White Evangelicals, the Culture Wars, and the Rainbow as a Battleground

White Evangelicals, the Culture Wars, and the Rainbow as a Battleground

Shortly before Pride Month started, I was driving across the wide open in the Midwest, watching the stormy skies in one quadrant of the view carefully, only to find what I was hoping for—a complete double rainbow. As I came to a stop to soak it in and take pictures, I had to laugh a bit when I noticed the bow stretched over—you guessed it—one of those “seeker-friendly” white Evangelical churches. This got me thinking a lot, naturally, about the attempts white Evangelicals have made to control what the symbolism of rainbows made, especially since the “culture wars” started.

In this blog post I hope to unwrap a few facets, based on communication scholarship basics, of why—strangely—white Evangelicals don’t get to decide solely what rainbows or anything else means. I hope to wrap up with an encouragement to keep speaking up against unhealthy white Evangelical attempts to hurt LGBTQ+ folks by using the rainbow as a battleground.

My Background and Standpoint

So yeah, as always I’m coming at this as a communication scholar who was raised as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical church.

Let’s Talk about the Flood and Rainbows, Shall We?

This means that I literally can’t remember the first time I was told the story of Noah and the ark from Genesis 11. You know, that very-much-not-for-kids story that talks about how people had gotten really really evil in the world, not terribly long after it had been created? And so God decided to drown everyone but one dude and a few people from his family and a bunch of pairs of animals. And for some reason a few more birds….

And then yay! At the end of forty days of rain, there it was! A rainbow in the sky, specifically as a symbol that God wouldn’t drown everyone again.

Ahhhh, the Complexity of the Rainbow Even in This Short Story!

This is, shall we say, an ethically complicated story at best. Even more so when taken on its own out of context.

The Attempts to Make It the Dominant Story Because God

And as far back as I can remember, THIS is what I was told rainbows always meant. That God wouldn’t drown people.

The thing is that we were almost seen to be unfaithful if we were to even think of a rainbow at all outside of this context.

Because faithful people were always using the Bible as their primary touchpoint, you see.

So yeah, it was fine if you enjoyed a color wheel from an art perspective or studied waves of light in science class—but you were still expected, when you saw a rainbow in the sky, to point back to God and that story in Genesis somehow.

Ugh, No Wonder My People Were Vulnerable to Culture Wars Narratives

I can see now so clearly how this focus laid the groundwork for the perceptions that politicians and other unhealthy leaders were working to build resentment from once the religio-political culture wars started.

“How dare those LGBTQ+ people TAKE GOD’S RAINBOW?” (“It’s not ours, you see—it’s God’s. We’re just getting righteously angry on his behalf!” Please insert ALL THE EYEROLL EMOJIS here.)   

But Wait, Looking at THIS as the Grounds of a Battle Over Meaning MAKES NO SENSE

But speaking as someone who studies and teaches how communication works on a regular basis, it’s just SUCH a false premise that a small group of people ought to have a say about how other people interpret something that is found in nature.

The White Evangelical Narrative about This Doesn’t Even Match the Biblical Story On a Basic Level, Is the Thing

In addition, well, may I just point out how very dangerously silly and against the premise of God’s promise regarding the rainbow in the original Genesis story it is that anyone should be trying to make the rainbow—which in the story is a promise that God won’t kill a bunch of people anymore just for acting outside of God’s perceived commands, no matter how “heathen” they might be seeming to act—into a battleground at all?

Especially one weaponized against people who white Evangelicals perceive to be acting as “heathen”?

The logic, if you actually read the story and follow the message of the rainbow in that story to its end, simply isn’t in concert with the unhealthy tribalism of the white Evangelical “take back the rainbow for God” crowd, is all I’m saying here.

In fact, the story says that God promised the whole world that God wouldn’t wipe people out again, no matter how they acted.

Yeahhhh, The White Evangelical Narrative Just Doesn’t Make Sense Any Way You Slice It

So I’m not sure where that fits with some sort of fascistic culture wars nonsense arguing that LGBTQ+ people shouldn’t be allowed to use the rainbow as any kind of symbol simply because conservative Christians think that it’s their property.

Sigh—Of Course It’s a Human Power Play, This White Evangelical Narrative, Sadly

Because let’s be clear—that’s what it comes down to.

NOT that God owns the rainbow and God wants to take it back.

Definitely Other Christians Out There Believing This ISN’T a Conflict God’s Fighting

Because, see, affirming Christians who see God as fully accepting and loving LGBTQ+ Christians don’t see there being a conflict in LGBTQ+ folks claiming the rainbow and using it in the ways that they do.

It’s only conservative Christians, often white Evangelicals who are ALSO quite fascistically Christian nationalistic as well, who are picking this particular fight.

Can We Talk about How Hubristic It Is to Presume Your Way of Seeing the Rainbow Is the Only Reasonable One?

And the thing is, as anyone who took a basic communication class knows, it’s honestly just a dangerously ridiculous power play to think that a natural phenomenon could only have one cultural meaning.

And honestly, you don’t even have to get as far as a basic communication class.

You only need to look in the dictionary. If you did, you would see that most words have multiple meanings to them.

