On serving God or money (and why Dave Ramsey should stick to personal finances)

When we as Christians formulate our opinions on social concerns, there are a number of Jesus’ teachings that we seem to forget. In the running for the top, most forgotten principle is Jesus’ quote in Matt 6:24/Luke 16:13: “You cannot serve both God and money.”

Dave Ramsey is a popular Christian financial guru. On October 4, the YouTube channel for the Dave Ramsey Show posted a video of Ramsey commenting on the Affordable Care Act (hereafter ACA; also known as Obamacare). He begins by saying that no matter what your political persuasion is, you’re “not exempt from math.” In a fairly condescending way, Ramsey implies that he is one of few Americans who have original thoughts on this issue outside of political motivations. He explains to his viewers why the ACA is disastrous and doesn’t stand up to basic math. His basic critique of the ACA is that it requires insurance companies to cover people regardless of health status and forbids them from raising rates on this basis. If they have to cover more sick people, he argues, they will have to charge everyone more.

The 9 minute video is so fraught with oversimplifications, omissions, and even a few outlandish statements that it may well prove to be one of the low points of Ramsey’s career.  His largest omission–obvious enough that many people in the comment section picked up on it–is that insurance companies will be experiencing an influx of new paying customers due to the individual mandate. The higher payouts for the sick can, at least in theory, be offset by the wave of young, low-risk consumers who were previously likely to forego health coverage, as well as other low income families receiving subsidies to afford insurance for the first time. There were a host of other factors Ramsey didn’t mention or consider, such as possible long-term savings in the healthcare system due to increased access to well patient/preventative care, or the role that healthcare providers need to play in holding down costs.

In a moment that should be an embarrassment to Ramsey and all his fans, he said at the end of the video that things like Social Security and the ACA’s individual mandate are “communism” and compared it to a hypothetical situation of the government telling everyone they had to buy a gun. So much for being an objective mathematician without political bias. Ramsey himself has said in the past that everyone should have health insurance. How does he propose they get it if they can’t afford it or have been denied coverage?

However, what personally disturbed me the most about Ramsey’s video is that he seemingly joined the growing chorus of politicians, pundits, and citizens in this country for whom human needs are subordinate to the bottom line, wrapping such values in the mantle of Christianity. Ramsey apparently subscribes to the scarcity mentality, the idea that there is only so much to go around and everyone must fight for their own piece of the pie.

Ramsey says he understands the moral imperative behind making sure everyone is covered. “I get that,” he says several times, “but you still have to do the math.” Whenever a statement includes the word “but,” that which follows the “but” usually trumps what comes before. I finished the video feeling that, for Ramsey, moral imperatives are only relevant when there are dollars to spare. He offers no way forward for addressing the moral imperative he acknowledges. The video is solely a stark warning about red ink.

Upon hearing this kind of critique, some are tempted to see a false dichotomy and assume I’m in favor of the opposite extreme. “Oh, so you think we should just spend recklessly and not care about running up debt,” some may say. Not at all. I’m a pretty big fan of responsibility, and I actually respect Ramsey for some of his teaching and how he’s helped people with their finances. Christians, however, must approach social concerns with a clear sense that justice gets the trump card, not the balance sheet. We can and must talk about financial concerns, but as means to an end, not an end in themselves. Proverbs 16:8 puts it plainly: “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.” You cannot serve both God and money.

Unfortunately, where Ramsey was right is that premiums are increasing for some people. Rate estimates show that young, working adults not covered by their employer may be hit the hardest. (It’s important to note, however, that we will all be getting better insurance with more services covered, another factor Ramsey omits). But the question is: why? Ramsey flirted with portraying private insurance companies as cash-strapped, innocent victims who are left with no choice but to pass higher costs onto their customers.

Hardly. Insurance companies saw record profits during the recession and continue to see profit margin growth. This year, they are on track to maintain their #2 ranking for money spent on lobbying, surpassed only by the pharmaceutical industry. Not to mention their CEOs earn roughly 220 times the median household income in the United States.

All the while, clients suffer. The Bible has an oft-used word for these kinds of situations: injustice. As Gandhi is quoted as saying, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the Lord.  -Jeremiah 22:15-16

Countless times, the Bible devalues material wealth and shouts harsh warnings to those who neglect or oppress others. From his praise of the widow who gave all she had (Luke 21:1-4) to his chiding of the religious leaders for tithing while neglecting things like justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23), to his famous “eye of the needle” statement (Matthew 19:24/Mark 10:25/Luke 18:25), we read about a Jesus who followed a different way, especially when it came to the outcast and oppressed. Jesus followed a tradition of prophetic calls for justice and righteousness in human affairs, things the prophet Amos put above even worship (Amos 5:21-24).

A different Jesus has emerged in American public life. Things like our national identity, capitalism, and Jesus seem to be one big jumbled mess for some people. Consider, for example, that some members of Congress who openly profess a Christian faith also subscribe to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an atheist who was hostile toward religious belief and was known for her mockery of altruism and her cold-hearted approach to society’s most vulnerable. In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, Rep. Paul Ryan said that Rand was his motivation for going into politics, only to disown her later after Rand’s philosophy and Ryan’s endorsement gained public attention. Christian leaders of all stripes–including, for example, Chuck Colson–saw the incompatibility and issued words of caution.

Since we have a Savior who said that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), we would do well to recognize that these ships don’t all run by the same coordinates.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. All other labels fall under that (Matthew 6:33). Of course we all differ in our interpretation and application of scripture, but people of faith must at least start the conversation there. The “Kingdom of God,” not math, was Jesus’ primary value. You don’t feed 5000 people (Matthew 14:13-21) or talk about the abundant provisions of God with the scarcity mindset that we seem to have adopted today. Policy issues are complicated and rarely have a clear right and wrong, which makes it all the more important for us to name and claim the primary values that guide our thinking.

Saying, “This person is not here legally,” while potentially true, is not a biblical reason to treat someone as if they don’t matter (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). In the same way, saying, “It costs too much money,” while potentially true, is not a biblical reason for opposing something. You cannot serve both God and money.

Yes: money (for better or worse) is a life necessity and responsible finances matter. I don’t have all the answers for issues such as how to make sure people have access to health care. Perhaps substantive debate would be a good start. But I do know this: Christians cannot serve both God and money.

Corey Fields

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About the Author
Corey Fields is associate pastor of First Baptist Church, Topeka, KS. His doctoral work at Central Baptist Theological Seminary focused on developing a congregational vision for missional ministry. In the summer of 2014, he completed a Louisville Institute sponsored sabbatical study on Christian Community Development.

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  • jtsims

    I am working with ministers daily to find affordable care. Their premiums are going up with only partial hope for subsidies.
    The problem with YOUR oversimplifications, omissions, and outlandish statements is the false hope that the individual mandate will bring in young, healthy, low risk consumers. It is not going to happen as long as the penalty is less than the premium.
    Even after subsidies, most are seeing the math for them is better to continue to pay as they go. That leaves even more people at risk for catastrophic medical needs with no coverage.

    It may not be Ramsey’s “place” to talk about it, but he is right.

    • coreyf_4

      My article clearly says that premiums are going up for some people and that clients are suffering, so I’m sorry if you missed that and came away feeling that I was dismissing the experience of the ministers you work with. Certainly not, but as I argue in the article, it’s not because insurance companies have no other choice.

      The main point of this post is to ask what moral imperatives drive our thinking. In our healthcare system the way it was, the people who needed coverage the most were often the least able to get it. However imperfectly the ACA addresses this problem, my main argument here is that Christians cannot accept an immoral status quo solely for the reasons Ramsey puts forth.

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