Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Secretary of Education has prompted intense scrutiny. That is right and fitting, given her lack of both experience and expertise. But it is dismaying that much of this scrutiny has seized on myths about Calvinism and the Christian Reformed Church—equating a religious background with a current stance about educational policy. By blaming the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) for DeVos’s political positions, we mistake its actual teachings, misplace the religious roots of her worldview, and misconstrue the way religion actually shapes behavior and belief.
According to some recent articles, the main thing to know about DeVos is that she comes from the CRC and attended Calvin College. As Alexander Nazaryan has written for Newsweek, “Any attempt to forecast what DeVos might do as the nation’s education secretary must begin here, at this college of 4,000 that bids its students to act as ‘Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.’” Kristina Rizga at Mother Jones reports that “it’s hard to understand the DeVos and Prince families without learning something about the history of Dutch Americans in western Michigan.” If it isn’t stated directly, this all-important link to the Christian Reformed Church comes implied.
I grew up in the CRC. I attended Calvin College. And I have deep concerns with the educational policies that DeVos has voiced. Like DeVos, I support Christian education and send my kids to a Christian school. But the CRC’s position on Christian education has never entailed or required policies that would undermine public schooling. The CRC says nothing about vouchers, charter schools (which are often non-Christian), for-profit education, or free market educational policies. That is why a host of Calvin grads recently signed a letter in opposition to DeVos. Many of us are as much a product of the CRC and Calvin College as Betsy DeVos, but we disagree strongly with her political positions. That’s the thing about religious traditions: They can be highly formative without yielding predictable results.
Perhaps nothing has terrified opponents of DeVos quite like a 2001 interview in which she says, “Our desire … is to help advance God’s kingdom.” In the current mess of President Trump’s terrible executive order about immigration and refugees, focused on Muslim countries but making exceptions for Christians, it may be especially easy to imagine anyone associated with him as attempting to create a theocracy. And DeVos’s line seems to lend support.
The phrase set alarm bells ringing. Newsweek used the line in its article subhead. Mother Jones built this phrase into the title of its essay: “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom.” Michelle Goldberg, for The New York Times, claimed that Trump was “assembling a near-theocratic administration,” and used DeVos’s line about “advancing God’s kingdom” as an example. The quote raised the specter that the nominee for Secretary of Education wanted to transform public education into a system of religious schools.
Growing up in the CRC and attending Calvin College, I heard this kind of language all the time. Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy.
What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation. Why? Because racial reconciliation advances God’s kingdom. That’s why Calvin College faculty signed a letter to Turning Point U.S.A., asking to be added to its “professor watchlist.” The watchlist targets “radical” professors who teach about systemic racism. Serving as Christ’s agents of renewal, Calvin’s faculty spoke up, asserting together that institutional racism is real and that it must be addressed.
What else advances God’s kingdom? Social justice and care for the poor. Clean water in Flint. An improved education for all children in America. All these things advance God’s kingdom. Strong differences will arise about how to get there, but framing these goals in religious language does not mean we have to fear them. After all, those who pray together “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, across many different Christian faith traditions every day, can still disagree quite powerfully about what exactly that kingdom looks like and how it comes about.
It’s possible, of course, that Betsy DeVos believes the only way to advance God’s kingdom is by pushing Christian messages and Christian institutions on people until they either submit or convert. But I doubt it. And if so, she didn’t learn that at Calvin College.
Unfortunately, recent news reports not only suggest that DeVos’s policies flow from the CRC, but they also dwell on selective details of that tradition. The first thing we often learn is that it embraces predestination. As Newsweek tell us, “Calvinism hews to its founder’s doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has predestined all sinners to Hell, and while he chooses to save some as an act of grace, that salvation cannot be earned.” That isn’t exactly right, but we can skip the details for now. In an otherwise excellent article for Politico, Zack Stanton repeats this same move, introducing Calvin College and the CRC through predestination.
But what does predestination have to do with Betsy DeVos? Newsweek never says. Politico, using Max Weber’s argument from 1905, ties Calvinism to capitalism to explain the DeVos family wealth. Weber has been critiqued and debunked many times in the past hundred years—most recently by Professor Mark Valeri in his great book Heavenly Merchandize, which shows again a vexed and complicated relationship between Calvinism and capitalism. The CRC does not lead inexorably to free market conservative policies, Amway, or wealth.
