U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos grew up in the Dutch Reformed community of Holland, Michigan. Mother Jones describes this idyllic town in a recent essay titled, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom.’” In short, the low crime rate and well-manicured lawns of Holland, Michigan are no accident.
DeVos’ theology is largely influenced by neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper called for a social policy known as “Pillarization.” Kuyper’s idea was that “pillars” like churches and denominations should create their own social institutions to stand parallel and alternative to the “pillars” of secular society. DeVos grew up in the ethnic tradition of the Christian Reformed Church. In Holland, Michigan, the people in line at the grocery store are Dutch Reformed. The postal workers are Dutch Reformed. The businesses are owned and operated by members of the Christian Reformed Church. DeVos attended Holland Christian High School (CRC) and Calvin College (CRC). It is safe to say that the vast majority of people who Betsy DeVos grew up around were religiously and ethnically similar to her and her family. As is the case in Holland, Michigan, pillarization often leads to isolationism. The person who is the head of our nation’s incredibly diverse public school system, grew up in a very sheltered, one-dimensional, and overwhelmingly white community.
In 1951, seven years before DeVos was born, American theologian and ethicist, Richard Niebuhr, wrote the highly influential book, “Christ and Culture.” In it, Niebuhr offers three categories for understanding how Christians and Christianity can function in relationship to culture: 1. Christ against culture, 2. Christ of culture, and 3. Christ above culture. Niebuhr further divides “Christ above culture” into 1. a synthesis version, 2. Christ and culture in paradox, and 3. Christ as transformer of culture. Niebuhr is often criticized for reducing broad theological traditions to such restrictive categories, but his influence in shaping Christian engagement in society is undeniable.
In an interview concerning educational philanthropy and vouchers, DeVos was quoted in 2001 saying that it was her desire to “confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Much has been written recently about her reference to “God’s kingdom,” but the key word and the most alarming in her statement is “confront.” Niebuhr lists John Calvin, and his theological heritage, as examples of “Christ as transformer of culture.” This is what DeVos meant when she used the word “confront.” From a reformed perspective, the job of the Christian is to affirm what is good in culture and transform what is corrupted by sin. It is evident that DeVos thinks that much within the public school system is “corrupted by sin” and therefore needs to be confronted and transformed. But transformed into what and for whom?
At least one religious academic has written with intent to distance DeVos’ education policies from the influence of the Christian Reformed Church. Read it here. And of course, all theological perspectives (including non-Christian perspectives) should be welcomed and reflected in our nation’s policy makers. But what is clearly misguided about the DeVos approach to policy is not her theological beliefs themselves, but the way in which she allows those beliefs to be directly determinative of policy positions that are soon to effect over 50,000,000 students from diverse religious backgrounds in public schools all across the U.S.