The Price of Dominionist Theology

After leaving fundamentalism, Eve Ettinger grapples with the loaded theological heritage of evangelical personal finance teachings.

Eve Ettinger | Longreads | Month 2020 | 17 minutes (4,367 words)

Dave Ramsey comes into the building through the back door in the receiving room behind the store. He’s wearing a black turtleneck and a leather jacket and jeans, and he has security with him — several large men looking alert and formidable. I can smell his cologne behind him as he walks through the store. I take the back elevator up after him, to the third floor where his event is, and the elevator is suffocating with the bitingly bright cologne wafting off his body. I feel like I need to vomit.

I want to push past his security and confront him, to make him look me in the eyes and tell him how much he hurt me. I want to slap his face and eradicate the smile that follows me everywhere through the store today — on the signage for his event, on the covers of his books, in my memory from the hours of videos I’ve seen of him talking about how to not be “stoopid,” how to get out of debt quickly with a “snowball,” how to not be a “gazelle.” I want to break through the character of popular finance guru Dave Ramsey and make him see me, a fragile 24-year-old heartbroken about losing everything familiar in the space of a couple years — a loss that felt like it had snowballed directly from his teachings.

It’s like the story of the mouse and the cookie: Dave Ramsey and his mentor, Larry Burke, gave my father the idea that debt was sinful. Because my father believed that debt was sinful, and believed God wanted him and my mom to have as many kids as possible (Quiverfull theology), they were too broke to help me pay for college. Because of this anti-debt theology, I wasn’t allowed to take out student loans myself, and had to attend a really conservative Christian college because it was so cheap and the school gave me a good scholarship package. The school also didn’t allow students to take out federal student loans (given their conditional exemption from Title IX). Because I went to that college, I met my boyfriend, who had private student loans because his family was too rich for him to get a scholarship package. Because my boyfriend had student loans, my father tried to break us up. Because my father tried to break us up, we got married in a rush. Because we got married in a rush, his family gave us a wedding gift of paying for us to take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class. Because we took that class and were shamed into agreeing with Ramsey’s teachings by our parents, we spent all our undesignated remaining funds after rent and bills paying off my ex-husband’s student loans and didn’t have any bills in my name because I didn’t have a credit score, and ate cheaply at home and lived in a shitty illegal basement apartment in DC with a former Nazi as our landlord. Because I didn’t have a credit score, when I needed to leave my husband, I couldn’t rent an apartment of my own, and because we’d been paying off his student loans, I didn’t have savings to buy my own a car to commute to work. Because… because because because.

And here I was: living in yet another a shitty, illegal apartment with two fraternity brothers in a sort of sleazy-and-more-impoverished New Girl setup in Los Angeles, divorced at 24, and working hourly wage jobs because the PTSD from my marriage was so bad, I couldn’t hold down the kind of salaried job I was actually qualified to hold. I was starving because I was broke, and I was slowly building up a credit score with a loan on a car (a relatively new car, because only a dealer would sell to someone with no credit history) and a tiny credit card that I was using to pay for my gas and groceries every week. My part-time retail job at Barnes & Noble meant that I was supposed to help facilitate Dave Ramsey’s book signing event that night at our store.

I felt lightheaded — hungry, angry, and panicked about being so close to this man whose legacy in my life had been a mindset of scarcity and fear for as long as I could remember.

Dave had $1,000 in cash that he was going to give away in a couple of chunks to the attendees. The money was tucked into white envelopes — symbolic of his famous “envelope system” for budgeting, based on the concept that handing over physical cash would be psychologically harder for people than swiping a credit card, thus leading them to reduce spending. My mom used that system for years, as did other homeschool or Quiverfull moms I knew. It was a sign that this person was like you. It was an in-joke within our community.

That night in the Barnes & Noble, Dave held the envelopes aloft, standing at the top of the escalators on the third floor of the store before a crowd that surged around all three levels, faces craning upward to look at him. He was glowing a little with sweat, light reflecting off his bald head and glasses. Everyone around me was dazzled, excited. Cash money lit a primal instinct in everyone around me, and for a moment I felt like I was in church during a revival. I half expected someone to fall to the floor, taken up by the Holy Spirit in the heat of the moment. I felt as if I was the only person in the building whose feet were still on the ground, who was unmoved by his waving cash in the air like a conductor casting a spell over an entire orchestra. Our regular store security was unmoved as well, and I caught the eye of my favorite guard — a kind, retired cop who had regularly rescued me from clingy young male customers begging me to change my mind and give them a date. He shook his head a little, a baffled grin on his face.

