Christianity and Politics: An Interview with Dr. Christopher Petruzzi

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Dr. Christopher Petruzzi is professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton’s Mihaylo School of Business and Economics (having served as assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and at New York University’s Stern School).

In his book “Christianity and Politics: The Attempted Seduction of the Bride of Christ”, Dr. Petruzzi makes the case that the way of Christ stands opposite the way of worldly politics. Bringing in his unique insights as a PhD in economics, Dr. Petruzzi’s book is a great resource for those wishing to go deeper into why Christians ought to reject the siren song of politics in favor of charity, evangelism, and living lives transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Petruzzi, how does an economist and Evangelical Presbyterian come to write a book about the danger of mixing Christianity and politics, and how did your religious and professional backgrounds help equip you to tackle such a difficult subject?

While I was raised as a Presbyterian and even belonged to a Presbyterian church a few years ago, I am not now a Presbyterian. I am part of Mariners Church which is an evangelical church in Orange County, California.

I became interested in politics and government in my early teen years. In college I became more interested in the economics of government and how that related to property rights and market solutions to economic problems. I was the president of my college’s club of libertarian political economists.

The free- market orientation of economists at the University of Chicago was part of why I picked that university for graduate school, and when my advisor, Arthur Laffer, left Chicago to teach at the University of Southern California I went with him to finish my PhD there. That background left me with the perspective that political solutions to social problems all involved changes in (broadly defined) property rights. They take rights away from some parties while giving them to others.

When, at the age of 39, I became a born-again Christian it became apparent to me that following Christ was not about seeking to change property rights.

The tagline of your book is “The Attempted Seduction of the Bride of Christ.” What is it about the prospect of political power that is so seductive to Christ’s Church What happens when the Church succumbs to political seduction?

People often think of politics as the way to get things done. Prior to the crucifixion even Jesus’ disciples thought that Jesus would take over the worldly government of Israel to bring about his kingdom. They did not understand that Jesus was doing much more than that. He offered a way to change the behavior of people by bringing them into a spiritual kingdom. More important, he offered a way for people to enter into a new relationship with God.

Islam is based on changing people’s behavior by the political solution of a theocracy which forces obedience. That is a substitute for God’s direct rule over their lives. It makes the state into an idol. When Christians become seduced by politics they are following that same false idol and, consequently, rejecting Jesus.

What is the most common objection you hear to the view of Christianity and politics you propose in your book and how do you answer it?

The common objection is that Christians should change the world and that politics is the best way to do that.

I agree that Christians should seek to change the world, but trying to do so through politics leads to failure. The only way that we can genuinely change the world is by leading people to Christ and letting the Holy Spirit change the hearts of men. That needs to be done one person at a time, by witnessing, showing charity, and making ourselves good examples.

While that it may not be the quick and easy solution that people want, it is the only solution that works. Fortunately, as Jesus told us you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

Many say that by declining to participate in worldly politics, we refuse to be part of the discussion. If issues such as health care, environmental protection, and religious liberty, for example, are decided in the political arena, isn’t it negligent to not let our voices as Christians be heard?

Most of the private hospitals in the US were started by Christian organizations, and through charitable endeavors like those, we have been an important part of health care. We should continue providing health care to the needy. Political solutions, however, are about forcing other people to spend their own money to provide health care to the needy. That is not a Christian cause.

Each Christian should do his own part on protecting the environment, including little tasks like picking up trash that has been left by other people, and I support courts holding polluters liable for the damages they cause. While they are important, environmental issues are not what I would call Christian issues. Just because an issue has importance and even involves justice, does not make it a Christian issue.

For example, think about Luke 12:13. When a listener asked Jesus to tell his brother to make what was presumably a just division of an inheritance, Jesus said that was not his business. In a similar ways some other issues which involve justice are not our business.

On a similar note, scientific issues are not Christian issues. Global warming and what causes it are scientific issues, and we should leave those to science. There is no Christian position about what causes global warming.

Courts have upheld religious liberty in the US, so that should not be an issue here.

What makes Christian charity a superior more efficient form of charity than government charity, in your view?

That relates to my answer (above) about health care as well as other issues of charity.

