opinion of Rachel Hero Evans, especially for CNN
(CNN) – Dave Ramsey is rich. And he makes a living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich too.
Hosting a nationally syndicated radio show and author of several bestsellers, Ramsey targets evangelical Christians with what he calls a “biblical” approach to financial planning that focuses primarily on eliminating consumer debt. His for-profit Financial Peace University is billed as “a biblically based curriculum that teaches people how to use money the God’s ways”.
Much of what Ramsey teaches is sound, helpful advice, especially for middle-class Americans struggling with soaring credit card bills. I partied with friends as they celebrated their first day off debt, thanks in part to Dave Ramsey’s teachings and all of the white envelopes of cash he advises his students to use instead of credit cards.
But while Ramsey may be a good source of information on reducing debt, his views on poverty are neither informed nor biblical.
Take, for example, a recent article by Tim Corley that was posted on Ramsey’s website. Titled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” the article presents some dubious statistics comparing the habits of the rich with those of the poor, including:
“70% of the rich eat fewer than 300 junk food calories a day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories a day. “
“76% of the rich exercise aerobically four days a week. 23% of the poor do this. “
“63% of the rich listen to audiobooks on their way to work, compared to 5% of the poor.”
It doesn’t take a logician to notice that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causality by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.
For example, a poor person might not exercise four days a week because, unlike a rich person, they cannot afford a gym membership. Or maybe she has to have two jobs to earn a living, which leaves her little time and energy to jog through the park.
A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban environment where health food stores are not as readily available: a so-called “food wasteland”.
Critics were quick to point out these discrepancies, and among the critics were some of Ramsey’s evangelical fellow Christians who also noted that while the book of Proverbs certainly heralds success as a common return of faithful work, nowhere does the Bible guarantee that good habits will exist to wealth.
The preacher’s clerk remarked that “under the sun running is not for the quick, fighting is not for the strong, nor bread is for the wise, nor wealth is for the clever, nor favor is for the skillful, but time and chance happen to all of them.”
And far from despising the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the debauchery of the rich. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he said, “for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you rich, for you have already received your consolation ”(Lk 6:24).
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” said Jesus, as is well known, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It is difficult for the rich to thrive in the kingdom Jesus initiated because the economy of that kingdom is so contradictory to the world’s economy. It rewards the peacemaker versus the mighty, the humble versus the proud, the manner and the cruelty, and those who hunger to do what is right versus those whose wealth has convinced them they are already.
Ramsey responded to the pushback with an addendum to the original post, in which he described his critics as “ignorant” and “immature” and instructed them to “grow up”.
“This list simply says that your choices will produce results,” he said, again mistaking the wrong cause. “You reap what you sow.”
The list only applies to people living in “first world” countries where Ramsey believes there is essentially no economic injustice. While the poor in the developing world are out of their control due to external circumstances, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.
“If you are broke or poor in the US or in a first world economy, you are the only variable in the discussion that you can personally control,” says Ramsey. “You can make better decisions and get better results.”
America, he argues, flourished as a direct result of his “understanding and application of biblical truths” that have resulted in “life changing industries, inventions, and unprecedented standards of living on this planet.”
“There is a direct link,” he concludes, “between your habits, choices, and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth.”
For Christians, Ramsey’s perceived “direct link” between faith and wealth should be more troubling than his other tangled correlations, for it flirts with what Christians call the Gospel of Prosperity, the teaching that God rewards loyalty with wealth.
Ramsey’s particular type of prosperity gospel elevates the American dream as God’s reward for America’s loyalty, the spoils of which are readily available to anyone who works hard enough to receive it.
But such a view glosses over the reality that America was in fact not founded on purely Christian principles (unless you count slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequality, and Jim Crow as Christian principles), so we should be careful about accepting our relatives for wealth reflects God’s favor. (The Roman Empire was rich too, after all.)
It also hushes up the reality that economic injustice is in fact not limited to developing countries, but also afflicts our own country.
If medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcies in the United States, there are systemic injustices in the workplace.
When people who work 40 hour weeks in minimum wage jobs still cannot earn enough to support their families, there are systemic injustices in the workplace.
When about 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth, there are systemic injustices.
If the black unemployment rate has consistently been twice the white unemployment rate over the past 50 years, then there are systemic injustices in the workplace.
And everywhere in Scripture, believers are called not just to donate to charity, but also to substantially address such systemic injustices.
The 17-year-old girl who lives in a depressed neighborhood that is assigned to a failing school system and is unlikely to graduate because her grades are suffering from having to work part-time to support her family needs more than a few audiobooks to turn things around.
People are poor for many reasons, and choice is certainly a factor, but categorically blaming poverty on a lack of faith or initiative is not only uninformed but also unscriptural.
God does not divide the world into the deserved rich and the undeserved poor. Indeed, the brother of Jesus wrote that God “chose the poor of the world to be rich in faith and heirs to the kingdom he promised to those who love him” (James 2: 5).
God does not bless people with money; God blesses people with the good and perfect gift of God’s presence, available to the rich and the poor alike.
And that’s good news.
Rachel Held Evans is the author of Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. She blogs on rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.