Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Betsy DeVos, who President Donald Trump has nominated to be education secretary, will be voted on Tuesday by a Senate committee. She has never been a household word in America and neither have her Calvinist roots, which have been tripping journalists up ever since she was nominated. 

Can this woman, who’s been an advocate of private Christian education and who’s never attended public school (nor have her children), be the new education secretary? A lot of people think not, including 700 students and alumni at Calvin College, her alma mater, according to this Washington Post piece. Others point out that former President Barack Obama never attended public school, either. 

In 2013, Philanthropy Roundtable interviewed her about school reform in a piece that didn’t mention Calvinism or her faith at all. But once she was nominated, everyone was intensely curious about her beliefs overnight.

Is it true that she wants America’s schools to build “God’s kingdom,” as alleged in a Mother Jones piece? Or is the general media hyperventilating about DeVos’s 15-year-old comments, as our own Bobby Ross asked in December regarding a piece in Politico? 

Politico has circled back to write more on DeVos and even claims some expertise on the nominee as evidenced by the presence of one of its reporters on this talk show. But they've got some major blind spots as to any decent qualities this woman might have. Even the New York Times is saying that she's been sympathetic to gay marriage all along -- a factoid that Politico completely missed.

So, let’s turn to this lengthy profile which has the headline “How Betsy DeVos used God and Amway to take over Michigan politics.”

On election night 2006, Dick DeVos, the bronzed, starched 51-year-old scion of Michigan’s wealthiest family, paced to a lectern in the dim ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Lansing to deliver the speech that every candidate dreads.
The Michigan gubernatorial race that year had been a dogfight of personal attacks between DeVos, the Republican nominee, and Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Gloomy, bleached-out b-roll of shuttered factories in anti-Granholm ads made the governor’s sunny economic promise that “You’re gonna be blown away” sound less like an aspiration than a threat. Anti-DeVos ads cut closer to the bone, with one depicting a cartoon DeVos cheering a freighter hauling Michigan jobs to China. It was an unsubtle reference to DeVos’ time as president of Amway, the direct-sales behemoth his family co-founded and co-owns, when he eliminated jobs in Michigan while expanding dramatically in Asia. DeVos ended up personally spending $35 million on the race—the most expensive campaign in Michigan history—and when the votes came in, lost by a crushing 14 points.

Then it zeroes in on the wife.

Betsy DeVos was never a political accessory. Anyone who understood Michigan politics knew she had long been the more political animal of the pair. It was Betsy, not Dick, who had chaired the Michigan Republican Party; Betsy, who had served as a member of the Republican National Committee; Betsy, whose name was once floated to succeed Haley Barbour as head of the RNC; Betsy, who had directed a statewide ballot campaign to legalize public funding of religious schools; Betsy, who, as a college freshman, traveled to Ohio and Indiana to volunteer for Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign. She was a skilled and seasoned operator, but as her husband conceded in an overwhelming defeat, she was utterly helpless.

It then describes the family’s politics as:

 ... profoundly Christian and conservative -- “God, America, Free Enterprise,” to borrow the subtitle of family patriarch Richard DeVos’ 1975 book, Believe!”

Further down, it describes her home turf of western Michigan:

Broadly speaking, it’s a region where people are deeply religious, politically conservative, entrepreneurial and unfailingly polite -- think Utah, if it were settled not by Mormons but by Dutch Calvinists. “There’s an old expression here,” chuckles Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. “‘If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.’”
The DeVos family is Dutch, thoroughly so. All four of Richard DeVos’ grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands, and today, the family continues to observe the tenets of the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. Calvinism believes in predestination -- that God has decided whether our souls are saved before we are born -- and emphasizes an “inner worldly asceticism” in its practitioners. Historically, in avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth, Calvinist Protestants have instead turned their economic gains into savings and investments. One of the bedrock texts of sociology, Max Weber’s 1905 Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is expressly about the links between Calvinism and economic success. (“In the place of the humble sinners to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith,” Weber wrote, “are bred those self-confident saints whom we can rediscover in the hard Puritan merchants of the heroic age of capitalism.”)