I don’t remember what Dave was saying to the crowd. I’ve heard his lines so many times that they all run together in my head now, vague and cliched, but the energy was biting. He was angry; restrained, but there was a sharpness to his speech that night which I had never picked up on before. He sounded to me like he despised the people who were there to hear him, and I wondered if I was imagining it. But when my friend the guard talked to me about it the following day, I discovered I wasn’t the only one. “He was pretty intense, wasn’t he?” he said.

“I hate him so much,” I said.

“I don’t understand why he does gigs like that if he’s so rich and dislikes his followers so much.”

“Me either,” I said.

***

Dave Ramsey is the disciple of the late Larry Burkett, of Crown Financial Ministries. Both taught that debt is counter to the Bible’s teachings, and ran massively popular businesses based on giving Christians biblically oriented financial advice. This meant that they cherry-picked Bible verses out of context to create a pro-capitalist, anti-debt understanding of finances which used religious shame and guilt to prod people to pay off their credit card debts.

Dave Ramsey and the late Larry Burkett taught that debt is counter to the Bible’s teachings, and ran massively popular businesses based on giving Christians biblically oriented financial advice.

But their disciples took the teachings a step further many times, and my peers who grew up like I did — earnest, fundamentalist Christian true believers, children of other earnest, fundamentalist Christian true believers — have struggled to be financially literate, unequipped with necessary defensive emotional tools to help them trust their own sense of themselves as good people who are struggling under a late-stage capitalist economy rife with predatory lending practices and untaxed billionaires.


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My father’s argument was that “the borrower is slave to the lender,” and he interpreted this thusly:

1) Debt is sometimes necessary, but debt that has physical collateral (mortgages, car loans, etc.) is less bad than student loans or credit card debt because…

2) Debt that does not have physical collateral that a lender can repossess or collect on is debt on your name, which is essentially selling your mortal soul;

3) Debt that was on a name, in the world of the Old Testament, could be called in by a lender selling family members or the primary debtor into slavery (indentured servitude) until the debt was paid off.

4) But under the New Testament covenant, Christians are “a new creation in Christ” and so our lives belong to God not ourselves (which is the only reason he believed in the dignity of humans as worth protecting from slavery); so…

5) Taking debt out on the worth of your own name was un-Christian because you belonged to Christ and so you were functionally selling your soul to the Devil (especially if you couldn’t pay up and went bankrupt).

I heard him make this argument in whole and in fragments dozens of times throughout my childhood.

“Why can’t I keep taking ballet lessons?”

“Well honey, we can’t afford to and if we put it on a credit card… [cue spiel about debt, slavery, souls]”

Or:

“I need new shoes.”

“You’ll have to wait until next pay cycle; we can’t afford that right now because we just bought groceries.”

“But…”

“No buts! You know we can’t afford to do that and I’m not putting it on a credit card. Do you want to see the budget? Here, look where our money goes…”

***

The shooter who attacked the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in April, 2019, a young fundamentalist Christian boy, wrote a manifesto about his motivations and posted it online in between carrying out two different hate crimes in less than a week, killing one woman and wounding several others. He had been raised, in some ways, a lot like me. His family attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) which held similar beliefs to those held by my church and my college. And like me, he had been homeschooled for part of his formative years.

I don’t know if he was raised in a community that was deeply aware of Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett, but I do know that his anti-Semitism stemmed from a theology that deeply resembled the one I was raised with. In this theological belief system, all that differentiated teenage me from him was that I was online being radicalized by feminist theologians, and he was online being radicalized by neo-Nazis on 8chan.

What if my parents’ and Ramsey’s hatred of debt had more to do with anti-Semitism than I previously understood? What if this ancient prejudicial trope was being reinvented in the theology behind these kind of personal finance teachings?

