What do we mean when we speak of “public opinion?” Consulting the dictionary one finds that an opinion is: “A conclusion or judgment held with confidence, but falling short of positive knowledge.— Favorable judgment or estimation.—An opinion is a general conclusion held as probable, though without full certainty. —A conviction is a fixed opinion sustained by such evidences as removes all doubt from the believer’s mind.” From the foregoing it is plain that the word “conviction” is stronger than the word “opinion.” The word “opinion” from the Latin opinio means think. When one expresses his opinion about something, he states what he “thinks” about it.
“Public” means: of, pertaining to, or affecting the people at large or the community, distinguished from private or personal.—The people collectively.” “Public opinion” is therefore the opinion of the public, the people at large, the community. It is the collective opinion of the majority, what the majority thinks to be right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral, etc.
Keeping this definition in mind we can see af once that the “public opinion” is something to be reckoned with. It is a power. It may be a power for good, it may be a power for evil, as we hope to explain in the sequence of this essay. Governments, rulers, business establishments etc. usually reckon with and they must reckon with “public opinion.” Take for example the matter of “style.” Any shrewd business man who puts a certain article on the market knows that he must advertise his product, bring it before the public, and a favorable reaction to his product will bring him sales. If the reaction to his product is unfavorable, he may just as well close shop. Hence, tremendous sums of money are spent for propaganda to win the favor of the public, to mold public opinion. During the last few years we have had several organizations in our Country which make it their business to sample public opinion. Think for example of the polls that are taken to find out for what political party or candidate the majority of the people intend to vote. And although sometimes these polls are unreliable, the politicians certainly keep close watch of these polls and if possible take measures accordingly.
You would be surprised how much the average individual, including you and I, reckons with “public opinion” in his every day walk of life. We do this often unconsciously. You might check up on yourself once by doing a little investigation on this point.
Also Scripture speaks of public opinion, although the term is not used. Sometimes public opinion is changed in short order when the people find out that they have misunderstood something. We have an example of this in Joshua 22. The Israelites on this side of the Jordan thought that their brethren on the other side of Jordan had erected an altar to worship thereon and thus neglect the true service of God and separate themselves from the rest of the people. Public opinion was aroused, the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh to go to war against their brethren. However when a committee of investigation finds out that their brethren had no such intentions but erected an altar of testimony to express their unity with and their affinity to the Israelites on this side of Jordan, the public opinion changed. “And the thing pleased the children of Israel, and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt.”)
David tried to obtain a favorable reaction, win the confidence of the people, at the time when Abner was killed. Joab had’ done this wicked deed, but the people might easily cast suspicion on David. But what did David do? He did not take bread or ought else till the sun was down, thereby declaring that he abhorred Joab’s deed and had no part in it. And thus he won the favor of the people, he rose in their estimation, he won their confidence. “It pleased the people,” () that David acted in this manner.
When the apostles proposed to appoint deacons to take care of the poor, they explained this matter to the church. And the result was that “the saying- pleased the whole multitude to appoint deacons.” The proposal had the approval of the church, public opinion (in this case the community of the believers) was on the side of the apostles and favored the change.
We read on the other hand of wicked men who “catered” to public opinion. (Something that is very common also today). “Felix willing to show the Jews a pleasure, left Paul bound.” (). Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, suggested to Paul that- he be judged in Jerusalem. ( ).
At times public opinion may be suppressed by propaganda, threat or force, We have an example of this nature in John 17: 13. Many of Christ’s followers thought highly of the rabbi of Nazareth. However the rulers had threatened dire measures if someone would confess Him. Hence, we read: “Howbeit no man spoke openly of him, for fear of the Jews.” A clear case of suppression of public opinion.
Sometimes public opinion restrains rulers from committing certain crimes. “Herod would have put John the Baptist to death but he feared the multitude because they counted him as a prophet.” (). For the same reason the chief priests and the Pharisees did not dare to lay hands on Christ for they feared the people, because they took Him for a prophet. ( ).
