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Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsgcAGtdkRY&

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Welcome to our all-new podcast series Too Good To Be True, covering financial scams and scam artists. In this two-part premiere, our hosts Ryan and Julia take you on a deep dive through the history of Evangelicalism, politics, and money in this country, culminating in the personal finance giant that is the Dave Ramsey empire.

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With Avast One, you can confidently take control of your online world by helping you stay safe from viruses, phishing attacks, ransomware, hacking attempts, and other cybercrimes. Learn more about Avast One at avast.com. [MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to Too Good To Be True, an investigative podcast exposing the scams, schemes, and financial cults trying to separate you from your money.

Well, we're back for part 2 of our discussion about the evangelical church, the prosperity gospel, and how Dave Ramsey fits into all of this. You guys are not ready. I'm not ready. [LAUGHTER] So has this thought process started to be laundered and leak into secular culture in ways that I might know about, but I don't know that this is where the source of the ideas are coming from?

Oh, absolutely. Like, there's a lot of nuance to this, which I think brings us inevitably to Dave Ramsey. So what has your exposure to Dave Ramsey and his principles been like?

So I know that he has some pretty wacky ideas about money that-- and I know they are all mostly counterintuitive and based on-- my understanding-- denial or very black and white thinking about money and that he's very sexist and that he has had several scandals for his personal behavior. And I imagine him as a figure yelling on TV. But I don't really know much about him beyond that.

That's fine. It's just for context. Like, I was a very committed member of an evangelical megachurch for over a decade-- my husband and I were.

So I just feel really personally connected to this world. And it's actually been kind of healing for me to be able to look at it from a slightly more objective perspective. So Dave Ramsey really started to gain traction in the early '90s.

So his riches to rags to riches story is one that he talks about a lot. And I have to say, in his semi-defense, I think financial professionals-- which we should say he is not one. He has no credentials.

He never has. This-- He's just a media figure. He's a media figure.

And there are disclaimers on his show. So he has a radio show that is massively popular, and that's how I got exposed to him, and really why I'm in this industry in the first place is because of my exposure to his messaging. So his hallmarks are sort of like a "one size fits all" approach to money.

And there's very little, if not zero, acknowledgment of systemic issues. It's really completely focused on the individual's responsibility for their own financial situations. So this is where you get the flavor of that prosperity gospel messaging put into content that is listened to by millions of people.

I mean, I would say even more than listen to Joel Osteen. I would guess that far more people have been exposed to Dave Ramsey and accept his teachings probably more than Joel Osteen. I'm not 100% sure.

If you can't employ a financial professional to assist you with your-- Exactly. --finances, then you're just left with the free radio guy. You're kind of shit out of luck is the truth. And so his Financial Peace University is basically a course that he created for people.

It involves a lot of videos, prerecorded videos. There's a workbook. I have gone through this, and I have taught it.

Oh, no. Yes, here I am-- confessions! I have done this, because, in many ways, it was transformational.

I do see lots of issues with it. But it is very accessible and, when you compare it to hiring a credentialed financial professional, very affordable. It's like maybe a couple of hundred dollars.

At the time, I think it was like maybe 99 bucks. It's really more of a time investment than a money investment. But make no mistake, there is some money involved.

What are some of his ideas that he is distributing like this? Yeah, so the main tenets of his ideas are based on the baby-step approach. And the baby step is a sort of order of operations as to how you should ideally be allocating any extra money that you have.

So step 1, you need a baby emergency fund. Step 2, you need to get out of debt. Step 3, you need a fully funded emergency fund.

And then step 4, you invest. So-- and really that is something that I and most financial professionals pretty much agree on. There's lots of nuance within there.

But I found it very helpful to have an order of attack. And this idea that focused money-- A plan. --works harder and that you're not trying to do eight different things with your money at once I actually do think is very helpful. But when you start to dig down into the specifics of these over the-- gosh, what is it now-- like, 20-30 years that he's been espousing these-- he still thinks a true emergency fund, like a baby emergency fund, should be only $1,000.

Oh, boy. And then you get after debt. And I'm like, hello, no.

