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Eve Ettinger

The Price of Dominionist Theology

Illustration by Zach Meyer

Eve Ettinger | Longreads | January 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.
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