There are also cases when public opinion is ignored and scorned. The unjust judge in the parable says that he fears “neither God nor regards man.”
“Public opinion.”—What a power it is. It means that the multitude, the majority approves or disapproves, backs you up or condemns you.
In November public opinion will decide the presidential election. No wonder that the politicians do their best to mold public opinion.—Tremendous power. A couple of years ago public opinion in our Country was against war, our people were apathetic with respect to war. Our political and military leaders could not make very much progress in preparing our Country for war because they feared the unfavorable reaction of the people. Public opinion was against war, the leaders had to go easy. (When you read some political speeches you sometimes get the impression that our leaders were sleeping at the switch, but fact is public opinion was a mighty factor in the matter of unpreparedness). Again, it was public opinion that switched overnight at that fateful Dec. 7 when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japs. Germany first conquered one nation after another, but public opinion in the suppressed countries was against the German rulers and made life miserable for them. By its ruthless measures and its refusal to cater to public opinion the Germans made countless enemies for themselves in the territories conquered.
In order to gain the good will and cooperation of the masses one must win the confidence of the people, public opinion must be on one’s side. Anyone who ignores public opinion is foolish. You may disagree with it, you may like to change it, you may want to suppress it, but you must reckon with it. This is also true in church matters. Sometimes public opinion is contrary to the decisions of ecclesiastical bodies. The public (in this case of course common members of the church) may be wrong, sometimes the public may be right. It is foolish to take the attitude “let them swallow it.” If decisions are right, church leaders do always well to attempt to convince people that they are indeed right, make it clear, explain it. If Classes or Synods take decisions which are contrary to public opinion it is well to inform and instruct the public. After all you cannot deny the power and influence of public opinion, not even in church.
What a power it is “public opinion.” It may dethrone kings, it may put rulers into power. It may make or break a cause. It may be right, it may be wrong . We do well to remember this. After all public opinion is not the criterion for right or wrong. There are many people who seem to have a notion that as long as the majority wants a thing, it must be right. Politicians like to promise their constituents that they will do for them what the majority desires. However, public opinion may be very well wrong and often is. Public opinion winks at divorces, adultery, immorality etc. Does that make these sins right or excusable? By no means. After all the Word of God and the Word of God alone is the criterion of right and wrong. The apostle Paul inlays down the criterion for every act and every decision, for the proper attitude in any particular matter, when he says: “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God which trieth our hearts.” Only the law of God is the true criterion of right and wrong in respect to every sphere of life and every action of men, whether individuals or collective groups.
We said public opinion may be right at times, it often is wrong, unreliable, dangerous.
Public opinion may restrain one from committing a certain sin, it may restrain someone else from enforcing God’s law.—Public opinion is greatly influenced by propaganda, hence, it may condemn today what it approves tomorrow. Today it may restrain the Jewish rulers from laying hands on Christ, tomorrow it may support these same leaders in nailing Christ on a cross. There is tremendous dynamics in public opinion. No wonder that so much is being’ clone by persons, parties, organizations, by the written page, the spoken word, the picture on the screen, to mold public opinion. Public opinion also may be suppressed, as e.g. the case in several dictator countries today.—Public opinion is often poisoned by false, lying propaganda. What a tremendous power it can be in the wrong direction. So much so that it will also have bearing on the sufferings of the people of God in the last days. We can see many instances and isolated cases of that nature now already in our political and social set-up. And presently in the day of Antichrist public opinion will favor the beast, will be molded by the false prophet, and as such it will favor the persecution of God’s people. And the result will be that the antichristian power will with all the more confidence and ruthlessness oppress the children of God.
Let us be alert and wide awake, and never be persuaded by mere “public opinion.” But let the Word of God be our Guide, our criterion for all our thinking, for all our actions. Not when we blindly follow public opinion but only then when we can say: “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee,” do we walk the straight and narrow road that leads to heaven.