wind had to be cancelled after fundamentalist Lutherans made life miserable for the play’s director and several actors. These are the fire-breathing Michele Bachmann kind of Minnesota Lutherans, not the Garrison Keillor kind. The denomination’s views are so extreme, in fact, that Bachmann left the church when she ran for president, seeing as how it might be difficult to get votes from Catholics when the WELS website says “We identify the anti-Christ as the papacy.”
The trouble started when faculty members at Martin Luther College, the ministry college for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), saw a poster advertising auditions and complained to the school’s administration about pro-evolution overtones in the play, which uses a fictionalized retelling of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey trial” as a means to critique McCarthyism. The administration was also duly alarmed, and cancelled the single on-campus audition that the community group had planned for MLC students.
Within a few more days, the play’s director, Zach Stowe, a student at MLC, resigned as director, saying that he had received a torrent of emails and letters from MLC professors and area WELS members. Yes, college professors wrote to a student telling him that directing a play was bad for Jesus. Stowe added that he was worried that school administrators might take further action against students involved in the production. Shortly after that, six cast members also decided it wasn’t worth being in a community theater production that the community had turned against, and with no time to fill all the empty roles, before an opening night set for October 4, the theater board “indefinitely postponed” the production. No replacement date has been set.
MLC Vice President of Student Life Jeffrey Schone told the New Ulm Journal that, since the school trains WELS ministers, the college’s administration had a legitimate interest in expressing “concern” about its students being associated with the play. The denomination is committed to an absolutely literal interpretation of Genesis and the creation story, so even the slightest involvement of MLC students with a play that suggests the crazy notion that evolution is real might taint the college’s brand:
Schone said MLC was concerned about making it absolutely clear to its students, WELS members and the public about its beliefs and teachings on creationism. He said he recognizes the subtext of the play, but feels it is unfairly critical of creationism and that most people would only see the criticism.
“We felt it was not compatible with what [the school] teaches the Bible says about the universe and the world,” said Schone. “This is a ministerial school. People employing our students need confidence about their views.”
Zach Stowe said that he believes in creationism, but was disappointed that MLC involved itself in a community theater production.
He said he believes open discussion about the topic is essential to proving its validity.
“The play does not just say evolution is right. It treats Christians with respect. The entire point of the play is both sides need open, free discussions,” said Stowe. “But, I don’t have any negative feelings about it. Everyone acted how their conscience directed them in this situation. I can respect it.”
And he’d darn well better respect it if he knows what’s good for him.
Interviewed during a 1996 Broadway revival of the Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence said that he and co-author Robert E Lee
“used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control … It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.”
And now the good people of New Ulm, Minnesota, have learned a valuable lesson about the value of freedom of thought.