He still espouses the absolutely no credit cards ever approach. He's still saying you need 20% down to get into a home. He still says you should absolutely pay off your mortgage, and you should only put into this specific allocation of mutual funds, no movement within them, even though the economics have changed.

So yeah-- I mean-- and credit scores themselves weren't introduced till 1989, the year of my birth for scholars. To be giving out advice about that in the '90s is different when you have, now, decades of data about actually what these trends look like and behavioral patterns look like and what would be advantageous for you in that realm. Yeah, exactly.

And I will say, his messaging is really focused on the financial content. But make no mistake, there are heavy and pretty obvious-- the more you listen to him-- religious leanings. So he is-- he has a huge follower base among the evangelical community because he does believe in tithing.

He does espouse giving as being something you really must do. In his templates for budgeting-- which, by the way, is another, I should say, core message of his is the need for a budget, which I completely espouse, 100%-- love me an amazing budget. But in his budget that he provides his students, tithing is on there.

OK, so it's built in-- It is an understanding. Yeah. Yes, it is absolutely built into the culture, not only from what we're teaching the people who buy this course and product but also within the workplace that he has built based out in Tennessee.

And there have been no shortage of really disturbing allegations made as to how women are being treated, like how people are disciplined. And I think it really-- the cracks show when it comes to Chris Hogan. There have been a large amount of lawsuits that have been levied against what is now Ramsey Solutions, which is his kind of parent company that owns his media presence.

And I think it's very interesting to watch, because at some point, he must have realized that he's not going to be around forever. So this is like the Dave Ramsey show. So what he has been trying to do over the past quite a while now, probably 10-20 years, is develop other personalities under his brand.

His daughter is one. Rachel Cruze is somebody who he is sort of trying to lift up through the ranks as kind of the next generation. But another one has been Chris Hogan.

Have you heard anything about him? I don't know anything about him. But this sounds to me a lot like what happens in churches where you elevate certain community members because it expands your reach to people like them.

Oh, see, that's very interesting you say that, because unlike Dave Ramsey, Chris Hogan happens to be a Black man. Oh, OK. Yes.

Wow. All right, so we weren't-- Yeah, so he was incorporated into the brand at the time I was exposed to it. And during the Financial Peace University, he is the person who talks, I believe, about-- I remember him talking about mortgages specifically, getting mortgages, and he has also been the sort of messenger of retirement.

So he had a book about how to retire smartly. But he has been sidelined due to accusations of a workplace relationship while he was married. And since that has come out, his ex-wife has had some choice words to say about how basically he was cosseted and protected for a long period of time, whereas other employees, specifically women, who were basically outed as having extramarital relationships or becoming pregnant while not actually being married.

It's a whole nasty hypocritical soup that I think we should acknowledge is happening. We talk to some really brave people who have firsthand experience in this world and specifically in the Ramsey Solutions world and workplace as well. We actually got the chance to chat with Melissa Hogan.

Here's a clip from our conversation where we discuss Ramsey Solutions succession plan or who they plan to take over one day when Dave Ramsey can no longer be the face and name in charge. [MUSIC PLAYING] I'm Melissa Hogan. A little background on me is I was married to someone who worked at Ramsey Solutions during our marriage for 15 years. In my own situation, I have been a health care attorney and a corporate attorney, and I write.

I had a book on trauma come out last year. And I have three kids, who are now teenagers. And I've worked in strategy.

I did strategy consulting for a long time and then as a corporate lawyer. When my husband was hired there in 2005, my first question as he was interviewing was, what is the succession plan? Because I knew well enough to know how it was structured back in '05, and I would ask this all the time-- what is the succession plan?

And eventually, strangely enough, my husband at the time then became part of the succession plan. They have a phrase that they used to say that was "non-Dave income." And I mean, I think it's-- they're in a difficult spot. They're in a legitimately difficult spot, which is not helped by the really toxic culture and choices that they make.

I did see aspects where they looked at different communities and said, see, we've got these people here, so we can't be racist or sexist. But it doesn't work that way. There was a video once upon a time.

It was after George Floyd. And it was a panel discussion that was Dave and Anthony and I want to say somebody else, and it was on race. And I was mortified.

