Greg Abbott, Alistair Begg, and the “Law of Fashion”

The Sovereign Power of Public Opinion

Laws change behavior. While they cannot make everyone do the right thing, if penalties are sufficiently stringent, and if they are actually enforced, good laws can at least make most people do the right thing most of the time. Without just laws justly applied a healthy society is impossible. But laws are not enough to ensure that justice prevails in a nation. There must also be widespread social pressure for people to do the right thing. Thomas West notes, in fact, in The Political Theory of the American Founding (quotes from chapter 11), that for the American founders, social pressure was seen to be even more important than good laws. James Madison called this social pressure the “law of fashion.” Indeed, “public opinion,” Madison maintained, “sets bounds to every government and is the real sovereign in every free one.” John Adams agreed and therefore insisted that

it is a principal end of government to regulate this passion, which in its turn becomes a principal means of government. It is the only adequate instrument of order and subordination in society, and alone commands effective obedience to laws, since without it neither human reason, nor standing armies, would ever produce that great effect.

The last week provides several clear illustrations of how central the “law of fashion” is in determining how things go in our country. First, there is the border crisis. In the past, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has not been particularly quick to act in preventing mass illegal crossings into his state. Time will tell if this is all a piece of political theatre, but it appears that Abbott is finally willing to take significant steps to close the border. This includes calling the mass influx of illegal crossing an invasion (thus invoking Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution) and defying the recent Supreme Court decision that the Border Patrol can begin cutting razor wire along the border. Abbott is not the kind of Governor to take risky actions. Unless, that is, he perceives that doing so will be widely popular. Abbott knows that most Americans are troubled by the massive numbers of illegal aliens coming into America and want Abbott to stand firm, but even more than that, he has likely been encouraged to continue standing up to the border malfeasance of the Federal government because of the extremely positive response his actions received among the Governors of 25 other states. These Governors signed letters showing they stand with Texas in support of the state’s constitutional right to defend its border regardless of Federal action or inaction. Some even pledged the use of their own states’ National Guard units. The U.S. Constitution clearly gives Abbott the right to secure Texas’ border, but it wasn’t until the “law of fashion” did its work that Abbott became willing to act. That is to say, a just law wasn’t enough; social pressure, more than anything else, is what pushed Abbott over the edge.

Sadly, this last week provides another example of the power of the law of fashion, but this time in a very unfortunate way. Pastor Alistair Begg became caught up in a controversy over his advice that Christians should be willing to attend a “gay wedding.” Begg insisted that a Christian would want to make it clear that he disapproves of the wedding, but that he should nonetheless attend in order to avoid sending the message that he is a hateful fundamentalist. Even after receiving much pushback, Begg continued to argue forcefully that this is the loving thing for a Christian to do. The law of fashion can become perverted to evil ends and that is precisely what happened in Begg’s case.

It is undeniable that bad laws and court rulings (such as the Obergefell decision) have increased support for “gay marriage” and transgenderism in American society. All laws do this: they teach the people of a country what is right and wrong and reinforce this with penalties to motivate obedience. It is, however, equally undeniable that social pressure has played a much greater role in changing hearts and minds to support these sexual perversions. The combined influence of TV shows and movies showing loving gay couples and happy, thriving transgender people; actors and musicians voicing support of these groups; big business throwing its weight behind these movements; and other such things, has done more than our laws to put intense pressure on Americas to conform to the new sexual orthodoxy. Begg is simply swimming with the flow of our culture; he is meekly conforming to our society’s sexual laws of fashion. He may very well believe he is doing the loving thing; he is certainly doing the easy thing. To stand against the flow at this point requires great fortitude.

The relevance of the law of fashion is not exhausted simply by pointing out how Begg has succumbed to this particular form of it. It is also the case that a different law of fashion can be applied. It is already happening. American Family Radio and Ligonier Ministries have dropped Begg’s sermons from their airwaves, while John MacArthur’s Shepherd’s Conference has removed him from its 2024 lineup. As sad as it is to say, this is exactly the right thing to do, and there is going to have to be more of this (for Begg and anyone else who would act similarly). The prevailing law of fashion in our nation is militantly against faithfulness to God’s word on matters of sexuality. If things are going to get better there will have to be an extremely powerful law of fashion at work from the opposite direction. It will have to become more disadvantageous to say the kinds of things that Begg said this week than it is to say them. There will have to be drastic and painful consequences (financial, reputational, etc.) for those who conform to the deviant laws of fashion of our day. Until this happens nothing will change, because, as John Adams rightly put it, a righteous law of fashion “is the only adequate instrument of order and subordination in society, and alone commands effective obedience to laws.” In Romans 1:32 the Apostle Paul recognized the opposite, what we could call an “instrument of disorder,” when he wrote that it is worse when sinners “give approval” to a sin than it is to commit that sin. When sin is openly celebrated it flourishes; where there is no resistance it infects a whole society. “By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown” (Proverbs 11:11).

