A popular cartoon captured the experience of logging in to social media the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage: a thick blast of rainbow shoots out of a computer screen, blinding the hapless user. It started soon after the court’s decision; people on social media applied a rainbow filter to their profile image to celebrate. Companies followed suit, changing their Twitter avatars to rainbow-themed brand logos.
Like most popular things on the internet, the rainbow grew virally, and you could feel the tug to join in as close friends and coworkers, friends from high school and cousins on your dad’s side, actors and multinational corporations converged to celebrate the court’s decision. And if you, like me, were disappointed by the ruling, you found social media to be an increasingly contested space between these modified avatars and the disparaging responses from some Christians, and you wondered how to respond, or even if you should. What is the opposite of a rainbow?
That social moment has passed, but it won't be the last time social media overwhelms us with an avatar that supports a cause that we might find questionable. We need to think about our response.
Before answering the question above, we should think about what exactly the terms of the conflict are in such a situation. What does it mean to alter our Facebook image this way? What do we hope to accomplish? In a private, Reformed Facebook group I belong to, someone posed the question: If I want to stand for biblical marriage, what should my Facebook profile picture be? Among the more popular counter-protest images I’ve seen is rainbow stripes with the overlaid text “I support the Noahic Covenant,” profile pictures overlaid with a red filter and a cross, and an iconic image of a 1930s German refusing to salute in a sea of “heil hitlers”—the image overlaid with rainbow stripes. Most dissenters chose not to do anything, leaving their Twitter avatar or Facebook profile picture the same. But that may feel insufficient. If those in favor of same-sex marriage are promoting their message en masse, shouldn’t we? If we don’t, won’t we risk losing more ground?
We’re attracted to rainbowing our profile picture because it is so easy to do and yet feels so substantive. Facebook designed a “Celebrate Pride” tool so that with only a click you can transform your surreptitious selfie into a political statement. You don’t disappear, though. You never disappear. The rainbow stripes are semi-transparently overlaid so that it’s always clear that you support same-sex marriage. This is important, because the image is partly designed to show people in your network that you are not ashamed to support the cause. The other reason is that politics are an important way we self-actualize in a secular world. We achieve a sense of fullness and meaning when we express our beliefs, particularly political ones.
The rainbow overlay is an expression of contemporary marketing, which, teaches us that we can become empowered and significant by expressing our preferences through purchases. There’s also the bandwagon effect: images say “something very important and good is going on here that you should really be a part of. Don’t miss out!” In this case, the important thing is the supposed progress of humanity, the creation of a world where consenting adults may express themselves fully, without limit. If you sensed a kind of religious fervor in the movement of rainbow avatars across the internet, it was probably the hope of creating of a more perfect union, to paraphrase President Obama, where freedom to do and be whatever one wants to be is what holds us together.
Many supported the court ruling because for so long our culture has harbored contempt, disgust, and hatred for people who deviate from heterosexuality. This is a tragic and inexcusable legacy for which the evangelical church bears some responsibility. When you can get bullied or killed for being gay, it matters when people are willing to come alongside you.
Those of us who affirm traditional Christian sexual ethics may be troubled by the openness with which our friends and family are now supporting unions that are fundamentally sinful, but this openness is actually healthy. After a century or more of thin teachings on sexual ethics, the evangelical church is filled with people who have serious and important questions about gender and sex. Our communities should be safe spaces where people are not afraid to admit that they support same-sex marriage or that they disagree with traditional Christian sexual ethics. Fear and shaming over sexuality has done little for the health of the church. Isolating and alienating people with sincere questions is not discipleship. This could be one positive outcome of the SCOTUS ruling and its widespread approval.
As far as how to respond to the rainbow avatars: I don’t think those who support traditional marriage should respond with their own social avatars. Our message isn’t conducive to branding. The rainbow overlay is effective because the message is self-evident to our secularized society, a society that believes in the sacredness of the sovereign self. In such a context, expressions of love between consenting adults are simply not the kind of thing that can be wrong. It’s a categorical mistake, like saying someone’s favorite memory or food is immoral. It’s incomprehensible to our culture.
We have to begin further back and deeper in. We can’t just offer the optics of Traditional Marriage as a response to same-sex marriage. In fact, I doubt we should ever respond to our culture’s latest deviation from God’s revealed Word in this way. We must offer an alternative way of understanding the human body and its relationship to God and one another, and we can’t do that with branding. It requires empathy and commitment to love our LGBT neighbors. It requires time and wisdom. It requires the grace of God, and not just for our LGBT neighbors but also for us who so desperately need to become more Christlike in all our relationships.
O. Alan Noble, Ph.D., is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC. You may not follow him on Twitter.