Life or Debt: Dave Ramsey’s Capitalist Theology

Dave Ramsey has built a veritable empire around a simple idea: debt is bad, and having debt makes you bad. His paeans to capitalism and paranoia about socialism help to scare his audience away from basic policies that might tangibly improve their lives.

Imagine: You’re in your mid-to-late thirties with several thousand dollars of debt—student loans, car payments, credit card bills, perhaps even a mortgage—and no savings. You semi-regularly attend a vaguely non-denominational church called Grace Community or New Fellowship which offers “small groups.” You drive to another church member’s house on Wednesday nights for small group; if you remember, you pick up a tray of veggies and dip on your way (a classic staple of such gatherings everywhere). You’ve gathered together to religiously study a text, but not a biblical one. Alongside your fellow group members, you’re engaged in an exegesis of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace or The Total Money Makeover or any one of Ramsey’s five New York Times bestsellers.

Dave Ramsey is America’s self-described “trusted voice on money.” If trust can be determined by the numbers, he’s right. Ramsey is a titan of talk radio, surpassed only by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, with a 25-year-old show that broadcasts three hours a day, five days a week to 600 affiliate stations and 16 million listeners. His podcast is consistently in the top five most downloaded on iTunes each year. He’s sold 11 million books. He has a net worth of 55 million. The reason he does it all? To help you help yourself out of debt.

Every day of the workweek, Ramsey speaks to generations buried in debt (his audience is 33% baby boomers, 36% Gen Xers, and 23% millennials) and offers them an outstretched hand. In preparing to write this piece, I became one of those millennials tuning into Ramsey’s show. I found myself occasionally charmed, albeit reluctantly, by his no-nonsense (and rather patronizing) reassurance that if you simply follow his lead, you too can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and perhaps even join Ramsey in the ranks of the millionaires.

Others much more well-versed than I in the efficacy of Ramsey’s methods have been leveling a panoply of critiques at Ramsey since he emerged as a financial parental figure in the 1990s. I’m not here to determine whether his “debt snowball” is an effective way of paying down debts, if you should have credit cards (Ramsey forbids them, and if you try to pay for anything with a credit card on his website, you’ll be sharply reprimanded), or if his investment advice is sound. My concern with Ramsey is the moral character of his message—and the wide-ranging impact it has on our collective understanding of capitalism, socialism, and all that lies in between. 


While Ramsey’s audience is not uniformly Christian, Ramsey—a white evangelical who once vividly referred to himself as a “capitalist pig”—has found great success targeting evangelical and non-denominational churches with his Financial Peace University course, which teaches participants, over the course of several weeks, how to “win with money.” Over the past 25 years, the course has drawn nearly five million students, and over 40,000 churches have hosted the course for their congregants (this number does not include the many churches who hold small groups and classes based on Ramsey’s other webinars and books). By one estimate, Ramsey’s organization has garnered nearly half a billion in sales directly from churches.  

That Ramsey appeals to a broadly evangelical audience is unsurprising. Ramsey doles out his financial counsel in explicitly religious terms, peppering his instruction with references to Scripture (for instance, when a listener asks if she should co-sign a lease for her younger brother, Ramsey gives her a flat no: “Proverbs 17:18 says, ‘One who co-signs for another is stupid’”). But Ramsey doesn’t just folksily intersperse Bible verses into his advice; he goes several steps further, imbuing his war on debt with grave moral and spiritual consequences.

For Ramsey, debt isn’t merely a financial obstacle to a better life; it is a personal failing, one that reveals something fundamental about a person’s character. “If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is you,” Ramsey once said. “There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices, and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth.” As writer Eve Ettinger noted in a recent piece on the long-term spiritual and psychological effects of Ramsey’s belief system, tying financial status to spiritual worth can launch a person into an unending spiral of fear and shame: “If you were struggling financially, the problem was your lack of belief.”

If ridding yourself of debt is treated as a spiritual calling, then Ramsey’s elevation of his methods (condensed into his 7 Baby Steps) to nearly the level of divine inspiration makes sense. A handy article on Ramsey’s website entitled “God’s Ways of Managing Money,” which describes common financial pitfalls that Ramsey can help you address, stops just short of calling debt a sin but emphasizes that the Bible “has nothing good to say about [debt] and definitely discourages it.” Tellingly, the article concludes, “Take God’s word on this one and save up to pay cash for the things other people might borrow for.” It is certainly convenient that God’s word and Ramsey’s word are exactly the same.