First of all, a political solution which forces people to pay for health care or other benefits for the poor does not help the souls of the people who pay or the souls of the people who receive those benefits. The payers just see it as one more tax. They do all they can to avoid the tax, and many resent being forced to pay for the benefits of other people. The recipients see it as an opportunity to get something from the government. Since they know that the people who paid for that benefit were forced to do so, there is no reason for them to feel grateful.

By contrast, Christians who freely give to charity know that they are being obedient to God, and this enhances the Holy Spirit who dwells within them. Similarly, the recipients of Christian charity know that people gave to them out of love. That makes the gift something special to them.

In addition to these spiritual advantages of Christian charity over public benefits, there is a practical side. Taxpayers arrange their affairs to avoid taxes in every way that is legal. That has social costs which do not exist for charitable giving.

Recipients of public benefits arrange their affairs to qualify for more benefits, and that has even greater social costs. For example illegitimacy rates among the poor soared after the creation of the federal program AFDC which provided cash benefits based on number of dependent children in poor households.

Finally, there is the cost of administration which is more expensive for public benefits due to the many rules which are necessary to prevent the system from being exploited.

You seem to think that legislation is not the best way to change behavior, but if laws allowing no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage, for example, influence public morality and normalize certain forms of behavior, could not opposite forms of legislation influence the public morality of the nation in a more Christian direction?

At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Roman law and the morality of unbelievers was far worse than anything we see in the US today. What Christians would call bad behavior was normal. People enjoyed watching other human beings being tortured to death in the public arenas. Slave owners could force their slaves to have sex with them. Nonetheless, over the next 280 years, the number of believers grew from about 3,000 on the day of Pentecost to (by my best estimate) more than half the population of the Roman Empire.

Christians changed public morality over this period. Their contrast with the behavior of non-Christians may have been part of why people changed from pagan ways. They changed from their pagan beliefs even though that change sometimes brought the death penalty. If the behavior of unbelievers becomes worse in modern times, it will only make the contrast with Christianity more apparent, and that may help bring more people to Christ.

An outward appearance of moral behavior is enforced in the one fifth of the world that follows Islam. That outward appearance does not bring people closer to Christ, and it might keep them away from him.

In chapter 10 of your book, you write, “while the Bible states that those who bless the children of Israel will themselves be blessed, this does not mean unconditional support for the secular state of Israel” (133). How should Christians approach U.S. policy towards the Israeli State (one thinks of the recent move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, celebrated by many Conservative Evangelicals, for example)?

Other than using the courts to further our rights to worship and witness (as was done by Paul in the Roman Empire and by modern Christians in the US) Christians should not try to influence government policies. Many Christians have let the State of Israel and Jerusalem become idols. We should explain their errors to those Christians with love using the Bible along with historical and scientific facts.

In your own life, how receptive have you found people to your view of Christianity and its relation to politics?

Most Christians do not like this viewpoint. I think that there are a couple reasons for that. Many Christians do not agree with me that Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Mount apply to us today. They also do not agree with me that while we are in the world, Christians are not part of the world. Politics is part of the world, and I suspect that some Christians want to hang on to that part.

When I myself gave up participation in worldly politics, I was left thinking, “now what do I do?” What do you advise someone in a similar situation, having been convinced to reject the politics of the world and now wondering what he should do to make a positive change?

Worldly politics is an idol, and people make idols of their political leaders. Those leaders, however, will not save them and, for the most part, are not going to make the world a better place. Jesus the Christ is the one and only leader whom we can trust. We cannot be divided on that. Jesus does not want half of our allegiance, or even most of our allegiance. He wants it all.

Christians had a great historical success in making the world a better place, but that success did not come from our involvement in politics. In fact, the involvement in politics hindered Christian success. Our success was through witnessing, charity, and making ourselves good examples. The Holy Spirit helped us with that.

My advice to Christians seeking to make a positive change is to step away from the world, and obey God. We can trust Him.

What are you up to these days? Any new projects on the horizon?

I am working on some academic articles that develop concepts from my book to explain how and why government works the way it does.

I am also continuing with the project on Christian group living which I started a few years ago.

I also have some projects involving innovations in business.

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