I once spent a little too much money on a coat at a small, struggling mall store owned and solely-staffed by a really nice Christian man. This was apparently un-Christian of me.
Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University has found a vibrant marketplace in churches across America. The program of responsible spending and saving that Ramsey has packaged together speaks to many of Christendom’s historic values; temperance, wisdom, and modesty, to name a few. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, FPU has been instrumental in helping many people responsibly live within their means.
Ramsey has, of course, clumsily talked his way into the Culture Wars as of late, but I don’t want to use this space to pile on his comments about the poor. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the consistency of his Financial Peace with the the notion of Christian Peace.
I too have gone through the program, which was a series of videos and homework assignments designed to systematically identify belt-tightening and investment opportunities in the student’s actual finances. I won’t spoil the details of Ramsey’s system, but I will say that it was, in an amateur’s opinion, pretty logical advice.
I was never entirely comfortable with the enterprise, however.
For one thing, there was, to me anyway, a crassness and a brashness about Ramsey’s on-stage persona that often made me squint like Clint Eastwood in an old Spaghetti Western. His beaming self-confidence, his carefully manicured “working-man’s clothes,” and his absolute faith in individualism can at times make one feel as though they are watching a particularly bad TED Talk.
These particular complaints all spring from personal preference however, and, though I find these rhetorical strategies to be an uncomfortable fit with the Christian ethics Ramsey tries to tie his product to, they are not what most unsettles me about the enterprise.
What is most disturbing about Christendom’s relationship with Financial Peace University is the extent of Dave Ramsey’s influence and the fact that his ideas are not simply taken as wise advice about personal finance, but as a broad philosophy about the nature of human communities. In short, the problem with Ramsey is not one of kind, but of degree. To live within one’s means is good. To live within one’s own isolated economic reality is not.
Without giving away any of his specific financial success secrets, I came away from Dave Ramsey’s sales pitch with an overall sense that the responsible person will seek to take such command of his or her own finances as to completely withdraw from any shared economic relationship with others. In the Ramsey-verse, all debt is evil, while goodness is found in the individual consumer prying the lowest price from a retailer, no matter the social cost.
This is not simply advice, it is philosophy, and it is a socially dangerous one. It is not dangerous because it favors the Wal-Marts of the world over local businesses (though it certainly does). No, the danger of Ramsey’s philosophy lies in its lack of imagination about what human beings are. It reduces each of us to isolated economic functionaries whose value is primarily measured by purchasing power and accumulated liquid wealth.
What this philosophy undercooks is the fact that humans need other humans. In fact, part of what makes us human is our dependence upon relationships with one another. Those relationships are social, sexual, and even economic.
Many of the Bible verses we’ve committed to memory – “Do unto others” etc… – emphasize the need to de-centralize self-interest in Christian community. Not many people in Christendom would seriously advocate self-centeredness as an ethical standard in friendships or romantic relationships, yet our wholesale adoption of Ramsey’s product (and I keep emphasizing this basic fact of the enterprise’s nature) basically advocates centralizing the self in our economic relationships. This puzzles me.
People will surely argue that I am ignoring moments when the product mentions the ethics of community, and certainly I remember a few obligatory nods to things like giving to charity and so on. And sure, I suppose that if an individual becomes rich, they can conceivably give away more money.
This is theoretically plausible, but in the context of FPU’s overall emphasis on self-empowerment, even this act of giving is itself one of power, not of the powerlessness that is the emphasis of the Christian Gospel.
Save your money and spend it wisely.
Give your life away to others recklessly.
I leave it to the reader to reconcile those two philosophies.