And they pushed it out and were proud of it. And I was mor-- it was very-- there were several comments in there where basically it was like-- it was in the zone of my Black friend, and the police are not kind to me either as a white man. [LAUGHS] Yeah, as a parent of children of color, I was just mortified. And there was a comment one time that my daughter works here, and so, of course, I wouldn't want any creepers here.

And I didn't hire her because she's a woman. And I'm like, yeah, but she's your daughter. [LAUGHS] There's a whole unique aspect in this that my husband at the time worked at Ramsey Solutions but didn't really practice what he preached. So there was this hypocrisy going on that I struggled with, but then in the church, it teaches you to follow your husband's lead and things like that.

So it was really confusing for me. I was generally the budgeter early on. And at one point when he started at Ramsey Solutions, they do not pay very much money. [LAUGHS] Actually, back then was in 2005.

And so we were really lean. And I was not working at the time, because when he started, I was pregnant with my second child and was doing some work at home on the side, but having three children in three years. So I was the budgeter, and I actually had our budget down to so lean that our grocery budget was $80 every two weeks.

And now, granted, this is 2006-2007, something like that. I stopped at Aldi. I made food.

I had a garden. But at some point, he did not want to participate in a budget anymore. But you see, now, there's this-- when you're stuck in that and there's this hypocrisy and this kind of gaslighting, you don't know which end is up because you're like, wait a second.

So yeah, we did not have a budget for, I don't know, at least the last five or six years of our marriage. And I would bring it up, and that would be a no-fly zone. From what I've seen, when you leave, it takes a good period of time for you to really tease apart what has happened to you.

And some people leave and they've had a great experience. And that's totally valid. It's not any different than somebody saying, well, an abuser doesn't abuse everybody.

That's why people like them and they defend them. There are certain specific situations where they can get away with it, and they want to exert that power, very similar to this situation. So the fact that a lot of people have had a good experience or have learned a lot, I don't discount those at all.

But we also need to turn and hear the stories where it's been really harmful. [MUSIC PLAYING] I mean, the gender dynamics there are just-- it's also stuff you find within churches where there are different standards depending on your gender. Yeah, so what this bleeds over into that is a tie into the evangelical world and usually, also, prosperity gospel message is this idea of complementarianism. Have you ever heard of this?

Mm-mm. So complementarianism is this idea that men and women are created to be complementary to each other, right? They're-- Yeah, not familiar with this idea, I wouldn't say. [LAUGHS] As opposed to egalitarian, right-- have access to the same roles, the same amount of power.

That is not it. And ultimately, it's-- So where women lack, men make up. And where men lack, women make up.

There you go. We have these fixed-- because of their gender. There you go.

And the man should be the spiritual leader of the household, and the woman is the helper slash child raiser slash supporter of the man. Yeah. Yeah, so you can see that, right?

Yeah. Here we go. Again, it's this kind of flavor that just sort of seeps in.

Even though he's not out there saying the same things Joe Osteen is, you can see the tie. It's pretty clear. [MUSIC PLAYING] Thanks again to our friends at Avast for sponsoring this episode of Too Good To Be True. Protecting yourself and your online presence is incredibly important, and Avast is the perfect way to help keep you safe online.

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It helps you stay safe from viruses, phishing attacks, ransomware, hacking attempts, and other cybercrimes. Learn more about Avast One at avast.com. That's A-V-A-S-T dot com. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think Dave Ramsey falls squarely within the prosperity gospel because-- it depends on how you define the prosperity gospel, and I see it as two components.

There's, first, the component of if you do x, you will get y in the way of earthly rewards, so not wisdom or compassion or-- if you do x, you'll get y. And the second part is-- and God wants you to do that and have that. And so people tend to think of Joel Osteen or Kenneth Copeland.

I mean, Joel Osteen has 4.8 million followers on Instagram. And if you Google prosperity gospel, Joel Osteen is who comes [LAUGHS] I've said before, if Ramsey was not in the Christian or faith space, have at it. Have at it-- via bootstraps philosophy.

There's tons of those, especially, in the conservative Republican space. But when you mix faith into it, it really can warp things for people. And so many people leaving Ramsey Solutions have basically had to deconstruct what they thought their faith was and what things they thought were related to that.

