Matthew Vines’ Gay Reformation
April 29th, 2014
Matthew Vines takes us to the end of the rainbow – the only question is if we really want to be there.
There have been books on gay apologetics for as long as there have been openly gay Christians, ever since 1972 when Troy Perry, who founded the first gay-affirming Christian church in Los Angeles in 1968, wrote “The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay.” Performing same-sex unions as early as 1970, Perry started a conversation largely ignored by the queer liberation movement that followed in the footsteps of Stonewall. By 1980, John Boswell was giving academic grounding to what was still a very new idea, that homosexuality and Christianity were not necessarily incompatible, and since the mid-90s we have seen an explosion of books telling the story of gay people who found a way to come out of the closet and maintain their faith: Mel White, Gene Robinson, Andrew Sullivan, and so on (Rosaria Butterfield is one published lesbian example). All of these men and women, however, were to some degree a part of gay culture as it has been generally understood for almost 100 years – they keep queer company, have no qualms getting a drink at a gay bar, and even in their faith hold fairly nuanced, progressive views.
Where a demand for gay civil rights was once joined to a general demand for a sexual revolution, Vines extends to its furthest point the position of Sullivan and Evan Wolfson who argued that gay people do not by their very nature upend the status quo. For Sullivan, this status quo was East Coast gay culture; he met his husband at the Black Party in New York. What’s different about Matthew Vines is that, for him, the status quo was his upbringing in a very conservative Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kansas, a congregation he has never formally left and to which he presumably hopes to return. It’s safe to assume that Vines has never stepped foot inside a gay bar and would not be ok with the general licentious and sexually libidinous atmosphere usually found there. Vines was a student at Harvard when he came out but, instead of staying on the East Coast and embracing a culture that felt foreign to him, he quit school and began a mission that now includes his new book God and the Gay Christian” and The Reformation Project , an annual gathering training conservative Christians how to take the conservative gay gospel to their churches back home.
Thus far, most attempts to ask conservative Christians to reconsider their beliefs regarding same-sex couples have appealed either to the heart, on the progressive end, or the mind, on the academic end, but both approaches fail to understand how change in the conservative Christian church occurs. Appeals to the heart, however deeply expressed, often fall on deaf ears because bearing the cross is seen as a difficult task: any tale of hardship regarding an attempt to follow Scripture will often only buttresses the importance of the struggle itself. Appeals to the mind can also fail because conservative Christians do not come to their faith primarily through intellect nor do they approach the Bible as a book that can be put under a microscope and dissected with reason and logic. At the end of the day, the Bible and the experience of Christianity for conservatives is a walk of faith borne out in testimony, prayer, fellowship, and service: tribalism, at its most basic.
This is where all previous attempts have failed to sway conservative Christians: gay apologetics have been written from the outside of this tribe looking in and the writers have been open to attack for their “lifestyle,” the focus of character assassination rather than argument. Vines is open to no such attacks and fundamentalists are already getting the memo – aside from the usual reviews, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has already published a 100-page ebook rebuttal. The difficulty here is that if they are too strident or crude in their attacks they will alienate younger evangelicals already sympathetic to Vines’ project. If character assassination won’t work and the theological debate comes across as splitting hairs, Vines wins by default, resetting the debate as a member of the tribe – as a voice from within, not from without.
There are two positions Vines’ book hinges on: 1, that celibacy has never been forced on Christians but instead has always been a choice, seen as a “gift” that some have but that most do not, and, 2, that orientation cannot be changed. This second point is helped by the fact that Exodus International, the last major organization promising that orientation could be changed, closed its doors while Vines was writing his book — with the closing of Exodus and the thorough debunking of Mark Regnerus’ problematic research there is no longer any institutional level of support for the idea that orientation can be changed. While many among the oldest generations of conservative Americans will not accept this in their lifetime, younger generations are already living in a world where the status quo regarding orientation is that it cannot be altered. Thus, the checkmate – if you believe orientation cannot be changed and you are also persuaded by Vines that celibacy has never been forced on Christians, it follows that there must be a Christian expression of sexuality for gay people. There must be and, according to Vines, there is: covenantal marriage.
What’s somewhat unsettling to me as a former evangelical is to watch a very intelligent gay man accept the entire framework of the most conservative Christian churches in America. For many, the siren song of gay rights was really queer rights, the right to be different, to be outré, to buck norms. The marriage equality movement and the dismantling of DADT are two legs of a very different stool and Vines provides the last leg, a way for gay people to completely assimilate within even the most conservative Christian communities if they so choose. In this sense, Rachel Maddow was right when she expressed her fear that the fight for marriage equality would end gay culture as we know it. What Vines will represent for some is the last nail in the coffin for Harry Hay’s idea that gay people are their own separate culture with their own distinct mores and attributes.
This leaves us with an existential debate of our own – if we can be gay and live within any community in America, how do we want that community to look?