Words Mean Different Things to Different People—and So Do Symbols

Even more so if you’re aware of different languages and translations and cultures. (And let’s be clear—this was an ancient story told to very different people in different cultures in a different language a long, long time ago. Lots of barriers to common understanding there!)

And the thing that really gets me is that those who, like the pastors in my denomination, learn biblical languages at seminary, are aware that this process is complex.

Anyone who learns any words of a second language at any point, or knows anything about their own language in trying to translate things for different generations or subcultures, knows that language is complex and the same jargon, for instance, can mean widely differing things to different people and groups of people.

White Evangelical Concerns about the Hubris of Pride Month as…Well…Projection

So what gets me, thinking about this white Evangelical insistence about the rainbow is the intense—I’ll just say it—arrogant PRIDE these conservative pastors and leaders have when they try to say that something nonlinguistic like the rainbow should only mean exactly what they say it means.

And let me be clear—when I say pride here, I’m not saying the type of pride associated with pride month, which is about helping LGBTQ+ people feel safe and whole and supported by society.

Yeah, THAT Pride Goeth Before the Fall Type of Pride—Not the Healthy Unshamey Kind

Nope, I’m talking about the kind of pride goeth before the fall type of pride. (While we’re at it, can we briefly note that white Evangelicals are also terrible at trying to control the meaning of the word pride to be only horrifically negative too. I talked about the fallacies around that when it comes to Pride Month here.)

This Kind of Interpretive Pride These White Evangelicals Have=Simply Not Healthy

But yeah, the thing is it takes a huge amount of gall to suggest one’s own interpretation of a natural phenomenon is the one that all people groups should share.

Much less to state that despite the existence of large groups of LGBTQ+ affirming Christians present in the world, that you can say fully and utterly once and for all that your interpretation of the rainbow is God’s interpretation of the rainbow, once and for all, always and forever.

Wow, yeah, that takes some GALL.

So Many Faulty Premises to This White Evangelical Logic!

At any rate, I’m winding down off this soapbox for today, but I just want to say before I go that one of the basic premises this culture wars argument about the rainbow is based on assumes that both things can’t be true at once.

There’s this exhausting “defending the faith” idea here that simply has everything to do with violent fear of the other rather than the idea that it’s okay for others to see things differently from you.

That, in fact, if the rainbow is a sign of hope—that maybe multiple people groups and types of people can interpret that differently, and that the fact that that is so is actually a fascinating and beautiful thing rather some sort of dangerous flaw.

Trying to Tie Down the Rainbow’s Meaning into, Er, One Shade, as It Were???

That, in fact, like the rainbow itself, different shades of meaning and interpretation can meld together in a gorgeous and complementary way if we just loosen our grip on the idea that somehow the rainbow should only be made up of a single shade.

Which doesn’t even make sense, or fit the definition of a rainbow.

Let’s stop on that point for a few seconds, why don’t we? Pause and consider what it would mean for a rainbow to only consist of one shade instead of so many.

It would cease being a rainbow.

When a Narrative Fails to Fit with Observed Reality, It Becomes Gaslighting

Let’s be clear: while lots of things can have multiple meanings legitimately, there’s a point at which certain narratives can get sooooo twisted that they go against their own dictionary meaning.

Fascistic Christian nationalism trying to use the f*cking rainbow as a battleground is simply one of those areas.

It just simply doesn’t work.

Only One Reasonable Culture Wars “Side” I See as Reasonable to Fight From Now

And only from that angle can I see it being worthwhile to fight a fight about the rainbow at all.

Because here’s the deal: the conservative Christian “culture wars” narrative about “the rainbow only belonging to God” is a complete load of gaslighting hogwash.

It would be all well and good if it was some sort of fringe belief that was fine sitting way out of the mainstream somewhere.

When a Narrative Tries to Dominate All Other Perspectives, It’s Important to Fight Back

Unfortunately, this narrative is driving real and active harm in a variety of locations, including the US, to LGBTQ+ folks. It is actively making their lives worse. Some are dying because of it.

Why It’s Extra Important to Validate LGBTQ+ Folks Use of the Rainbow Just Now

And THIS is why we need to validate the use of the rainbow for Pride Month, as I see it, whether we identify as Christians or not.

Because I know this much is true: love your neighbor as yourself is a central tenet of all major religions and ethical systems for a reason.

It’s also just good science and social science.

And in the Bible there are an awful lot of passages about taking care of vulnerable populations and about their worthiness of dignity and of love.

That, in fact, it’s important to treat them as though they were Christ.

Plenty of Good Reasons Other People Have Grounded in Good Observable Facts to Fight This White Evangelical Culture Wars Narrative

So yeah, I’m completely aware this interpretation of these things may well be erroneous. But I think it’s likely that the intersections of so many modes and perspectives tell me that there’s something important here that’s well beyond my own limited interpretation.

What I know is this: rainbows aren’t a single shade. They are inherently a diverse set of light shades, only a few of which my naked eye can see.

What I do choose to bank on is that—along with the science around stress and trauma and research around fascistic rhetoric that shows me that the conservative side of the culture wars narrative actively harms vulnerable humans.  

Keep Fighting the Good Fight, Friends!

I hope you’ll continue to join me in fighting against these harmful narratives that are claiming to so wholly know that the rainbow can only hold one shade of meaning.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to keep speaking up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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White Evangelicals, …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 10 min