Matthew Shepard, a young homosexual man murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998, is the new “messiah” figure of one of the most evocative contemporary mythologies created by our ostensibly anti-religious rulers. As far as we can tell, Shepard seems to have been a quiet person who had the ill fortune to encounter a pair of deeply troubled lowlifes named Henderson and McKinney, who were in the midst of a methamphetamine-fueled crime spree. The lethal pair beat and robbed several other victims on the same night, regardless of sex or sexual preference, and they seem to have targeted Shepard more out of class hatred than homophobia: He just looked like a spoiled rich-kid student slumming in a working-class bar. Nevertheless, Shepard’s murder attracted worldwide attention as an apparent manifestation of antigay violence, and he became the martyr par excellence of the movement against hate crimes and anti-homosexual discrimination.

From its earliest days, the Shepard case acquired religious overtones, largely because of the potent image of the victim’s body being tied to a fence in a kind of crucifixion pose. The affair has since become a full-blown mythology, making me wish that I had been the one to coin the phrase “Matthew’s Passion,” which has been applied to subsequent retellings of the case.

Anyone wishing to understand the thoroughly religious nature of contemporary liberal ideologies could do no better than to watch Anatomy of a Hate Crime, MTV’s recent dramatized reconstruction of the story, and the first of a wave of Shepard-related passion tales. Of course, Shepard is depicted as morally perfect, sans peur et sans reproche, and any suggestion of impurity or even sexual activity has been ruthlessly purged. Yes, he bought a drink for one of his assailants, but this was out of compassion for the poor rather than (as seems more likely) a misguided pickup attempt. But literally, in this tale, he goes beyond perfection to acquire all the characteristics of Christ. The tale begins and ends with Shepard narrating the events from beyond the grave, as he leads viewers to the fence that was his Calvary. He is no longer Matthew Shepard, but MATTHEW resurrected and glorified. By the way, all discussions about the case now refer to him simply as “Matthew”: Messiahs need no surnames.

But if Matthew died for the sin and hatred of the world, who killed him? Anatomy of a Hate Crime is, if anything, even more interesting for its portrayal of the other characters in the story, whose moral roles are precisely determined by their sexual identities. Every female character in the story, bar none, is morally good, defined as pro-Matthew and progay—even the consorts of the two killers. And if not actually his girlfriend, a female student is Matthew’s best friend and his Mary Magdalene. All gay men in the film are also good and decent. Characters identify themselves as immediately and simplistically as in a 1930’s B Western, where the bad guys always wore black and smoked.

So whom does that leave as the perpetrators of sin and hatred? A process of elimination leads us to heterosexual men, all of whom are depicted either as anti-gay bigots or thuggish police. It’s not too much of a stretch to show Henderson and McKinney as villains, but the film literally depicts all straight men as sharing to some degree in their evil. The most ludicrous scene in the film has Shepard boldly challenging homophobic remarks by a professor in a French literature class. (As we all know, university humanities departments are notorious havens of white-male reaction.) After the murder, we see a bunch of good-ol’-boy lawyers boasting how easy it will be to get the accused acquitted on charges of killing just another queer.

Both scenes—with the professor and the lawyers—seem unnecessary, even tacked on, until we realize how exactly they fit into the messianic mythology. Christ/Matthew was crucified by specific individuals, but behind them stood all the evil forces of the world, who epitomize non-liberated heterosexual masculinity — conveniently and simply termed “hatred.” Though Henderson and McKinney actually drove the nails, they could not have done so without the oppressive power structure of teachers, lawyers, and Pharisees. We are all guilty. We are all Pharisees. We have crucified the Lord of Glory.