The conservative Christian education secretary nominee would seem like an evangelical favorite. But some from within her own faith say she’s not right for the job.
On the surface, Betsy DeVos seems like an evangelical Christian’s dream pick for education secretary. The school-choice advocate is a graduate of private Christian schools from childhood through college, and sent her four children to private schools, as well. In a 2001 speech to a group of Christian philanthropists, she pointed to a religious motivation behind her school reform advocacy, arguing that Christians would have “greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country.” DeVos’ wealthy family—her father founded Prince Industries, an auto parts company sold for $1.35 billion in 2005, and her father-in-law founded direct-sales giant Amway Corporation—has donated to conservative campaigns and causes in her home state of Michigan and elsewhere. That includes private religious schools, to which her and her husband’s foundation contributed $8.6 million between 1999 and 2014, according to Mother Jones.
As a nod to his evangelical base, President Donald Trump’s team probably thought they couldn’t do better than Betsy DeVos (that is, after Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the conservative Liberty University in Virginia, reportedly turned down the job). But it’s not just left-leaning groups like the American Federation of Teachers or Democrats in Congress who have greeted DeVos with some of the strongest opposition seen by any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. A surprising number of voices are speaking out against DeVos from within her own camp: evangelical Christianity.
Thousands of alumni of DeVos’ alma mater, the private Christian liberal arts school Calvin College in Grand Rapids, recently signed a letter opposing her nomination, and a number of prominent Christians and Christian publications have written or spoken out against her. A faith-based Washington advocacy organization sent a petition to Trump and DeVos asking them to consider Matthew 25 in the Bible, when Jesus enjoins his followers to care for “the least of these.”
To be sure, those evangelicals who have publicly opposed DeVos’ nomination are a relatively small group of mostly socially liberal Christians. And although few traditional evangelical leaders have commented on DeVos’ nomination, she has enjoyed some support from figures like the evangelical author Donald Miller, who recently tweeted that critique of DeVos was “pure theater.” (Miller has since deleted the tweet and clarified that he was referring to “senators using talking points,” not grassroots opposition.) Some Calvin College alumni have also spoken out in support of DeVos’ nomination, and the evangelical nonprofit Illinois Family Institute asked readers to send notes to their senators in favor of the nominee, whom the organization called a champion of “genuine school reform and school choice.” But the evangelicals who object to DeVos as education secretary, several of whom I spoke with, wonder whether these very beliefs mean she will end up providing more choices for students who already have plenty of options, rather than caring for kids who are already falling through the cracks of the public school system. (A spokesperson for the Trump Cabinet transition did not respond to a request for comment.)
It might seem surprising that evangelical Christians—some of whom have clashed with public schools over prayer in classrooms, the teaching of evolution and other issues—would decline to embrace an education secretary from their own faith. But those evangelicals who have expressed opposition, many of them from more progressive strains of the faith, are doing so less based on religious grounds than on educational beliefs. In fact, although DeVos has been a member and an elder at the nondenominational evangelical Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, she was raised in Reformed Christianity, which is generally less conservative than mainstream evangelicalism; the Reformed tradition emphasizes the common good, rather than making a “Christian” version of everything, and deemphasizes proselytizing. DeVos herself has not been a stalwart for teaching creationism or bringing back school prayer. “She is certainly not a fundamentalist,” says Mark Mulder, professor of sociology at Calvin College.
The evangelical DeVos detractors I spoke to said they simply think she is not right for the job—for several reasons. First, there are many evangelical Christians who believe the best way to live out their faith is by improving the public school system, rather than embracing private Christian education, and some evangelicals are concerned that she is simply not qualified to oversee America’s vast education system. The Calvin College letter cites as its first objection that DeVos—a businesswoman, philanthropist and onetime Republican Party official in Michigan—“has never worked in any educational institution as an administrator, nor as an educator.” (Calvin College issued a statement saying that the university did not endorse the letter and that the college “understands that its community … represents a wide spectrum of political opinion.” DeVos has not publicly addressed the letter.)
“I don’t think she understands public education,” says Rick Eigenbrood, dean of the education school at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college. “From what I can tell, Betsy DeVos is a fine, upstanding Christian woman with a very strong sense of social commitment,” he said. But Eigenbrood says she “really fumbled on a lot of questions” in her testimony before Congress on January 17, when DeVos admitted that she had no experience with student financial aid, did not know the difference between “proficiency” and “growth,” two major educational philosophies, and said she may have been “confused” about whether the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is a federal, rather than state, statute.
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