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Although he prides himself on cutting through the noise of political partisanship with simple, straightforward facts, Ramsey nevertheless neatly ties his proclamations on handling debt “God’s way” to rival frameworks: capitalism—or as Ramsey calls it, “sanctified capitalism”—and socialism, a pejorative Ramsey applies to anything he doesn’t particularly like.

Ramsey’s wholehearted rejection of socialism is born of a marriage of individualistic impulses and carefully selected Bible verses best summarized in the notion that “socialism doesn’t give the little man as good a chance as capitalism does.” However, when it comes to a precise accounting of what socialism actually is, Ramsey follows the lead of Fox News pundits and defines socialism by a series of supposedly radical policies that are, at best, milquetoast centrism.

Taxes funding welfare programs are socialism: “When you are righteous with other people’s money by using the government to take money away from people so that you can do righteous acts, that’s an act of liberal socialism.” Welfare programs are socialism: “Jesus didn’t say that’s how you serve the poor, to give your money to Obama and he gets the credit.” Canceling student loan debt is socialism: “You’re such a freaking baby that you can’t step up and take care of your business.” Social Security is (rather inexplicably) socialism. The Affordable Care Act is an excuse for the government to “take over” private companies. Even allowance money is welfare, which is socialism.

“Socialism is when the government provides you things it can’t afford,” Ramsey once explained on his show. Nevermind that any formal definition of socialism would hardly characterize it as the mere provision of government services, sidestepping the role of workers in a socialist economy altogether. “Socialist” is the insult du jour of Ramsey and his more politically active conservative media counterparts, an ever-increasingly popular scare tactic Republicans use to demonize even the most center-right of proposals. Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s widely reported warning to fellow Democrats on a post-2020 election call—“Don’t say socialism ever again”—is both a consequence of and a caving to such linguistic paranoia.

Capitalism, on the other hand, requires a certain level of manipulation for Ramsey to comfortably embrace its rewards. Ramsey is an enthusiastic proponent of free markets (“I don’t like governments telling me what to do”), but admits that corrupt actors may make their way into the system. In such cases, Ramsey believes that “the market [will] punish someone who doesn’t do a good job.”

Even with the presumption that free markets will self-correct, Ramsey must make one further distinction between the kind of capitalism he espouses and the kind of capitalism that more closely fits the dictionary definition. “Capitalism that works is something I call ‘sanctified capitalism.’ It needs to have a moral component to it, where people are doing the right thing because doing the right thing attracts customers and doing the right thing keeps customers,” Ramsey told FOX Business. “Capitalism that’s all about me—kind of an Ayn Rand thing with selfishness, how much can I get, no rules, let me go just plunder—that’s not capitalism, that’s anarchy.”

Richard Salsman, an assistant professor of political economy at Duke University, critiqued Ramsey’s personal flavor of capitalism in the pro-capitalism publication, aptly entitled Capitalism Magazine. Salsman takes issue with Ramsey’s rejection of pure self-interest; ironically, Ramsey veers too close to socialist thought for the bona fide capitalists. “Why assume voluntary, marketplace trade is a zero-sum game, a win-lose or lose-win proposition?” Salsman asks. “Isn’t that the premise of socialists?” As far as Ramsey’s sanctification of capitalism is concerned, Salsman, a full-blown Randian, sees the problem of squaring the Bible with capitalism clearly: “It isn’t Ayn Rand but ‘holy scripture’ that declares ‘love of money is the root of all evil’ and ‘it shall be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Ramsey’s capitalism is cherry-picked. He removes from himself the burden of defending the sort of capitalism that causes listeners to write in with desperate questions about how to handle the crushing student loans they are staring down on measly incomes (Ramsey’s advice to one such caller: make more money). He can only defend capitalism by dismissing any ills of the system as entirely disparate from his own version, one sanctified by just enough regulation to keep the worst evils at bay and policed by neighborhood watch groups of consumers.

What Ramsey has is more cogent than any well-reasoned and thoroughly explained political ideology: he has a great story. He is the “little man” to whom capitalism gave the best shot. He built a multi-million-dollar real-estate portfolio by the age of 26; when the bank financing his properties was sold to a larger bank that demanded loan repayment, Ramsey lost everything. On his journey back to prosperity, Ramsey found himself: “I came to realize that my money problems, worries, and shortages largely began and ended with the person in my mirror. I also realized that if I could learn to manage the character I shaved with every morning, I would win with money.” Ramsey’s downfall was his own self-admitted fault; his ascent to wealth was just as assuredly his own individual triumph.

