Jesus Saves, You Invest

New preachers say the Bible is the good book of financial advice

By Katia Hetter, U.S.News & World Report

Standing on the bare stage of the University of Charleston’s auditorium, Dave Ramsey thunders to the West Virginia crowd: “The Bible does not say money is the root of all evil. It says”–and the audience filling the 937 seats speaks with him–“the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Ramsey gives financial advice, most of it couched in the biblical language of an evangelist. And that is what he is. The author of Financial Peace: Restoring Financial Hope to You and Your Family (Viking, 1995, $21.95), Ramsey personifies a Christian movement sweeping the country that uses religious values to teach thrift.

“And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28) he asks before weaving in tips on retirement plans and statistics on credit-card debt and the low U.S. savings rate. The members of his audience paid $19 per ticket ($29 per couple) to spend five hours of their Saturday with him.

“I’m weird,” Ramsey tells them. How so? Because he lives in a debt-free house with his debt-free wife, drives a debt-free car, and doesn’t have any loan payments. And he did it all by following biblical principles of financial planning. In his mind, there should be no tension between finances and faith. Balancing your checkbook can be good for your soul.

Ramsey and other ministers with a similar mission, including Christian Financial Concepts’ Larry Burkett, Crown Ministries’ Howard Dayton, and Cheapskate Monthly’s Mary Hunt, view a person’s financial crisis as a symptom of a larger spiritual crisis, to which God, not more money, is the answer.

“People who have a lot of problems in their lives don’t realize they need a spiritual connection,” says Hunt.

The advice Ramsey teases his audience into repeating back to him is hardly blasphemous to the secular financial world: Create an emergency fund, pay off your credit cards and any other debt, plan for retirement, give to charity, talk with your spouse about money, and teach your kids about finances. But it’s the biblical backup that grabs the audience.

“We’re coming here for some direction,” says Dee Dunlap, sitting with her husband, Larry, a self-employed contractor. “Using the Scripture makes it come alive. It’s really helped us.” (Occasionally, Ramsey’s use of the Bible lurches toward stereotypes. At one church visit, he cites as evidence that “the Old Testament works” the fact that he can’t find any “Jewish slums” in the many cities he visits.)

These preachers blame a focus on consumption and the rise of easy credit for the disintegration of a religious tradition of thrift they say dates back to the country’s founding.

“Our parents lived within the means that God had provided,” says Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Ill. “The message has changed to, ‘You can have it all and you can have it right now.’ ”

God and mammon. Finding references in the Bible isn’t a problem. When Crown Ministries’ Dayton first started reading the Bible for financial citations, he was astounded to find over 2,000 references to debt, saving, and charitable giving.

“One of the biggest surprises for people is how practical and relevant Scripture is for today’s culture,” says Dayton, whose Orlando-based staff of 35 offered small-group study programs and materials to 20,000 churchgoers across the country in 1997.

Published April 19, 1998