Matthew Vines is the author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships and is the president and founder of the Reformation Project. He is widely known for his viral video “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality.”
Harvard Political Review: What was your community like growing up?
Matthew Vines: I grew up in a Christian home in Wichita, Kansas so I’ve pretty much always been a Christian and [my family went to] a conservative evangelical church. It was a good community growing up but less so when I came out because there was no precedent for acceptance of those people—it’s a totally different world than Harvard.
HPR: Was anyone else in your hometown gay?
MV: I’d had a friend and he came out when he was in college. No one had ever talked about him after that—it was like he had been erased from the community. My mom was in tears for about three days when she found out he was gay. There’s a reason I didn’t think about myself being gay, because I did not want to be gay.
HPR: Did you believe that being gay was a sin?
MV: When I actually met gay people in high school my views began to moderate. It was important to be kind to people and respect people. When I went off to Harvard I did not have an opinion on same-sex marriage, which I thought was pretty progressive. In the church context I grew up in thats about as progressive as you can get without becoming disconnected from everyone.
HPR: What changed?
MV: I wasn’t opposed to same sex marriage, but I didn’t have a position on it. I don’t think that’s acceptable now because it’s a justice issue—not just same sex marriage, but a lot of LGBT issues are justice issues and you should care about them a lot. It’s not a neutral thing like “live and let live.” Sure, to a point “live and let live,” but when there is significant oppression and discrimination of this entire group of people you should really care and be passionate about it.
HPR: Did your time at Harvard have anything to do with you changing your views on homosexuality?
MV: I actually joined the only groups that would not be supportive if I came out my freshman year, which were the conservative Christian groups. But my first year there I sat down with one of the leaders and said “Heres the thing: I love Jesus and I love God and I always have, but I also cannot be opposed to same-sex marriage anymore because I think it’s wrong to be against it. Is there still space for me in this community?” And she said yes; she might not fully agree with me but there is still space for me there. So that was really good. It was six months later when I started thinking I might be gay. The answer was obvious when I thought about it—I just didn’t want to think about it. I went home for Christmas and came out to my parents which was pretty terrifying.
HPR: How did your parents react?
MV: They responded about as well as they could’ve given what they believed at the time. They told me they loved me and were glad that I told them. My dad in particular did not know what to think. It had never once crossed his mind that I might be gay. He just figured that he raised me well and I was a good kid so therefore I would not be gay. He didn’t know any openly gay people before I came out to him so it was easy to hold on to poorly informed opinions. So I took off an entire semester from Harvard just to work through the conversation with my parents and study the Bible with them. That was my dad’s big hang up: his concern about passages in the Bible that refer to same sex marriage. He committed to me that he would learn and listen but he was hoping I would end up changing my opinion.
HPR: He hoped you’d change your opinion to think that you weren’t gay or that it was a sin?
MV: That it was a sin. But what ended up happening is that he ended up changing his mind. Because we studied the Bible together and what he expected and assumed some of these texts were about is not what he ended up finding upon closer inspection. And both of my parents today are very supportive of me and are passionate, vocal advocates for me and for other LGBT people here in Wichita, which I think is awesome. There are a number of Christians who would not respond the way my parents did when I came out to them. And they wouldn’t even give their child a hearing and would just completely cut off and reject them. But there are a lot of evangelical and conservative Christians who in that moment would be willing to listen to and consider a different perspective—but they have to be shown what that different perspective of the Bible looks like. It’s all about equipping other LGBT Christians to actually empower themselves to persuade their parents to think differently when they are coming out to them—and from that family perspective to grow greater support in their community.
HPR: Where do you think the bigotry comes from?
MV: The default position that everyone started with 50 years ago is that same-sex relationships are wrong and probably should be criminal. We’ve seen this default position change with almost everyone except in the conservative Christian community. I think we are temperamentally resistant to change of all kind—this isn’t a put down, I think that can be a great thing—but I think the main reason is because of their theology. Even [conservative Christians] may be slowly gaining a greater, slowly more nuanced idea of what same-sex relationships can look like. Their views are filtered through a hyper-certainty around the Bible—the Bible is the bedrock of their lives so it’s hard to have an experience that can override the Bible. I’m showing people how to fully uphold the authority of the Bible and also support same-sex marriage.
HPR: What is the key to accelerating the movement?
MV: The most important group is what I call “the silent sympathizers.” In any Christian community in America, no matter how conservative, these people exist. These are the people that, when you come out to them, will tell you in hushed tones that they support you and don’t think being gay is a sin, but they don’t say it publicly. Part of the reason they don’t say that publicly is that they don’t know how to talk about the Bible in a way that still fits into the theological framework of their community. If you just say you don’t see being gay as a sin anymore, to still have respect and recognition in the community, you have to be able to defend your perspective through the Bible. If you can identify and empower the silent majority of evangelicals who are silent sympathizers with words to give voice to their opinions, then they can remain a part of the community while holding a different opinion. And that’s the way that you then access and persuade the other members—it’s arguments and relationships.
HPR: Can you tell me a bit about the Reformation Project?
MV: It’s all about equipping LGBT-affirming christians with the Bible-based tools they need to change their non-affirming churches. We run conferences all over the country, we just did one in Atlanta. We actually made the front page of the NYTimes.
HPR: Many of the people you come into contact with on the Reformation Project and discussing God and the Gay Christian must have hostile feelings towards not only your topic, but also your orientation and thus you. In what ways do you attempt to connect with people who have such different views?
MV: Typical language in secular circles is pro-gay and anti gay, pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT, but we don’t use that language because most of the people whose minds we are seeking to change recoil at being called anti-gay and don’t appreciate that and so we just use language that’s most effective at opening up further conversation instead of shutting it down … I don’t think it’s okay to be against same-sex relationships, but I always want to come from a place where I can honor and respect other peoples’ motives and assume the best in people and then go from there.
HPR: I’m curious about your thoughts on the timelessness of Christianity. You have said that you don’t feel free to set aside parts of the Bible that make you uncomfortable. Yet there are many sections that have led people to take both homophobic and sexist doctrines. Do you feel that Christianity, and thus the scriptures themselves, need to be updated? Or do peoples’ interpretations of the scriptures need to be updated?
MV: I’m not interested in saying we need to update the Bible. I think Christians need to properly interpret the bible on these levels. We now have a different lens to look at scriptural passages the same way Christians had a different lens of looking at Bible after the telescope was invented in the 17th century. At that point Christians no longer could hold onto the idea that the earth was the center of the universe because they took the evidence from the telescope and then reinterpreted passages that talked about the sun, the earth, the heavens, the moon and came up with a more accurate reading.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Office of Matthew Vines