It is bad enough when anyone gives in to the sinister pressures of culture, but it is significantly worse when people in positions of prominence (like Begg) do so. It makes it all the harder for non-prominent Christians to stand firm, because strident advocates of immorality and unbelief will point to such capitulations as evidence that the biblical position isn’t so clear after all. This is already occurring with regard to Begg’s comments. While Christians cannot single-handedly, and instantly, change the law of fashion prevalent in their nation, they can direct the law of fashion toward just goals in their own communities. Perhaps more of Begg’s prominent friends, out of love for him, and love for the ordinary Christian in the pews, will employ the law of fashion to encourage Begg to reconsider.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

6 thoughts on “Greg Abbott, Alistair Begg, and the “Law of Fashion”

  1. Rather than engage with Begg’s thinking, you dismiss him outright and somehow connect it to a larger trend.

    But in the process of doing so, you mention MacArthur, who used church discipline on a woman for divorcing her husband – man who was convicted in court of abusing their children. That was 20 years ago, but he’s still in prison. And yet Grace has a relationship with him and not her.

    And Begg is problematic? Please. Focus on real problems. If you’re going to talk about trifling subjects like Begg’s comments then address them head on rather than reveal your intellectual inadequacy by making up some trend and connecting Begg to it.

  2. Mr. Dunson, Your characterization of Begg’s comments is imprecise and paints his words in a much worse light than they were likely intended. Personally I am not ready to cancel Begg because of what he said. He hasn’t denounced Jesus, or suggested sins related to sex are no longer sin. He has a lifetime of speaking God’s word in a way that is honoring to the Lord.

    Isn’t all sin an abomination to God? What other weddings should we not attend because the bride and groom are sinners? How about the wedding of a believer to an unbeliever? It’s early days for this issue in Christendom, and the answers have not yet been fleshed out. It’s unfortunate Mr. Dunson has characterized Begg’s comments as swimming with the flow of culture when he’s spent a lifetime bringing people to faith in Christ. What place does cancel culture have within the body of Christ?

    1. If Begg’s advice was biblical, just say that. Assume everyone agrees with your inane rhetorical questions and enlighten us on what is right and wrong. You can’t. You love the moral relativism of the world because it allows you to keep your pet sins and maintain respectability.

      “Isn’t all sin an abomination to God?” Some sins are unique abominations, including the one Begg condoned. Everyone is free to read their Bibles and see for themselves.

      1. Psalm 2_12, You’ve made an error in assuming my questions above are rhetorical. They are genuine questions that the body of Christ has yet to sort through and agree upon. Prominent voices within biblical Christianity have said similar things, including Todd Friel in a post shared by Tim Challies. Alistair Begg is not a heretic. He is not advocating erasure of lgbtq as a category of sin. He is a brother in Christ.

        Christ desires for His Church to have unity. We are in uncertain territory and often riddled with disunity. Conversations within Christendom around these contemporary topics need to occur–out of the public eye. Somehow, consensus needs to be reached where possible. And regardless of consensus, we need to abandon our instantaneous adversarial posture and have grace and mercy with one another. As your moniker reminds, all who take refuge in the Lord are happy!

  3. An excellent, fair and well thought out assessment of today’s floundering witness that seeks the praise of men more than God.

    James 3:1 – “be not many masters (teachers) …” – a person of Begg’s position that speaks publicly and represents the Christian community here and abroad should be held to a higher standard of accountability. God is not the author of confusion but Begg’s comments are easily received by many (including other well trained and respected leaders who hold no ill will toward him) as placating to sinful behavior. Leaders are called to present themselves as beyond reproach (1Tim.3:2) and not use their freedom to cause stumbling for others (particularly concerned grandmothers in this case!). Instructing others to participate with their presence and gifts in the celebration of a hideous sinful event that blatantly mocks both God’s creation ordinance and the natural order lacks both discernment and wisdom (1 Cor.8:9, 2Cor.6:17, Mt.5:13-16). Begg’s earned his criticism.

  4. Wow it seems most of the anger is over Begg (who I have listened and supported for years) than what the Bible has to say

    Sometimes it is just hard to say no and I hate A. B. answered this way

    I think he truly meant well but good intentions are just pavement in the end.

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