Lots, I know, have gone to therapy. And-- because when you mix your faith into that and you say, well, if you do this, you get y, God wants you to do it, and then that's mixed into your everyday workplace. So then it's all mixed up in your faith what you're doing for work.

So if you don't do that, you're not following God. If you don't do what your leader says or what Dave says, then there's actually something wrong with your faith. And so it makes it all about what's wrong with you.

And so you never look at, well, maybe the leadership is not doing something right here or maybe this really isn't about my faith at all. There's a self-selection, and then there's a company selection. So the people who would even apply there are often self-selecting into that.

They're people who already agree with a lot of these things. And the company can work to identify people who don't in the interview process and in the spousal interview. So if you're going to go to a spousal interview, let's say-- it's bonkers now that you think about it.

But, I mean, mine was back in 2005, so I can't say exactly how they do it now. And I understand some people have been virtual. But when we did it, you went to dinner with two other couples.

So you and your spouse who was applying for a job there, you went to dinner with two other couples and their spouses. And you basically had dinner together and had conversations. It makes it seem just like normal going to dinner together as opposed to I'm going to sit here and interview you.

So it seems like, oh, we're friends. We're getting to know you. But what that does is then create an atmosphere where people talk about a lot of things that you normally would not be able to ask in an interview for a job, especially to a spouse.

So a spouse will ask the spouse, and then they find out, are you working? Do you have children? They, of course, would find out if you are gay or straight.

I do not personally know of anyone openly gay that they have hired. I also could imagine if you went into an interview and then they want to have a spousal interview. I certainly don't know of anyone who has had a spousal interview with a same-sex marriage who has then been hired.

So legally, as any kind of business organization, he can have-- it's not much different than Chick-fil-A or Hobby Lobby. But they still have to act within the bounds of the law. And I think they've been doing things for a long time that probably have crossed that line, and it's catching up to them now, as it should.

But I think there will always be people that won't realize what's happening to them while they're there. [MUSIC PLAYING] And the irony, also, of this is that he is very much known for shaming, like shaming people who have gotten caught in often predatory lending-- What's the worst thing you can do? --lending situations. I mean, you will hear him verbally berate and really, I think, abuse people who call in looking for like support and empathy. And that is just not his brand.

He will use terms like "stupid" and "idiot," and it's pretty intense. And there's a disdain for the poor, really, as kind of a block. Yeah, well, that's the core message is you're not like this horrible person we're about to make an example out of.

And he railed and railed against COVID stimulus checks. Like, he is very, very anti-government help, the government needs to get out of it, like I wish I didn't have to put into Social Security because I could do better with that money, like I should be in charge of this. [LAUGHS] It's also this opinion that the church's reward for being a good place is a tax-free status and that I am a good person, so why am I having to pay taxes? And Dave Ramsey is an enormous benefitor of federal law and the IRS code.

He is very famous for focusing on real estate, specifically, as a wealth-building tool. And real estate is very unique in the kind of tax advantages that it offers people. So here you have him saying, on one side, how dare you accept government help when over here I am actually building my wealth partially thanks to the help that the government is giving me.

Socialism for me but not for me. [LAUGHTER] Oh, boy. That's it. Speaking of socialism, I think we need to talk about when large amounts of money are coming into the picture, Politics cannot be far behind.

And like you alluded to earlier, evangelicals are currently the most powerful voting bloc in the country. And for a long time, the idea of religion and politics mixing was actually sort of anathema to most Christians. I mean, there's a very popular or well-known story about Jesus-- people coming to him and asking, like, what do I do with this money like it has?

Give Caesar what is due Caesar, and give God what is due God. There is a separation. Don't kind of mix the two.

But thanks to Jerry Falwell and the religious right movement in the 1970s, all of a sudden these voting blocs were sort of fused into one and really Reagan was really the first president who really deeply tapped into this voting bloc to his benefit. I mean, he got through, stayed in for a long time, and we all know Reaganomics. He had an enormous impact on how we think of and interact with really capitalism.

