Public Opinion and Leadership

Antonio P. Pueyo
August 21, 2005
21st Sunday of the Year (A)
Reproduced with Permission

Many of us are image-conscious. We want to project a particular image by the brand of apparel and accessories that we wear. Some people are walking advertisements for brand names from head to foot. If they espouse the current "just-got-out-of bed" look, it takes them time and effort to project the rug ged and unshaved image of the sportsman - no matter if they have not engaged in any athletic activity. What is important is the perception, not the reality.

If perception is more important than reality, then looking busy is more important than doing actual work. Appearing intelligent is more important than being capable of engaging in intelligent discussion. Looking holy is more important than being holy.

Still, appearances more than substance, are given value by media-conscious people nowadays. People like to be perceived as having the proper image, so much so that the image consultant has become a busy professional. One can get advise for a makeover, not just in terms of fashion and style but also in terms of public perception. This is true especially for public figures such as politicians, entertainers, sports celebrities, and media practitioners.

When Jesus asked the question "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (Mt. 16:13), it was not because he was concerned about his image. It was to see if people's perceptions coincided with reality - whether they really knew him. The answer given showed that the people were wrong. In the public's perception he was an incarnation of one of the great prophets. Jesus then asked those closest to him whether they knew him. Peter came up with the correct answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Jesus could have exploited the public perception. He was popular. He was equated with the great figures of the scriptures. People were drawn to him by his works and miracles. They wanted to listen to his words. He could have led the crowd as a political figure, the messiah who would re-establish the earthly kingdom of David and Solomon. But then he had to be true to his mission to be the suffering messiah. What followed after this episode was his foretelling of the way he would suffer, "he must go to Jerusalem and suffer...and be killed" (v.21).

Jesus refused to be carried forward by people's perceptions and the accompanying expectations. He wanted to be faithful to his mission as the Christ - a mission that would bring him to the cross. The only expectation he would fulfill was that of his Father, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me" (Jn. 4:34). It was a great temptation to ride on people's opinions and be popular and powerful.

Public figures, especially political leaders, retain their mass support by riding on the waves of popular opinion. In ancient Rome, the emperors gained popularity by giving the people "bread and circus". Keep the people entertained and fed. Jesus could have taken this path. Already he was known to occasionally provide bread to the thousands who followed him.

Leaders, however, sometimes have to take the lonely path and lead the people to places they would not rather go. Moses was such a leader. His people were looking back to the fleshpots of Egypt. They preferred to be slaves again rather than go through the hunger and dangers of the wilderness. The people would rather dance and be merry before the idol of the golden calf, than worship the living God. The calf makes no demands but God does. Moses, amidst opposition and discontent, kept going forward to the Promised Land. It is not enough to cultivate a popular image. Leaders have to bring people to their goals. Leaders have to be true to principles of living. One such principle is that sacrifices have to be made for goals to be attained. More important, leaders have to be true to the commands of God.

As an example, in our country, with the proliferation of illegal gambling, the popular demand in some places is to legalize all forms of gambling. According to their argument, since it is hard to completely stop gambling, the government better make money out of it, or provide jobs through it. Given the same argument, since the drug problem is so pandemic, governments might as well legalize the drug trade. Or in the same vein, since prostitution and pornography are so widespread, we might as well not regulate them. While we are at it, since abortion is so widespread, why go against it?

Leadership is not just acceding to people's popular demands or having a well-liked public image. It is about following a moral compass and being faithful to principles of living.

Action starter: Have we given in to the idea that whatever is popular is true and correct? Examine where you stand on issues such as gambling, graft and coruption, the use of prohibited drugs, war, and abortion.