After Donald Trump’s victory, a debate broke out among journalists about where they should focus their attention during his presidency: on the Trump administration itself, with its mogul-rich cabinet, gross conflicts of interest, and swamp of ethical questions? Or on the American heartland, which was so overlooked during the campaign and whose decisive support for Trump caught so many news organizations by surprise?
In weighing the merits of these approaches, it’s useful to consider the case of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. The initial wave of articles about her focused on her longtime support for school vouchers, charter schools, and the privatization of education. They noted that her husband, Dick DeVos, is heir to the Amway fortune; that her brother is Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm; and that she is a generous contributor to the Michigan Republican Party. Going somewhat deeper, Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker that DeVos “comes from the very heart of the small circle of conservative billionaires” who have long backed right-of-center causes. Mayer described her close links to Charles and David Koch and her support for organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Council for National Policy, a little-known group that matches conservative donors and activists.
Among these early reports, I found only one that explored a key aspect of DeVos’s life: her religion. Writing in The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey described DeVos’s close ties to the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination based in Grand Rapids. She noted that DeVos graduated from Calvin College, which is named after John Calvin, the 16th-century founder of Calvinism, and that she is currently a member of the Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch formerly led by the “popular author” Rob Bell. According to the Post, DeVos’s positions on school vouchers “appear to be motivated by her Christian faith.” She was deeply affected by a visit to the Potter’s House Christian School in Grand Rapids and by its efforts to provide kids a safe and nurturing environment; she and her husband became generous backers.
Even this article, however, barely scratched the surface of DeVos’s religious associations. Grand Rapids, her base of operations, is in effect the capital of American Calvinism. The Christian Reformed Church is a stronghold of Calvinist orthodoxy. The mission of Calvin College (as stated on its website) is to prepare its nearly 4,000 students to live “as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” (Since 1999, the college has received about $650,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.) Also located in Grand Rapids are the Calvin Theological Seminary and Kuyper College, which is named after Abraham Kuyper, an influential Dutch Calvinist who served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to ’05 and who vigorously promoted religiously based education. Kuyper is an intellectual lodestar for DeVos, as for many other Christian activists and thinkers. Grand Rapids is also home to Family Christian, the world’s largest Christian-themed retailer, as well as four leading Christian publishing houses (Baker, Eerdmans, Kregel, and Zondervan).