This particular brand of American capitalism I think was really formed during that time under Reagan-- the trickle-down effect, right? Deregulation, greed is good, the free market, the hand-- the invisible hand of the free market will solve all of our problems. Exactly.

And so the melding of the church and politics really represented a fundamental shift in the realms of policy, macroeconomics, and just general influence through things like lobbying and fundraising. And this really set the stage for kind of a new version of Christianity that doesn't shy away from wealth but really flaunts it, kind of worships it in a way. So what exactly do we mean when we talk about the religious right versus the mainstream right?

Or I mean, I guess it is the mainstream right from what I'm hearing. I mean, at this point, it pretty much is. It's basically a political faction that identifies themselves as being Christian.

And they tend to support very socially conservative and economically conservative policies. And they seek to sort of influence politicians for what they believe is the Christian way of doing things. OK.

So one of the things I did when I started writing the script and researching this was-- so I'm a part of a Facebook group called Raising Children Unfundamentalist. [LAUGHS] OK, so it's like to unlearn patterns. Exactly, yeah. Like, obviously the evangelical community, especially where I'm from in the South, is everywhere you go.

I mean, it is deeply, deeply entrenched in the culture. Most of my friends growing up went to what's known as VBS, Vacation Bible School, during spring breaks and summers. I was the odd man out, not going to these things.

So it was really deeply baked in to the culture. And there is a pretty big movement at this point that's known as the exvangelicals, so people who are moving out of that world, but many of them still want to maintain a sense of their-- identity. Yeah, their spiritual path.

They don't want to necessarily stomp all over Jesus, you know? But anyway, so these are the type of people who are in this particular Facebook group. And I was curious.

I asked them, what do you remember about the messaging that you received on finances as a child growing up? Because really, in my experience, our relationship with money starts far younger than most people think-- Yeah. --the messaging, the things you learn, the things you catch, how your parents are talking about them. I mean, one of the main questions I ask people who are thinking about hiring me or something is, how did you grow up with money?

And it's undeniably, massively impactful. A big moment in my life, actually, that I've built a lot of my politics and worldview around was when I was like four or five. I asked my mom-- like, I saw her using money buying groceries, and I was like-- and coupons.

And then she was explaining to me what coupons were. And I was like, but what if you don't have money? And she was like, well-- and then she explained to me that there was some fill-in gap-- ways to fill the gap that are available to some people.

Wow. But in general, food costs money. And I remember being so shocked that, even for a child, it would cost me money-- the basic things I needed to survive and be healthy and do what is required of me, which is going to school and stuff.

And that memory really ended up shaping how I saw the world and my politics. But I would imagine-- that's just my individual reaction to the reality. I would imagine, if I had been in a religious environment that was so focused on money, that would have trickled down into those conversations and that pivotal moment in my life, and the way that I see the world would have been shaped by what my parents were-- their diet.

So I picked out just a couple of quotes from the-- I mean, I got a massive amount of feedback on this. I mean, within a day, I had like 66 comments. And these are long.

These people tend to be a little bit long winded because we're all sort of processing lots of messaging and deprogramming it, et cetera. So I just want to share with you a few, because talking about televangelists and even people like Dave Ramsey, this is very sort of removed. And even if you don't personally follow them or think much of them, I guarantee you, you are friends with somebody who probably has been impacted by that message because it's so, now, deeply embedded in our culture, right?

So I want to read you just a couple of things that really struck me. So one person said, "One, God expects you to pay your tithes, and it's a sin not to. God, quote, 'commanded bring thy full tithe into the storehouse,' and so forth.

And number two, God wants you to have great, prosperity but he can only bless you if you pay your tithe and do it gladly." Right? Interesting that God's hands are tithed. I know, right?

I mean, he wants it for you. Like-- You just have to do it. You're the only person standing in the way here, right?

Again. And this is one that I see a lot in Dave Ramsey's specific messaging, which is, quote, "Debt is a moral sin, and you need to grind to pay it all off regardless of what circumstances brought you there. And morality and finances are indelibly linked." Like, that's a perfect summation.

Dave Ramsey goes on and on and on about debt being basically this sign of idiocy. Like-- you know, that it is a moral failing on somebody's part to be in debt. He constantly brings this verse up of Proverbs 22:7, which is, "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender." I think it's actually interesting that that's the full quote.

