Cutesy phrases aside

ramseytvMy family and friends are a little obsessed with a Monopoly/Risk/Axis & Allies-like game called Settlers of Catan--too obsessed that my husband won't play with me because I become too competitive that we stop speaking to each other. After several rounds of winning one Christmas, it inspired me to get my sheep, wood, wheat and ore in order in real life. I began checking out personal finance books from the library, mostly popular materials from Suze Orman and Wall Street Journal guides. Then out of curiosity, I searched for some Christian personal finance books, and after very few books came up in the system, one of my friends told me about Dave Ramsey. I didn't spend much time with his material when I didn't see something radically different from the books that I had read. So when I read The Atlantic's profile on Ramsey, I wondered whether it would help me see how Christian personal finance is different from a Christian who gives personal finance advice. (Another colleague will look at Hanna Rosin's cover story "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?")

Overall, the story is more about debt than it is about religion, but Megan McArdle does a nice job at looking at it from a religion angle. If I can be a little nitpicky, though, she starts off pretty poorly: "Dave Ramsey looks nothing like a televangelist." Well, duh. He's a Christian financial adviser that appears on television. He may talk about Jesus, but it's like comparing Mike Huckabee to a televangelist. Yes, he's a Christian and yes, he's on TV. But would you compare him to a televangelist? I don't think so. Anyway, McArdle proceeds to caricature televangelists.

He's a little on the short side, neither fat nor thin, and he wears jeans and a sports jacket, not a shiny suit and an oily smile. With his goatee and what's left of his graying hair trimmed close to his head, he looks mostly like what he is-a well-groomed, middle- to upper-middle-class American professional. But when he runs out onstage and starts dispensing financial advice, you realize that he could have been a great preacher.

Do you think shiny suit or oily smile when you think of Robert H. Schuller, James Robison, or Pat Robertson? A similar stereotype in a piece about Wall Street bankers probably wouldn't pass through the first copy edit.

McArdle uses lots of cutesy religious hints to get her message across.

Here are some examples:

"the format was more tent revival than accounting seminar"

"his disciples routinely shun lucrative financing deals"

"Ramsey is not the first evangelical to sell financial advice to his co-religionists"

"Ramsey devotees"

Why can't she show us through descriptions and quotes instead of telling us using these little canned phrases?

Also, McArdle uses the term "evangelical financial adviser" a bit loosely here.

"But although other evangelical financial advisers flourish mostly within their religious communities, Ramsey has made himself the breakout act, bringing his basic message to the wider world."

Using evangelical as an adjective can get a bit tricky. Ramsey isn't just an evangelical financial adviser -- there are probably hundreds of financial advisers who happen to be evangelical. What sets Ramsey apart, though, is that he markets himself to evangelical Christians.

ramseyplanningOverall, however, McArdle gives a colorful picture of Ramsey, weaving her personal life into her experience attending one of his seminars. She does a nice job of explaining Ramsey's obsession with debt and why it matters to the economy.

Ramsey offers some investment advice (much of which would have struck horror in my business-school professors), but for most of his followers, the main attraction is a simple program: give 10 percent of your income to charity, save 15 percent for retirement, build up a sizable emergency stash and a college fund for your kids, and above all, stop borrowing money. Ramsey devotees pay cash for everything they can. They are allowed only one exception to the no-more-debt rule: a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Ramsey tells the audience about Jesus, but McArdle isn't moved.

Ramsey closed his talk in Detroit with a sober lecture on taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and of course, spiritually. "Bluntly," he said, "I'm talking about this man named Jesus, and if you don't know him, you need to be introduced." The arena erupted in a joyous roar. Though I did take the audio CD of Ramsey's personal witness being handed out free at the exit, I'm afraid that Jesus and I aren't really any better acquainted than we were before.

This comes across as fairly obligatory (don't worry, fellow journalists. I didn't convert.)

She ends with: "You don't need to be a Christian to look for a better way. Even an unbeliever knew enough to listen up when he saw the bright light on the road to Damascus." There goes that cutesy language again.

Despite some of these nitpicks, the article really is worth the read--McArdle is right to recognize how big Ramsey is in Christian circles. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like McArdle tried to interview Ramsey, which is where she could have probed him on what makes him different from another financial planner. Maybe the next story about Ramsey can tell us what is Christian about his financial planning more than how he quotes Bible verses and appeals to Christians.

Photos via imelda and Matt McGee from Flickr creative commons.

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