Dave Ramsey: great debt advice, not so great theology

Dave Ramsey: great debt advice, not so great theology July 25, 2011

Today I watched Dave Ramsey’s Great Recovery video. I think I feel something akin to what the Calvinist bloggers felt when they saw the trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I’m physically sick at my stomach. Whenever I’ve ranted about the self-worship of American middle-class evangelicalism in the past, I always thought in the back of my head that I was attacking a straw man. Well I met the straw man today; and he’s a real person and very much in the mainstream of evangelical thought.

My problem with Dave Ramsey is not with his straight-forward, old-fashioned financial advice applied within a specific context which makes perfect sense to me. Don’t spend beyond your means. Take manageable baby steps to get out of debt once you’re in it. It’s common sense. There’s nothing to oppose about it, but there’s nothing really earth-shattering or “Biblical” about it either, despite the fact that Ramsey parades out a series of truisms and platitudes from Proverbs.

Ramsey goes far beyond advice that is appropriate to individuals in debt to rearticulate the tired-out modernist claim that our society and economy are made up of free, autonomous individuals whose socioeconomic circumstances are always the consequences of their own choices rather than powers and principalities. Ramsey’s ideology is really a defense of Enlightenment-era individualism against postmodern skepticism.

One of his key points was to say, “You fix the economy when you fix the individuals.” He claimed that before the Great Depression, Western governments never meddled with the economy. It floored me that he could make such a brazenly historically false statement. Capitalism has never existed in the pure laissez-faire form that people like Ramsey fantasize about. 200+ years ago, most Western society was held together by feudalism in which the economy was very much a top-down affair. Even during the darkest days of the industrial revolution in Britain, the least socialist European country, there were poor laws and some recognition that the state should provide a workhouse for everyone who was willing to work but had no job and a pension for everyone who was incapacitated from working.

The other thing that blew my mind was when Ramsey equated “self-reliance” with “God-reliance,” putting both in contrast with “government reliance.” He all but said the familiar anti-gospel platitude that “God helps those who help themselves.” He did say, “The normative way that God provides for me is through the work ethic and ingenuity that he pours into me. He uses me to provides for me.” Notice how these words have been manipulated. Our work ethic and ingenuity are not derived from ourselves. We are taught these qualities by mentors and teachers in a community of people. To recognize God’s prevenient grace in our lives is to recognize that we have always relied on other people to help us along the way. We are in no way self-reliant. It is only by twisting up language that you can make reliance on God and self-reliance the same thing.

Why does it make a difference to recognize our lack of self-reliance? Because the delusion of self-reliance is precisely what makes us unmerciful, ungrateful people. The main financial attitude problem among American Christians right now is not a pervasive lack of responsibility but a lack of gratitude. When you’re grateful for what God has given you, you will use it responsibly for God’s glory. When you view your property as the product of your own responsible choices (and not God’s unmerited gift to you), then you will feel justified using it selfishly, giving perhaps the leftovers to God after you’ve saved for your kids’ education and retirement (or blown it all on cocaine as long as it doesn’t get addictive). The privatization of wealth is what makes irresponsible spending a conceivable choice.

Ramsey says, “It’s your job to take care of you so you should act in your own best interests… This is not a bad thing… It’s Biblical.” It’s as if Ayn Rand and Jesus have become the same person! Two words that never appear in Ramsey’s entire 50 minute video are the two most definitive words for framing Biblical economics in my opinion: kingdom and mercy.

The gospel is about creating a kingdom. What God has given us is not ours to squander; it belongs to the kingdom and its purpose is to build the kingdom. Individualizing wealth is what makes irresponsible expenditure plausible to us when we see our money as ours and not God’s so we can do with it what we damn well please. It’s when we understand ourselves to be part of a team with a real mission to alleviate suffering in the world through our financial resources that we are chastened from frivolous decadence for the right reasons. We let the kingdom down when we’re wasteful. But if we don’t acknowledge a kingdom other than some world of harps in the clouds where we go after we die, then the only incentive to be frugal here on Earth is greed.

The other aspect of Biblical economics is mercy. Individual responsibility when it’s not rooted in gratitude is antithetical to mercy (I’m taking care of me so you should be responsible for you; don’t come bother me when you waste your money and can’t pay your bills). There are a lot of reasons people are poor. It’s not just because they’re lazy or irresponsible or “don’t have a brain” (as Ramsey said in explaining why poor people fall victim to pay-day loan companies).

When we’re grateful for what we have, we share with others without judgment hoping that they can do likewise when their gratitude brings them to a desire to be good stewards of God’s gifts if they ever gain the mental clarity and divine providence to achieve financial stability.

It is certainly worthwhile to desire to use all of God’s gifts to His glory. We should absolutely be frugal so that we can experience the joy of sharing God’s bounty with others. But our frugality becomes a tool of Satan the minute it becomes the reason that we can judge others and find them unworthy of our love. We don’t deserve anything we have. We earn nothing; our skills, our creativity, our work ethic, and every other faculty we use to make money are themselves gifts from God and a reason to be grateful rather than feel individually responsible.

Dave Ramsey may be good for financial advice but when he turns contextually appropriate advice into an all-encompassing one-size-fits-all ideology, the result is Pelagian heresy. He actually goes so far as to say that “wealth is the witness of Biblical financial management.” His gospel is little different from Gordon Gecko’s despite the qualifications he tries to put on it.

Bottom line is that gratitude is the foundation we need for all Christian living. Whatever we do without it for the sake of asserting the delusion of our self-reliance, we do to our damnation.

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