In his manifesto he wrote, as part of his list of reasons for hating the Jews:

for lying and deceiving the public through their exorbitant role in news media; for using usury and banks to enslave nations in debt and control all finances for the purpose of funding evil; for their role in starting wars on a foundation of lies which have costed millions of lives throughout history; for their role in cultural Marxism and communism”

My eyes caught on the word “debt.” I was reading the manifesto on a hunch to understand how closely his parents’ theology informed his terrorist acts, to see if there was a mention of homeschooling. I shuddered — this was a connection I hadn’t made before. Furthermore, “cultural Marxism” was a dog-whistle in the circles I was raised in to imply that you were influenced by unsound liberal theology and falling away from the true faith (fundamentalism). And outside of my circle, in more mainstream conservative conversations, it’s used as an anti-Semitic dog-whistle based on a conspiracy theory that says communist Jews are out to destroy American democracy and the free market.

What if my parents’ and Ramsey’s hatred of debt had more to do with anti-Semitism than I previously understood? What if this ancient prejudicial trope was being reinvented in the theology behind these kind of personal finance teachings?

I was already in the throes of grappling with elements of both anti-Semitism and racism present in my parents’ faith practices and family culture. My parents are Anglo-Germans who regularly participated in evangelical church-run “Passover Seder” events that ended in altar calls, naming me “Hännah,” the “Anglicized version of the Hebrew pronunciation of Hannah” without any understanding of how an umlaut makes a specific sound in German that is not the same in English phonetics. Then there was my father’s routine use of Yiddish words with no cultural context for how he acquired them other than he thought they sounded cool. (“Spiel” what he called his own lectures; “schmutz” was anything he considered messy around the house; “chutzpah” was what I had when I was standing up to power in ways he approved of; anything he considered good/morally acceptable behavior was “kosher;” not putting your things away was “shlepping” it around; media he didn’t like was “dreck.”) I was in the process of changing my name to Eve, trying to make a fresh start so that I didn’t have to apologize for and stumble over every time I introduced myself to someone new. I’m so sorry, my parents were really kind of crazy, yeah I know it doesn’t make sense, no I’m not a German exchange student, no I’m not using the Japanese spelling, no I’m not Jewish.

And I was doing research on the history of homeschooling for a nonprofit volunteer role — on how the homeschooling movement started as a liberal, hippie alternative to traditional education and then became overwhelmingly overrun by white fundamentalist Christians seeking to avoid integrated schools after Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954. They had first fled to private Christian schools, but as those, too, were forced to integrate, a trickle became a flood as white, Christian families began homeschooling in the 70s and 80s.

My parents never overtly said they were homeschooling to keep us from interacting with people of color, but they and the communities they placed us in were all upper middle class, politically conservative, and white. Capitalism was unquestioned. My father worked as a city planner, helping towns rapidly gentrify themselves to raise revenue without raising taxes. When I was 12, he moved our family from a small California town that was 46% Latino to the suburbs outside of Richmond, Virginia (70% white) because it was “a better place to raise a family.” Our new church there was predominantly white. My mom had two Black friends when I was growing up, and my siblings and I would squirm with embarrassment as she would unconsciously mimic their [Jamaican, AAVE] speech patterns back to them during conversations. Implicit white supremacy (and with it, the accompanying blanket othering that results in the kind of racism and anti-Semitism that doesn’t bother to differentiate between the two) was the air I breathed, even if I wasn’t radicalized or aware enough to understand or parrot its tenets.

And then there was my college: a white majority (approximately 92% of students are white), Presbyterian school with an economics department devoted to capitalism inspired by the likes of Ayn Rand, Ludwig Von Mises, Ronald Reagan, and Ron Paul. The OPC, where the Poway shooter grew up going to church and where his father is an elder, is a sub-denomination of the Presbyterian church, distinct for many things, but in my mind, notable mainly because the OPC is what gave rise to a system of belief that drove my parents to have their nine kids and homeschool: Christian Reconstructionism.

