The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions’ hearing on January 17, 2017, with education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos serves as ontological proof that the religious right is indeed behind the wheel of the clown car driving Donald Trump to the White House.
As one who has covered religion for over two decades, I’m well accustomed to the platitudes emanating from those who strive to adorn the Statue of Liberty with a giant cross to symbolize their version of American Christianity. However, until Tuesday I had not encountered one of their godly representatives, facing a Senate confirmation hearing no less, exhibit such a glaring lack of knowledge on her subject matter as DeVos did. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump identified those of her ilk as being “right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religion, and our Constitution.” This statement sounds downright intellectual when compared to DeVos’s support of guns in schools as a means of protection against grizzly bears.
Early on in the hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) asked DeVos point blank how much money her family has contributed to the Republican Party. She sat there like a deer in the headlights and then answered, “I don’t know.” He then followed up with, “Do you think that if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions, that you would be sitting here today?” She responded that it would be a possibility in light of her almost thirty years of support for parents and children with a focus on low-income families.
The actual answer to the question Sanders posed remains unknown, as the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has yet to release their review of DeVos’s financial statements. In a letter to Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on this committee, the OGE made it clear that a formal check on the pick for education secretary is far from complete. Hence, Democratic senators were unable to ask any questions relating to any conflicts that her family’s considerable financial wealth could play in influencing educational directives. Among DeVos’s known contributions are donations to four Republican senators who are members of this committee. How can they maintain an impartial stance in light of these contributions?
While watching the livestream of this hearing, I could feel the spirit of my ancestor, the religious freedom pioneer Roger Williams, stirring in my bones. Lost in this conversation was a key question raised by organizations like the American Humanist Association and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State: “Should taxes be used to support religious schools?” Also, there was no discussion about the myriad problems created through the use of school vouchers designed to fund private and religious schools. For her part, DeVos made no mention of her religious affiliations or faith-based charitable giving in the questionnaire she completed prior to this hearing.
Senator Al Franken (D-MN) attempted to clarify DeVos’s stance on LGBTQ issues in light of her family’s donations to Christian organizations like Focus on the Family that promote anti-gay conversion therapy. She responded with a vague promise to promote equality, adding that her particular foundation does not fund this organization. When pressed about her role as a board member on her mother’s Prince Foundation during the time it donated money to Focus on the Family, DeVos attributed her name on the foundation’s 990 forms as a “clerical error.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) (who last week asked Jeff Sessions to explain previous comments that “secularists” weren’t fit for government work) asked about donations DeVos made to the Thomas More Law Center. They’re the nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and promote America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values, and who defended a school trying to teach intelligent design in 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover. DeVos responded to Whitehouse with a vague promise to promote science in the schools.
While she may have drawn blanks during her hearing, DeVos gave a speech in 2001 in which she compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground with the intent to “advance God’s Kingdom.” This speech was made at an event called The Gathering, which is connected to the Family, host of the National Prayer Breakfast.
While Trump has indicated an interest in attending the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, his public support of Christian leaders leans more toward the wealth-based teachings of prosperity gospel preachers, starting with his connection to Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church. Prominent religious leaders who have endorsed Trump include Jerry Falwell Jr., who claimed he was first offered the position of education secretary but turned it down. Paula White, Franklin Graham, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan are among those religious leaders participating in Trump’s inauguration. Also, a group of self-proclaimed apostles and prophets from the dominionist wing of American Christianity, who were among Trump’s earliest supporters, just launched a project called POTUS Shield, designed, in part, to “discern, declare, and decree the strategies of the Lord for our nation, with a special sensitivity to the three branches of the United States government.”
Since 2003, bestselling author Jeff Sharlet has been reporting on the Family (aka the Fellowship). As his research indicates, once you pull back the curtain from these public displays of right-wing Christianity, the Family appears to hold real power at the Trump table. Sharlet documents Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s long tradition of working with the Family, both in front of the camera at their annual National Prayer Breakfast and behind the scenes in clandestine meetings.
Sometime after giving her speech at The Gathering, DeVos left the Christian Reformed Church and began attending Mars Hill Bible Church, an evangelical megachurch in Granville, Michigan, founded by bestselling author Rob Bell. Here she served as an elder and reportedly donated $431,000 to the church between 2002 and 2004 and $453,349 to Flannel, producer of Bell’s NOOMA videos that transformed him into an international hipster pastor. To date, neither Mars Hill nor Rob Bell have responded to inquires verifying these donations and any previous or current connections they have to Betsy DeVos and her family. Bell has since left Mars Hill Church, and while he has voiced support for gay marriage, his silence during the nomination process of a former church elder and donor speaks volumes.
The bulk of those connected to the Family tend to lean Republican, though Hillary Clinton participated in their Bible studies upon her initial arrival in Washington, DC. Progressive Christian organizations like Sojourners publish articles that raise legitimate questions about DeVos’s candidacy, and Sojourners founder and president Jim Wallis has distanced himself from evangelicals who support Trump. But many on the Christian Left still have connections to the Family. For example, Tony Campolo’s response here is emblematic of Sojourners support for the Family.
DeVos’s Family-friendly connections weren’t addressed during her Senate confirmation hearing, but she was criticized by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) for donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. DeVos responded that the senator “may be confusing” her with some other family members or looking at contributions “from eighteen or twenty years ago.”
This January 4 report at mlive.com questions the voracity of her statement by documenting how the DeVos family, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, prays and pays together when it comes to the intersectionality of their respective foundations and funding streams. As People for the American Way documents:
Betsy DeVos and her extraordinarily wealthy family have helped to build the religious right’s political and policy infrastructure; lobbied for legislation to expand charter schools programs and protect them from regulation and oversight; promoted vouchers and related tax schemes to steer money away from public schools; and poured money into political attacks on elected officials, including Republicans, who resist their plans for the privatization of education.
While Betsy DeVos may promise that, as education secretary, “where conflicts are identified, they will be resolved,” it’s clear the Family and the DeVos family get along just fine.