Friday, August 2, 2013

Public Opinion & Truth: Do Opinion Polls Determine Morality?

Recently I published my second book The Death of Death: Engaging the Culture of Death With the Gospel of Christ.  In light of its publication, I want to offer a free chapter that did not make it in the final publication.

As the title of this chapter asks, do opinion polls, so common in the current 24/7 news cycle, determine morality? In a culture and a news media obsessed with tracking public opinion, at times it seems that for many, percentages determine the morality of an act. Joe Carter at First Things laid out the argument that such opinion polls are making Americans dumb by suggesting that, “While politicians have the ability to create public policy, pollsters have the power to craft public opinion.” He goes on to add:
Although opinion polls are often treated as if they were harmless detritus of the news-cycle, they are powerful tools for promoting overconfidence and slip-shod reasoning. Take, for instance, two of the worst types of polls—those that purportedly measure “favorability” and the “job approval rating” of politicians such as the president and members of Congress. Such polls might be useful if the general public were aware of the president and legislators’ duties, and if we could appeal to a single, objective standard to judge polls’ relevance and faithfulness to truth. But we don’t. Instead, polls create an illusion of assurance, allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we have precisely quantified our vague qualitative judgments.[1]

Both statistics and opinion polls can be misleading and manipulative. Carter’s point is well received. Opinion polls are skewed by an uninformed public many of whom are ignorant of who their elected officials are and have no training in logic or ethics. In addition, as Carter suggests, “polls create an illusion of assurance,” whether in the context of politics or morality. Everyone, from the voter to the elected official, wants to be ahead of the cultural curve. Oftentimes, opinion polls unfortunately become headline news with a new poll fed to the American public everyday regarding presidential approval, congressional approval, economic stability, and opinions on a whole range of issues all of which are meant to both reflect and direct public opinion. Opinion polls are not really news, but a supposed interpretation of the news. Certainly public opinion is crucial in a democracy, but as Carter argues, it is starting to making democratic citizens dumb as there is a poll out for just about everything.

But what about polls regarding moral issues? After all, if a majority of Americans land on one side of a moral issue does that mean it is right and moral? Perhaps a relativistic, postmodern society that sees cultural progress and evolution as a positive step toward Utopia and truth itself as relative might think so, but such a wobbly foundation cannot be sustained. If history teaches us anything, it is that any moral behavior can be rationalized and thus increase in popularity.

Consider current trends regarding the challenging moral issues of abortion and homosexuality. Poll trends have shown the opinions of Americans regarding gay marriage are moving away from traditional values. There is now a majority of Americans who favor gay marriage and do not see homosexuality as immoral or wrong. Much of this transition is the difference of generations. Older generations are more likely to defend traditional marriage while their children and grandchildren are likely more open to same-sex marriage. As Dr. Robert P. Jones exuberantly writes at the Huffington Post, poll after poll suggests that “this clearly looks like the beginning of the end of the same-sex marriage debate.”[2]

Likewise, in May 2011 Gallop released a poll suggesting that over sixty percent of Americans believe abortion should be made illegal.[3] After forty years of legalized abortion and countless lives lost, such a poll is encouraging. A change in public opinion is central to overturning Roe vs. Wade and Gallup is not the only poll to show that the majority of Americans consider abortion immoral and ought to be illegal. It appears that the progression of science over time is shaping public opinion towards the pro-life cause. The ultrasound, in particular, has become the abortion clinic’s worse nightmare for even a desperate mother cannot deny that life is being taken when one has an abortion.[4]

Each respected poll may in fact suggest the beginning of the end of both legalized abortion and traditional marriage in America. Perhaps within a generation one or both will become a reality. America could become one of the most pro-life and pro-gay marriage nations in the world; conservative regarding life, progressive regarding marriage.