Christian Reconstructionism is an anti-Semitic theological system that teaches that the United States is the new “chosen people” of the “new covenant” in the New Testament — that the United States replaces the Jews as the people God has chosen to bless and prosper in the world, the people after “his own heart.” Reconstructionists believe, further, that the promised return of Jesus and the end times/initiation of a new heaven and a new earth will not occur until the United States has been “returned” to being a Christian nation, and biblical laws are in place as the law of the land. This theology, this eschatology (theology of end times) was codified by some OPC leaders in the mid-2000s, and has been the culmination of a long history of American exceptionalist theology and civil Christian religion in the United States. Reformed or Presbyterian theologians (not just reconstructionists, who make up a subset of these groups) often also hold to a similar, but less U.S.-centric belief called “replacement theology.” Historian John Fea says of this belief system:

“In replacement theology, all the promises to Israel in the Old Testament now apply to the church, so there’s no particular end-times reason to not be anti-Semitic. The Jews are no longer God’s chosen people. . . . If you believe in this replacement theology, that’s not an incentive to go kill Jews, but it does mean Jews are not as important anymore in God’s plan.”

Much of the ideology and language in the Poway shooter’s manifesto indicates that he was likely raised with a strong belief in reconstructionist theology, just like me. Some common refrains…

Reconstructionism drove the Quiverfull movement: God called us to have as many kids as possible to raise up a Christian nation, to outbreed the liberals and the immigrants and the Muslims.

And reconstructionism was overtly racist and anti-humanist — the founders included a Holocaust denier, an advocate of race-based slavery (it’s biblical because of the curse of Noah on his dark-skinned son, Ham, who mocked his drunken nakedness after the flood), and a pastor who advocated for certain Old Testament laws to be reinstituted, specifically ones about marrying a woman to her rapist, and the stoning of rebellious sons and queer people.

The reconstructionist students at my college were careful to not speak so firmly or clearly about their beliefs as the founders of this theological belief — being of a generation that was raised with slightly elevated manners about how they demonstrated their prejudices, but then again: my undergrad was the place that led the charge to free Christian colleges from being subject to Title IX regulations, as long as they didn’t take federal loans. This was an incentive for reconstructionist prospective students: there was no obligation for the school to be held accountable for patriarchal, homophobic, or racist beliefs. Taking federal money would have made them beholden to a godless government, and Title IX was unbiblical — these were agreed-upon common beliefs among the student body, among the staff and administration, among the families of the students who attended this college with me.

And the Poway shooter’s manifesto made it sound as if he could be one of my OPC, homeschooled college classmates.

***

I tried to make sense of this all. Is Dave Ramsey himself party to this ideology, or is he just an entrepreneur who makes a living off of Christians who are afraid of the end times, of the government, and of themselves? Is he also a white supremacist who would speak in anti-Semitic tropes (Jews control money and the government and want to have us all beholden to their usury) if I got him to speak openly to me, in private? Would the elision of the difference between hating debt and hating Jews found in the shooter’s manifesto be present in the cultural impact of Ramsey’s teachings?

I began to ask my peers — other former fundamentalist Christians, other people who grew up like me, and who participated in Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett’s teachings, who grew up with a profoundly religious belief that debt was wrong.

They were all white. Middle class. Privileged. College education was common — either they had attended or graduated college, or their parents did. Some were homeschooled, some were not. But the common theme was clear: debt was seen as a moral issue, tied to a distrust of the government, a fear of the end times, and a sense of themselves as moral failures if they took out credit of any kind.

Just like me.

Rachel (age 28, Oregon) wrote me:

“I was taught that … putting purchases on a credit card was a sign of either greed and “covetousness”… or financial irresponsibility and mismanagement. … much of this rhetoric came from Dave Ramsey…”

Charity (33, North Dakota) wrote:

“If you were struggling financially, the problem was your lack of belief in God’s providence [a reformed/Presbyterian theological term indicating God’s willingness to always take care of those who trust him — EE]. …Debt was a major source of tension. There was a sense of ‘we’re doing everything right with our tithing [giving 10% of your income to the church — EE] and giving, why aren’t we getting ahead? What are we doing wrong? Maybe we weren’t praying hard enough, or maybe we were being punished for the sins of some family antecedent and we needed to pray for deliverance, like a financial exorcism. That was the torment of it. You could never really know why you were struggling.”

Charity’s family, also reconstructionists, believed that increased use of credit cards was a “harbinger of the apocalypse” — and now she regrets “believing in a God who wanted me to live with such constant dread, always second guessing myself.” She concludes, saying that, in her opinion, she sees “a direct line between ‘cut up your credit cards’ [a common Dave Ramsey phrase — EE] and … freaking out about… one world governments and race wars … and Brexit and racist survivalist groups and white-supremacist terrorism.”

