The Misguided Theology of Betsy DeVos

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Misguided Theology of Betsy DeVos”

  1. There are several angles to map out in this analysis. The religiosity that informs social engagement (particularly with education), the problem of white colonial invisibility that is affirmed repeatedly through one’s homogeneous upbringing, and then the ways that this coupling influences and extends beyond a singular perspective into a common good policy. What’s the solution in this situation? For DeVos to be educated in the complexity of individual schools and for her, to hopefully, enact more control at the local level? Or stated differently, is the problem that she wants to use her religiopolitical perspective to govern from a top-down approach? If this is the case, are you agreeable that local a/theologies should be in the dialogue to construct the local educational policies? What happens when majorities still rule in this way?

    I agree that DeVos is problematic as the US Sec of Education and I like that you are tracing her theological roots to demonstrate her domination approach. Theology is a heavy determinant for many committed people of faith/religion/spirituality and often, sadly, this gets projected upon Others.

    As a side note, I think that you are maybe too flippant with this comment: “And of course, all theological perspectives (including non-Christian perspectives) should be welcomed and reflected in our nation’s policy makers.” I wrestled with this (especially the “and of course”). At this moment in my thinking, I fall more in line with a Habermas or Rawlsian perspective that suggests that theological perspectives should be checked at the door as we come into the public square for discourse. I would rather keep theological groundings from influencing decisions related to all people within a specific set of boundaries for theology is primarily a Christian project. Thus, in my opinion, our best representatives and voices operate as “methodological atheists” when discussing the common good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for weighing in! I did not intend to imply that theology has a rightful place in policy making. I should have used the word “represented” instead of “reflected.” I believe that representation matters even in politics, i.e. we need more Muslim law makers, we need more atheist policy makers.

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