But I suspect there is another reason predestination gets invoked. The doctrine of predestination, taken out of theological context, sounds awful. Even though it does not influence the religious lives of most in the CRC today, this one word can be used to quickly reduce a long religious tradition to a judgmental, irrational cult. Dismissing Calvinism through predestination is a nineteenth-century trope that marvelously hangs on despite the fact that present-day Calvinists almost never use the term.
To increase our understanding of the CRC, we move from traditional theology to immigrant history. The early Dutch settlers in Michigan, Rizga writes for Mother Jones, built “a virtual replica of their Dutch villages. And just like back home, their church was essentially their government, influencing almost every part of farmers’ lives.” It’s not clear what Rizga means by the church being “essentially” their government, since Michigan became a state in 1837. If she means that the church was influential, well, yes it was. But that doesn’t mean these Dutch immigrants rejected state law and instituted their own.
Instead, this line reveals a bias against the church being too influential. It hints that the CRC founders established an early theocracy in America—which they didn’t. And the suggestion makes DeVos a theocrat by association.
It also assumes that DeVos carries forward their legacy without much other influence. In fact, many ideas that DeVos has may not be closely tied to Calvinism or Calvin College. It’s important to note that Betsy DeVos no longer belongs to the CRC. She spent five decades within the tradition and she attended its schools, but for the past 10 years she has belonged to the non-denominational evangelical megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church.
Some might assume there is little difference. That would surprise many in the CRC. A Reformed heritage that wrestles with a long textual tradition of theologians, preachers, philosophers, and thinkers—tied to a denomination that is over 150 years old, with synodical meetings where pastors and lay representatives from a wide range of congregations across America meet every year to study and discuss important theological issues—is a different thing than a non-denominational church. There are certainly evangelicals who attend Christian Reformed churches, but when I was at Calvin, most of the people I knew never used the term “evangelical.” We were “Reformed” above all else.
Mars Hill is something related, but something else. Like many megachurches, it fits into a church tradition that focuses on free will and the free choice for or against God. And that non-Calvinist theological position actually makes a lot more sense of DeVos’s policies and positions. She is, after all, deeply in favor of free will and free enterprise. (And even here we should be careful not to caricature or reduce. There are, no doubt, plenty of evangelicals at Mars Hill who disagree with DeVos.)
If we want to understand the religious traditions that most influence Betsy DeVos, then, we need to look both inside and outside the CRC. Religious people do not hew to a single tradition in isolation. Influences come from many traditions, including the broader culture.
In Betsy DeVos’s case, it is probably best to begin the story of religious influence not in the Dutch migration of the 1840s, but in the combination of evangelical theology and corporate free enterprise that came about in the mid-twentieth century. Kevin Kruse’s important book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, explains how twentieth-century executives and certain evangelical leaders found common ground, tying their movements together at precisely the moment when the Devos and Prince families rose to prominence—the two dynasties that make up DeVos.
What DeVos may take from her Calvinist roots is the need to engage the world. What she may take from a certain strain of non-Calvinist, conservative evangelical culture is the way to engage the world: mainly through competition and free enterprise.
When it comes to writing about religion, there is no need to abandon careful thought or nuance, and many writers, of course, never do. The most recent article in Politico about DeVos and Christianity, written by Laura Turner, reveals much more care of thought, showing multiple influences. Before that, however, we had plenty of articles offering a reductive version of the Christian Reformed Church as a way to “understand” Betsy DeVos, while using DeVos as the way to understand the CRC. That is a circular way of thinking that equates a political position with a religious background, and then finds in that religious background the roots of a political position.
Religious life is far more complex. It involves multiple perspectives and practices formed from many beliefs and traditions in constant interaction with secular life and culture. In fact, the secular and the religious often depend on one another and share a great deal in common. There is far more to religion than a set of doctrines printed in a book on the minister’s shelf. There is far more to religious life than a selective history of its immigrant past.
In the CRC today, you will find both Republicans and Democrats, and in many cases, both will be sitting side-by-side for the Sunday service (a rare feat in contemporary culture).
I appreciate the hard work and massive research it takes for a journalist to understand a culture or religion that may be foreign—especially when doing so on a tight deadline. But if we are really seeking understanding, then we can’t approach another culture or religion by searching for ways to confirm our fears. Especially in the case of someone we oppose, it becomes all too easy—and all too tempting—to find and misconstrue from a long and broad religious tradition the best details to demonize the foe.
The business of journalists is not to confirm the biases of readers, but to open them up and examine them anew. That is the hardest work. And in these time of hyper-partisanship, it is the most necessary work of all.
Abram Van Engen is associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and a faculty affiliate of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.