Gina (36, Texas), another former-Presbyterian wrote that she grew up influenced by Larry Burkett’s teachings, and believed that “the implication was that too much debt, especially ‘frivolous’ debt accrued from living outside of one’s means was sinful and bad stewardship….Christians needed to counter our secular culture’s materialism and greed… being bad with money made you worldly, which is something evangelicals definitely don’t want to be.”

Liz (25, Idaho) was not Presbyterian, but had similar theological ideological teachings in her family too: “I grew up being taught that debt = slavery, and that … debt was considered to be a bad thing and that truly righteous people would not indebt themselves. … If we saw a family where the father didn’t make the primary income or where he struggled financially, that was pointed to as an example of not living up to his responsibility as the man of the house. … this caused a lot of spiritual shame for them on top of financial difficulty.”

Much of the ideology and language in the Poway shooter’s manifesto indicates that he was likely raised with a strong belief in reconstructionist theology, just like me.

Sam Field (31, Maryland) wrote a coda in her responses to my questions that was echoed and repeated by every person I interviewed about this: “…what’s truly sinful is the whole credit rating system, the avarice and rapacious greed of our banks and investors, the exploitation of children who only want a better future.”

Every person I corresponded with about their experiences of theology of debt as a former fundamentalist sounded downright Marxist in their responses, condemning their parents for pro-capitalist ideology, and condemning their former churches for teaching that debt and people were the problem, rather than the current economic system. While none of this answered my questions about Dave Ramsey’s personal beliefs about Jews, race, or the end times, it confirmed at the very least an affinity among his adherents for the same sort of theological bigotry that I was raised with, and was present in the Poway shooter’s manifesto.

***

That night in LA after Dave Ramsey’s event, I went home on the I-10 from Santa Monica to my apartment in Culver city. I stopped for gas and put it on my brand-new credit card. I stopped at Wendy’s for a $5 dinner that my body would be angry with me about but that I could afford without having a panic attack. I came home to a kitchen stocked with a cheap six-pack of beer, peanut butter, ramen, eggs, cheese, yogurt, spinach, and onions. I was starving, but I knew I had to save my money because I earned only $8.25 an hour — almost a dollar more than many of my co-workers — and worked only 38 hours a week, so the store could refuse me health insurance and benefits as I was technically only a “part-time” employee at fewer than 39 hours per week. I wouldn’t be paid for another week and needed to make that food last.

I lay in bed and listened to my stomach grumble, counting the dollars in my bank account and thinking about the money Dave Ramsey had handed out just hours before. Thinking about the $55 million Dave Ramsey was reportedly worth, and the fight my ex-husband and I had about a $5,000 wedding gift that he had spent to get me braces after our wedding, which he had tried to demand I pay back during our divorce negotiations. Thinking about how many meals I could make for myself with that kind of money, with the thousand dollars from that evening, with the $5,000 from my braces, with $55 million dollars Ramsey has accumulated from egging on white Christian fundamentalists in their theologically based fear, their distrust of banks, the government, and themselves.

I thought of my father and former pastors and professors, about how much I wished I could untangle myself from arguing with them in my mind years after the fact, and how futile it is to ask for empathy and compassion from those who wrap themselves in iron-clad theological fortresses to avoid feeling guilty for how their self-righteousness can destroy those who don’t fit in their systems of belief. Who will they turn to for comfort when they have condemned everyone but themselves to a hell dreamed up by centuries of oppression?

Tonight, five years later, when I’m still counting my pennies and afraid of myself and the debt that I might accrue, I think of the other homeschooled children, raised like me, in fear of “the other,” and in fear of themselves, and debt, and the Jews. I think of the hunger I felt that night in LA and the fear that ruled my body that year, and I think of the fear that shook the bodies of those in the synagogue that day, of the hearts that stopped beating, and of the grief that shook other bodies around the world afterwards. I think of these kids growing up like me, fed with such blunt, dominionist ideas about others in order to cultivate fear of themselves and their own hearts, and I pray that, like me, they find some kind feminists on Twitter instead of the neo-Nazis on 8chan.

* * *

Eve Ettinger is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor in Roanoke, Virginia. Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Autostraddle, Glamour UK, Cosmopolitan, and others. She is a features editor at The Rumpus and is working on a memoir.

Editor: Sari Botton