Betsy DeVos Holy War RollingStonecom

“A few weeks after September 11th, 2001, with the nation reeling from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., about 400 or so of the country’s leading Christian conservative investors convened at the luxury Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. They were there for the 17th a
ual meeting of the Gathering, a four-day, invitation-only philanthropic and networking event for the Christian donor class, whose members often describe themselves, simply, as “believers.” The perks awaiting them in their off hours included a 27-hole golf course, nine crystalline swimming pools and a luxury spa. At dusk, the ruddy hues of the desert rippled across the stone patios where, warmed by fire pits, some of the most important funders of Christian charity, and the Christian right, sipped cocktails and talked about expanding the Kingdom of God.
Related Betsy DeVos Just Bought Herself a Trump Cabinet Position She and her family are likely just getting started trying to buy Republican support for their radical education agenda
Among the evangelical super-rich at the Gathering that weekend were Donald Trump’s recently appointed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, and her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr., scion of the multilevel marketing behemoth Amway. The DeVoses are conservative Christian royalty with deep roots in Republican politics, and Betsy, a skilled political operator, had just finished a stint as chair of the Michigan Republican Party. During a talk one evening in the Phoenician’s elegant grand ballroom, DeVos mentioned her latest project: recruiting Christians to run for the state legislature. “It is critically important that we have believers involved in public life,” she said.
Politics was one facet of a much larger effort the DeVoses called the Shfela. This is the biblical name for the fertile crescent of land between Israel’s Judaean Mountains and the coastal plain, where David fought Goliath and other historic battles were waged between the Israelites and the Philistines. During a recent trip to Israel, the DeVoses had been highly impressed by a story about an archeological dig that unearthed a trove of ancient pig bones in layers of soil dating to the eras when the pagan Philistines held sway. But in other layers of the Shfela, the archeologists found no pig remains at all, suggesting that during these times, the Jews, who kept kosher, had come down from the mountain to spread their religious values among the people. For the DeVoses, the Shfela offered an essential metaphor of the challenges facing modern America. As Dick put it: “How do we get the pig bones out of our culture?”
In the 16 years since that meeting, the DeVos family u2013 which includes 91-year-old patriarch and Amway co-founder Richard “Rich” DeVos Sr., his wife, Helen, their four children and their spouses u2013 has been one of the driving forces behind a stealth campaign powered by a small group of Republican billionaires to chip away at America’s secular institutions: the pig bones, so to speak, of our society. According to a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, the family, whose net worth is estimated at $5.6 billion, gave $10 million to national GOP candidates and committees during the 2016 cycle alone. But this amount pales to the gargantuan sums they have cha
eled into state and local races, evangelical and free-market think tanks, advocacy groups, foundations, PACs, Super PACs and other dark-money organs that have effectively created a shadow political party within the GOP.
Regular attendees at the Koch brothers’ bia
ual summits, the DeVoses have been healthy benefactors of several Koch-seeded groups that advance an anti-tax, anti-regulatory agenda, including the charitable arm of Americans for Prosperity and the FreedomWorks Foundation. What distinguishes the DeVoses within the Kochs’ circle of power, however, is their conservative Christian worldview, which over the past four decades has helped fuel what is now a $1.5 billion infrastructure composed of thousands of churches and “parachurch” ministries, as well as Christian TV, radio and Internet cha
els; Facebook pages and other forms of social media; books; conferences; camps; prayer groups; legal organizations u2013 an entire universe that many Americans may be wholly unaware of. Through these cha
els has come a single, unified message merging social conservatism, free-market capitalism and American exceptionalism: the belief that the rights and freedoms spelled out in the U.S. Constitution were mandated by God.
Betsy DeVos’ father, Edgar Prince, made his fortune manufacturing auto parts (including perhaps his greatest i
ovation, the lighted sun visor), and was one of the single largest donors to the Christian right. “No one in the United States gave more money to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, its Michigan Family Forum affiliate or its Washington, D.C., arm, the Family Research Council, than the late Edgar Prince,” notes Russ Bellant, a Michigan author who has written extensively about the religious right. After Prince died in 1995, Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, continued funding religious-right causes, as has Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Blackwater. Among the causes the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has supported is the Foundation for Traditional Values, which produced multi-media seminars and presentations on “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage,” including the “biblical roots” of government and our education system.
Neither Betsy DeVos, who is 59, nor any of her children have ever attended a public school; her Cabinet post also marks her first full-time job in the education system. Even before her nomination, she was a controversial figure in education circles, a leading advocate of “school choice” through student vouchers, which give parents public dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools. During her Senate confirmation hearing in January, DeVos struggled to grasp some of the most basic fundamentals of education terminology, student-loan policy and federal provisions mandating public schools provide free and appropriate education to people with disabilities. At one point, Co
ecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who represents the families of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, asked DeVos if she believed schools should be gun-free zones. She responded that in states like Wyoming “there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Her performance was so inept that two Republican senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, voted against her nomination, leaving DeVos’ longtime ally and fellow conservative Christian, Vice President Mike Pence, to cast an unprecedented tiebreaking vote. Weeks later, she caused an uproar describing historically black colleges and universities as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” But criticisms of the new secretary of education, based on her poor knowledge of and lack of support for public schools, arguably miss the point. “Public education is the biggest opportunity for those who believe they have to save souls,” says Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher of the religious right’s impact on policy. “If you’re looking at the merger of free-market ideology and the religious right, that is the plum to be picked.”
