Here's some advice for journalists venturing into religion-beat terrain: Be careful when you get into church-history arguments with Calvinists, because you may be predestined to fall into error.
What we are talking about here is the profile of Betsy DeVos that ran the other day in The New Yorker. DeVos, for those following Citizen Donald Trump and his evolving cabinet, has been proposed as the next Secretary of Education.
The Big Idea in this piece (the stuff of politics, of course) is that she is a crucial figure in the world of big, scary GOP money that is on the wrong side of history. This is captured perfectly in the overture:
After choosing for his cabinet a series of political outsiders who are loyal to him personally, Donald Trump has broken with this pattern to name Betsy DeVos his Secretary of Education. DeVos, whose father-in-law is a co-founder of Amway, the multilevel marketing empire, comes from the very heart of the small circle of conservative billionaires who have long funded the Republican Party.
Trump’s choice of DeVos delivers on his campaign promise to increase the role of charter schools, which she has long championed.
Lots and lots of GOP money lingo follows. What will interest GetReligion readers comes later, when New Yorker veteran Jane Mayer ventures into the building blocks of the DeVos worldview, as well as her bank account. The result is a fascinating thread in the Twitter-verse that explores what some would call "post-truth" issues in the world of digital fact checking.
Here is the crucial material in the feature, as it currently reads on the magazine's website:
DeVos is a religious conservative who has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.* (The Washington Post reports that Betsy DeVos has been an elder at Mars Hill, in Grand Rapids.) Betsy, who served as the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party in the late nineties and again in the early aughts, spent more than two million dollars of the family’s money on a failed school-vouchers referendum in 2000, which would have allowed Michigan residents to use public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools.
As you can see, there has been an amendment in that paragraph -- with some material added and crucial material removed. Thus, the article now ends with this statement:
* This post has been updated to clarify Betsy DeVos’s religious affiliation.
This leads us to Twitter, where a professor at Calvin College challenges some factual details in the article's original attempt to probe the background of DeVos, including her roots in Dutch Calvinism.
The problem is that it appears that The New Yorker editors didn't know the difference between a theological tradition and an actual bricks-and-mortar denomination in American church life. Read on:
Keep reading, because the thread goes on and on. What is fact? What is truth?
I would argue that the Reformed theological tradition angle is highly relevant to this story. The problem, methinks, is that the editorial pros at The New Yorker would discover that this factual material would not lead readers to Christian fundamentalism and the institutional Religious Right, as expected. Instead, they would encounter a rather traditional, and highly intellectual, Protestant approach to theology, morality and history.
What we need here, of course, is a religion-beat pro who understands the territory. Thus, here is the overture in a DeVos story in The Washington Post, written by You Know Who. The headline gets a crucial fact right:
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick, is a billionaire with deep ties to the Christian Reformed community
Ah, "community." The word "tradition" would work too.
That headline is linked to the overture:
President-elect Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he would nominate Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist with deep ties to the Christian Reformed community in Michigan, as his education secretary.
DeVos is politically known in Michigan for her push for private school voucher programs, a position that has been controversial within public education circles. But in religious circles, the DeVos name is synonymous with key philanthropic efforts in Christian communities. DeVos, 58, graduated from Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church school that is named after the famed Protestant reformer John Calvin, where the DeVos name is well-known.
Later on, there are crucial facts and links to real live Protestant institutions, led by people with lots of references online and actual telephones in their offices (this helps when journalists do fact-checking work):
DeVos has been member and an elder at the large nondenominational Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which was formerly led by popular author Rob Bell. Former president of Fuller Seminary Rich Mouw said he served on a committee with her to replace Bell, and he said DeVos is heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch writer and Calvinist theologian.
“I wouldn’t consider her to be right wing,” Mouw said. “She’s a classic free-enterprise conservative. She takes public life, art and politics very seriously.”
Unlike an individualistic evangelical approach, she has focused on the common good and has seen education as a big part of that, said Doug Koopman, a political scientist at Calvin College. She will not likely be one to focus on curriculum issues like evolution and creationism, which has been a concern in some conservative Christian circles. Instead, her concerns about school vouchers reflect a larger concern about what’s best for the public.
“It would be a mistake to put her in the Religious Right camp. That’s not who she is,” Koopman said. ...
Oh, and there is one other interesting fact there:
DeVos did not support Trump’s candidacy, telling the Washington Examiner in March that he “does not represent the Republican Party.”
So what have we learned in this case study? Be careful out there. Hire religion-beat pros.
The religion beat is quite complicated, especially when it takes reporters -- for valid reasons -- into matters of doctrine and church history.