Usually he just says, "The borrower is slave to the lender." He doesn't talk about the rich rules over the poor. That piece is very conveniently left out. [INAUDIBLE] the cutting room floor. Yeah, exactly.

And then I just want to share one more quote with you. This one just, I think, really hit me hard. This person said, "I am the oldest daughter of four kids, and I think my parents just expected that I would get married and my husband would handle all of the money himself.

Turns out I married a man with deep ambivalence towards money himself. We were married five years and got divorced. And I have invested many, many hours and thousands of dollars in therapy and learning about money, and I still have a ways to go to learn how to actually build wealth." Wow.

Well, before we wrap up, let's hear from Melissa Hogan one more time. [MUSIC PLAYING] You're told that it's all you. And if you're not getting this, it's because you're not doing something right. When in reality, that doesn't take into account privilege.

It doesn't actually take into account faith or third parties or things like that. And so for me, that's not really what the Christian faith is at all. I mean, it focuses on things of the heart and inner transformation and compassion and righteousness and justice, not like, if I do these 10 things or seven baby steps, I'm going to be wealthy.

And that was really one of my clues toward the end was the whole millionaire be wealthy thing because-- I mean, I found out that that was the topic of that book, my ex-husband's second book. And I was like, wait a second, there's a verse about the love of money as the root of all forms of evil. So I was kind of like, what?

But again, you're in this fog of, like, I'm married to this person, and I'm supporting them, and I thought he was a good person. And what in the heck is going on here? It's very ugly.

If you watch a lot of these episodes, which I don't really do much anymore, there's a lot of othering going on. And that's not good or kind or healthy for anybody, much less someone who proclaims to be a Christian. Strangely-- you might be surprised.

Strangely, I've always been wary of gurus. So it's weird that I ended up where we did with Ramsey Solutions. But back then, it wasn't like that.

Back in 2005, it was very different from what it is now. And I'm not saying that it became different because of money or all that that brings. I do think Dave's personality is what it is and probably always has been.

Sometimes when you have more money, power, and influence, you just show a lot more of who you have always been. What I would say, too-- I mean, for me-- some would say you leave this legalistic, fundamentalist, kind of financial cult-- I'm going to throw the C word out there-- and you lose your faith. But really, for me, the reason that I even speak out about what I think is happening there that's wrong is because I did keep my faith, and I love Jesus, and I see what's happening there as completely antithetical to everything I believe.

And I think there's wonderful people that work there and people that have been influenced by it. But I think they are doing really a disservice to people of faith or the Christian faith by doing what they're doing. [MUSIC PLAYING] So this messaging and, again, this very complementarian view which lots of these people espouse, it trickles down, and it deeply impacts people on a personal level. And I think the ending warning that I want to give to people on this piece-- because, obviously, I am a person who-- I deeply respect spiritual paths.

I am a seeker myself. This is a part of my journey that I actually wouldn't give up. I learned many, many valuable lessons from it.

But when it comes to finances specifically, we need to acknowledge that the subject of ownership when it comes to God and your money is just something to look out for because the messaging is that I can tell you what to do with your money because ultimately it's not yours. It's God's. You are just the temporary vessel of this money.

And when you can effectively convince people that their money is not their own, it becomes very easy to convince people to part with it. So anyway. Thank you for going on my spiritual journey through the money world.

Thank you for taking me through the weird, weird, and interesting world of finance and religion. I think it's fair enough to say that when you start fusing capitalism with spiritual journeys, I have yet to see an example of it go well. That's right.

Well, that's the show for this week. You can find Too Good To Be True wherever podcasts are available. And while you're there, we'd love for you to rate the show and leave us a review.

I've been Ryan Houlihan, and you can find me on all social media @RyanHoulihan. I've been Julia Lorenz-Olson. You can find me on YouTube doing my PBS show Two Cents.

I also have another podcast with my best friend called Your Money Mamas. And every once in a while, I'll take a peek at Instagram. My handle is @YayItsJulia.

We'll see you next time. [MUSIC PLAYING]