A staple in modern evangelical teachings is the concept of Christian spheres of influence u2013 or what the evangelical business guru Lance Wallnau dubbed the “Seven Mountains” of society: business, media, religion, arts and entertainment, family, government, and education u2013 all of which urge the faithful to engage in secular culture in order to “transform” it. The goal is a sweeping overhaul of society and a merging of church and state: elevating private charity over state-run social services, returning prayer to school and turning the clock back on women’s and LGBTQ rights. It would also be a system without a progressive income tax, collective bargaining, environmental regulation, publicly funded health care, welfare, a minimum wage u2013 a United States guided by a rigorously laissez-faire system of “values” rather than laws.
In the 33 states where Republicans currently hold power, some or all of these goals are being pursued, thanks to both the financial and ideological investment of families like that of Betsy DeVos, whose breadth of influence has now been sanctified in Washington with her appointment to run the Department of Education. This, as she told the Gathering in 2001, is what it means to be in the Shfela. It’s about “changing the way we approach things,” she said, “in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom.”
Regina H. Boone/ZUMA
Nowhere is the holy trinity of wealth, politics and Christian ideology more intertwined than in West Michigan, where the DeVos and Prince families are based. Its major city, Grand Rapids, is the “capital of American Calvinism,” as The Nation recently described it, home to dozens of Reformed and Christian Reformed churches, five Christian publishing houses, a slew of religion-infused radio stations, three seminaries and Calvin College, whose mission, according to its website, is preparing students to live as “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” Central to understanding the DeVos family, and particularly Dick and Betsy’s zeal for education, is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, a belief that one’s salvation (or damnation) has been preordained by God. According to this view, God’s “elect” must work hard in dedication to the glorification of Jesus Christ. Another of Calvinism’s central teachings is that God is the “absolute sovereign” over everything in the world, and followers must in turn claim “every square inch” of the Earth for Jesus Christ.
Betsy Prince grew up 30 miles southwest of Grand Rapids, in the small city of Holland, where by some estimates her father’s company, the Prince Corp., employed roughly a quarter of the town. Betsy and her three siblings u2013 Eileen, Emilie and Erik u2013 were all educated in Holland’s Christian schools, where Betsy was a champion swimmer. In 1975, she enrolled at Calvin College and won an uncontested race for the student senate her freshman year. She also volunteered to work on Gerald Ford’s 1976 re-election campaign, and that summer attended the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Not long afterward, she met Dick DeVos, whom she married in 1979, which many saw as the feudal bonding of West Michigan’s two royal families.
No organization more perfectly represented the merging of faith and free-market capitalism than the Amway Corp., which Dick’s father, Rich DeVos, founded with his high school friend Jay Van Andel in 1959 to sell vitamins and cleaning products. Amway u2013 short for “American Way” u2013 now has a
ual revenues of $8.8 billion and a weblike network of salespeople across the globe who embrace the company’s “Founders’ Fundamentals”: faith, freedom, hope and reward. “Happiness,” notes one of its mottoes, “is best achieved through earned success.”
Amway was one of the first companies to harness the multilevel-marketing concept u2013 using positive thinking and other motivational tools to recruit “independent business owners.” The principles of Amway salesmanship, which a 1979 federal investigation determined do not amount to a pyramid scheme, were simple: Leverage your personal and professional contacts, or “circles,” into both customers and a sales force, which in turn will create more sales forces. Rather than a corporate hierarchy, success relied on shared goals u2013 and shared values, in what one former Amway distributor, Stephen Butterfield, referred to in a 1985 exposu00e9 as a “cult of free enterprise.” Amway doesn’t just sell products, Butterfield writes. “It sells a marketing and motivational system, a cause, a way of life, in a fervid, emotional atmosphere of rallies and political revivalism.”
Amway also sold conservatism, whose values were baked into its corporate culture. According to Butterfield, to be a “wi
er,” in the company parlance, salespeople were encouraged to read only Amway-approved books, use only Amway products and vote the Amway way. Religious leaders like James Dobson and Robert Schuller used Amway rallies to proselytize to the company’s million-strong sales force. In 1980, Butterfield writes, Amway leaders used tax-deductible business functions to drum up support for Ronald Reagan. Before long, Amway had turned its ever-growing distributor network into the foot soldiers of modern conservatism, as Butterfield writes, “extolling the virtues of possibility-thinking, positive attitude, prayer and wealth.” (A representative for Amway refutes Butterfield’s characterization of the company.)”

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