This is most clearly seen in a 2013 TIME Magazine article which argued pro-abortion supporters won a great victory in Roe vs. Wade forty years ago, but have “been losing ever since.”[5] Pro-life advocates were shocked by the cover story and rejoiced that the mainstream media noticed the change in public perception and view on the issue.[6]

One word of warning was directed to pro-life advocates following this article and the polling it reported on. Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, warns his readers that though some real gains in the fight against abortion have taken place the past forty years, it is not time to celebrate. In his article, entitled Is the Pro-Life Cause Winning?,[7] Moore notes how easy it is to be pro-life when there is nothing at stake. In other words, “it is easy for Americans to see the debate as a matter of theory rather than a matter of policy.” The old feminist rebuke is that many who are pro-life are against abortion except in the cases of “rape, incest, and ‘my situation.’”

To Moore, the reason why it is not time to celebrate yet is because in spite of several pro-life administrations at the federal level and pro-life legislation at the state level, the culture of death still “seeks to circumvent the state of the debate through pernicious new technologies and through the more subtle changes in culture that make children seem to be burden rather than blessing.” Such an attitude is just what the pro-abortion lobby feeds on.

Consider how Americans with large families are treated. In a Washington Post article during the 2011-2012 Republican Presidential primaries, Lisa Miller commented that the GOP candidates come off with what she called “smug fecundity” due to their number of children and the impression that gives to women like her.[8] Though noting that “There’s nothing wrong with big families,” Miller proceeded to blast former Senator Rick Santorum (who has seven children) and former governor Mitt Romney (who has five sons). Miller fears biblical patriarchy from such public and proud men and writes to encourage woman that family planning is a good thing.

Similarly, British celebrities David and Victoria Beckham’s large family has been ridiculed. Tracy McVeigh at argues that the Beckhams (who have four children) are “bad role models.” Two problems with such large families, according to the article, are overpopulation and climate change. Large families have large carbon footprints and with over seven billion people on earth, “there is an increasing call for the UK to open a public debate about how many children people have.”[9]

Thus how the West treats large families is indicative of how it treats children in general.[10] How often has an expectant couple been asked, even by Christians, “do you not know what causes that?” The spirit of the age is against children and the unborn. So though pro-life advocates have reason to be encouraged by recent polling, there is still much work to be done.

In the end, does any of this really matter beyond the fascinating tracing of public opinion? Do such polls automatically mean that gay marriage is now moral because a majority of Americans say it is and at the same time abortion is immoral simply because the majority of Americans say it is? Oftentimes the answer to that question is unfortunately yes. When such controversial issues are raised, especially among politicians, the question of history is asked. Many are now supporting gay marriage because they do not want to be on the wrong side of history. In 2012, Politico reported on the Republican Party beginning to “retreat” from the issue of homosexuality simply because polls suggest that same-sex marriage is becoming more accepted and inevitable. Conservative politicians, who are often driven by polling, are beginning to run for the hills.[11]

But opinion polls do not determine questions of ethics and morality. Truth, by definition, is intolerant and is not subject to one’s opinion. Certainly there is reason for pro-life Americans to rejoice and hope that decades of murder might be undone and, at the same time, pro-gay marriage Americans might have reason to rejoice as they watch a clear change in direction regarding the definition of marriage in spite of over thirty states voting in favor of marriage amendments. Opinion polls make sense in a postmodern society that has long abandoned true truth. Such polls are fascinating and do track the changing beliefs of secular America, but also reveal the culture’s view of truth and the nature of its convictions. They are fickle. What one believes does not mean, as postmodernism would have us believe, it is right.

Christians must be careful here. Too many well-intentioned believers have shifted the gospel to accommodate the trend of polls. Many pastors have softened the message of the cross when dealing with unpopular issues but then pound the pulpit when knowing that the majority of the congregation agrees with them. That is a cowardly Christianity and not one that is faithful to the gospel. The church has been, from its birth, counter-culture and it should not be concerned with public opinion. Why would the church care what sinners think when Scripture, driven by the gospel, reveals a more righteous way? Many Christians, pastors, and churches have shaped their ministry to mimic cultural trends and preach only on topics that gain a popular ear all while ignoring some or all of the gospel.