To align Betsy with her inlaws’ Christian politics, the writer reaches back to Richard DeVos, which seems a bit contrived. This Reformed blog found Politico at fault for citing Weber, saying Weber was the wrong person to quote in connection with the would-be education secretary. In fact, Politico has a correction to this part of the article, saying an earlier version imprecisely described Weber’s take on Calvinism.

As tmatt said earlier, if you're going to report on Calvinism, hire a religion-beat pro. This is complicated, precise stuff, with a precise theological language all its own. There's more:

Across those efforts, one constant is the DeVos family’s devout Christian beliefs, and the indivisibility they see between Christian and Calvinistic notions and their conservative politics. “The real strength of America is its religious tradition,” Richard DeVos wrote in Believe!. “Too many people today are willing to act as if God had nothing whatsoever to do with it. … This country was built on a religious heritage, and we’d better get back to it. We had better start telling people that faith in God is the real strength of America!” In the mid-1970s, DeVos made major donations to the Christian Freedom Foundation and Third Century Publishers, an outlet that printed books and pamphlets designed to strengthen the ties between Christianity and free-market conservatism; among those products was a guidebook instructing conservative Christians how to win elections and help America become “as it was when first founded -- a ‘Christian Republic.’”

It hits closer to home when it talks about Betsy’s parents, who contributed the millions of dollars needed to launch the Family Research Council and educated their four children, Betsy being the oldest, in a God-and-country capitalism.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ed and Elsa Prince advanced God’s Kingdom from the end of a cul-de-sac just a few miles from Lake Michigan. There, they taught their four children -- Elisabeth (Betsy), Eileen, Emilie and Erik -- a deeply religious, conservative, free-market view of the world, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and sending them to private schools that would reinforce the values they celebrated at home, small-government conservatism chief among them. 

Just curious as to what the source for that is. The piece then talks about Betsy and Richard DeVos’ efforts to change America’s culture by changing America’s schools, linking to a 2001 recording of Betsy DeVos speaking at “The Gathering,” a closed-door group for Christians in philanthropy. Politico has cited this recording before. It was leaked to them by a gay-rights activist. 

As you read through the rest of the piece –- which portrays the Betsy DeVos and her husband as a Michigan version of the Gestapo -– there are some major gaps. Other than barely a handful of quotes favoring the couple, all of the really articulate stuff is by people who talk about how the DeVos family basically owns the state and controls who stays in office and who does not. I would have liked to have heard from someone from Calvin College or elsewhere in this woman’s past to say something in her defense.

One more thing: for the past decade, Betsy DeVos has not been attending a Calvinist church. She’s been an elder at the nondenominational Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, hardly a bastion of Reformed theology. (CBN says she’s been on the elder board which may be more akin to a board of directors position majoring on financial matters than one that makes pastoral decisions).

In the above-mentioned Mother Jones story, the DeVoses are shown as having contributed $6.8 million to the Willow Creek Association, which is another nondenominational Christian group and $5.6 million to Mars Hill. That's the church with some friendly ties to President Bill Clinton, you may recall.

So, that doesn’t sound like a Calvinist/Reconstructionist takeover of American society to me. Of all the verbiage on DeVos, I’ve read very little about her Mars Hill adventure and why she migrated there from her Reformed church. If she was so Calvinist, why did she go non-denom? This does not fit the narrative and feels outdated. Maybe that is where she was theologically 15 years ago but is that who she still is? 

In short, if you're going to make a case for DeVos wanting to convert all of America's schoolchildren to Christianity via the nation's schools, find something recent about her faith to bolster that claim. The fact that she's changed churches and denominations tells me she's not buying into an ironclad Calvinist vision of America (whatever that may be). And if you can't locate that info, then don't put "God" in the title of your piece. Her actions may be political, heavy-handed or inspired but Politico and media like them have yet to prove they have anything to do with her religion. 

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