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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