But the story of Ramsey’s fall and rise, while a picture-perfect tale he loves to tell an audience, has relatively little to do with the day-to-day lives and problems of those who come to the financial guru seeking answers. Journalist Susan Drury’s 2007 analysis remains insightfully relevant: “The way Ramsey went broke is not too much like the way many of his callers do. He didn’t lose his job, or have huge medical bills, or dig himself into credit card debt or gamble his money away. He was an over-leveraged dealmaker, a hotshot who stretched himself too far and who got caught in a change of federal banking regulations.” Moreover, Ramsey’s ultimate answer to his financial woes was to declare bankruptcy, an action he discourages his own adherents from taking (“I can’t find in the Bible—ever—where it was okay not to repay what you owe”).

Ramsey’s initial victory, the story on which he built his career, is far removed from the daily experiences of his listeners. He is a success story of capitalism—and not the sanctified kind—availing himself of a tool he dissuades others from wielding; it is little wonder that he often has trouble conjuring up empathy for those who look to him for help with devastating financial struggles. When one caller, a stay-at-home mom, asks Ramsey what she should do about her $130,000 in student loan debt for a psychology degree that hasn’t furthered her job prospects, Ramsey doesn’t bother to mask his scorn. He yells, either at the caller or at his broader audience, “Where are the parents here? If your kids are that stupid, jack them up!”

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If you’re the person who attends small groups to study Ramsey’s books, or are a graduate of Financial Peace University, or tune in with 16 million other Americans toiling under the weight of an economy that caters to the most astronomically wealthy among us to hear Ramsey offer you solutions, don’t expect much sympathy from him.

Ramsey’s sanctified capitalism exists primarily in his mind and entirely for people like him. His perfect success story is largely unattainable for the people who are told to follow his advice. What his listeners receive instead is fear. Ramsey has been wildly successful at planting fears of socialism in the minds of millions who could receive help from even the most modest of proposals like cancelling student debt and raising the minimum wage, as he ties anything remotely resembling leftist politics to moral failure. “I’ve heard a lot about wealth redistribution over the past few years,” Ramsey tells his listeners. “I have my toughest critique for those who believe this: You are a thief.” Ramsey doesn’t hesitate to label the desire to reduce income inequality as one of the seven deadly sins: “At the core of this demand is envy.”

Ramsey’s fearmongering might technically bind his audience together against a common socialist enemy (insert any figurehead here you like—Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, or any other Democrat who would never be mentioned in the same breath as socialists in a country with an actual leftist party), but it also isolates them. “Did you ever hear someone say the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?” Ramsey asks his audience. “There are several reasons for that, and it’s not oppression or that capitalism is evil. Poor people, who do rich people stuff with money, become rich people over time… It’s a set of habits, values, and choices.” In other words, if you’re struggling financially, it’s your fault and your task to fix, on your own. Helaine Olen, who has reported and written on Dave Ramsey for years, puts it like this: “By preaching this message, [Ramsey] encourages people to not see their problems in a greater context. You don’t see yourself as part of a group, you see yourself as alone.” Ramsey has inculcated in his audience a great fear of being the kind of person who is forever in debt. He has also made them afraid of the most basic policies that might tangibly improve their lives.

And yet a kind of hope remains, planted by Ramsey and his ilk: you too can be rich. This reminds me of an exchange I saw on Twitter a few days before November 3rd of this year. One user complained that Joe Biden would raise his taxes. Another replied, reminding this person that, since they didn’t make anywhere close to $400,000 a year, they had nothing to worry about. The original user retorted that they didn’t make $400,000 a year yet.

This is at the foundation of Dave Ramsey’s philosophy. You may not be a millionaire yet, you may not even be out of a staggering amount of debt yet, but these goals are within your reach. If you work hard enough, relying only on yourself, then you too can make it. There’s no need for solidarity when your objective is to get ahead of everyone else. You can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps—an expression that, I am also reminded, was originally meant to conjure up images of how utterly impossible it is to do just that. 


Elena Trueba writes about the Christian Right and is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. You can find her on Twitter @elena_trueba.


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