Many popular pastors today refuse to preach against sin. Robert Shuler, influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, would hardly touch the topic. The Hour of Power televangelist, in his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, defined sin as “any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem.”[12] Now Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest church, has taken the mantle and preaches a positive message of self-help and prosperity. Osteen, when confronted with the lack of sin in his books and sermons, acts as if such concepts are off limits. These are but two prominent pastors of recent decades who refuse to preach against sin, but one could easily find thousands more. This is a recipe for disaster. Compromising orthodox theology in search of missional relevancy, in the end breeds irrelevancy.[13]

The gospel is the good news of an immutable God. Because He Himself is unchanging, so is His fundamental message of salvation. Opinion polls have no affect on the gospel or its God. This means that Christians must be willing to stand firm on gospel grounds regardless of its popularity. After all, Jesus Himself frequently warned his followers that His gospel was unpopular. Was it not by popular vote from the crowd that cried for the Son of God’s crucifixion? Did Paul not explain that the foolishness of the cross was folly to the lost world (1 Corinthians 1:18ff)?

This is not to say that opinion polls are useless and ought to be ignored. However, Christians, too often use them either to confirm their convictions (as in the case with abortion) or to decry the culture (as in the case with homosexuality). The opinions of a culture do not justify or make void the claims and convictions of the gospel. At the same time, any culture that has abandoned the gospel (and every culture has) will inevitably move in the direction of depravity and immorality outside of a full-scale embracing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus the priority of the church ought to be to proclaim the message of Jesus trusting in the Divine Sovereignty of God and the influence of the Spirit rather than dwelling on depravity’s opinion. If the church wants to see the culture change, it will not come primarily through laws and legislation or by accommodating the saving message of grace, but through the redemption of each individual and the health of the local church. The answer is always the gospel regardless of what Gallup or any other polling company might publish next.

[1] Joe Carter, “Why Polls Make Us Dumb,” First Things.
[2] Robert P. Jones, “The New Majority in the Same-Sex Debate,” Huffington Post.
[3] Michael Froust, “Poll: 61 percent oppose most abortions,” Baptist Press.
[4] Many pro-choice advocates have admitted this. HBO comedian and pro-choice atheist Bill Maher has repeatedly confessed that abortion is the taking of life. But this has not convinced him that abortion is immoral and should be made illegal.
[5] Kate Pickert, “What Choice?Time.
[6] A helpful article in this regard is R. Albert Mohler, Losing Ever Since Roe? — TIME Sounds the Siren for Abortion Rights.
[7] Russell Moore, Is the Pro-Life Cause Winning?.
[8] Lisa Miller, “Romney, Santorum and Archaic Ideas on Fertility,” Washington Post.
[9] Some are now asserting that the fear of overpopulation might be overplayed. According to a 2013 article at the liberal website Salon, it is argued that at current international fertility rates the world’s population will begin to decline. Jeff Wise, “About That Overpopulation Problem.
[10] For an example of how secularists treat the Duggar family see McDanell, Logizomai, 60-63.
[11] Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, “Republicans Retreat on Gay Marriage,” Politico.
[12] Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 14. See also Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 32-33.
[13] For more see McDanell, Logizomai, 17-23.

For more:
"The Death of Death and the Death of Christ: Engaging the Culture of Death With the Gospel of Christ" Available Now
"Great Forgiveness For Great Sin": A Sermon Preached by CH Spurgeon - Part 1
"Great Forgiveness For Great Sin": A Sermon Preached by CH Spurgeon - Part 2
"Great Forgiveness For Great Sin": A Sermon Preached by CH Spurgeon - Part 3   
The Ancient Church & the Roman Culture of Death
"The Death of Death" Coming Soon and Other Resources
A Must Read: 9 Things You Should Know About Planned Parenthood
The Battle Rages On: Metaxas on Abortion at 40
A Must Read: "We Need Death Panels"
There Will Be Blood: Is Genetic Engineering a Moral Obligation?
We Need More Than Conversation: McLaren on Abortion & the Bible
Can One Be Pro-Life and Support Abortion?: A Serious Argument is Foolishly Proposed
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