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 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.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to the evangelicals who oppose DeVos, is a sense that her educational philosophy leaves out the people Jesus called “the least of these.” This was the subject of a petition released by The Expectations Project, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., advocacy group that encourages faith communities to get involved with low-income public school students. The petition is not directed at removing DeVos but enjoining her to “give moral priority” to the principle of caring for the most vulnerable children in the country’s education system, meaning under-resourced public school kids. “We have to ensure that all of God’s kids, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, have good schools,” the group’s founder, Nicole Baker Fulgham, told me. She is concerned that, if confirmed, DeVos could enact policies to a boost to students whose parents can afford private school, while holding poorer students behind. “As a person of faith, it’s impossible for me to believe that God only gave potential to certain groups of kids from certain cultures or whose parents had X amount of money,” Baker Fulgham says. “He gave potential to every person he created.”
The most vulnerable children also include those with disabilities—a group to whom evangelicals have long paid special attention. Some evangelicals are concerned that DeVos’ strong advocacy for school choice will diminish the resources available to kids who, under IDEA, are guaranteed a “free and appropriate education.” Taking money that would otherwise go to a public school and giving it to a family in the form of a voucher would mean that those public schools, which are frequently already under-resourced, have fewer and fewer options to offer IDEA students.
“My kid is already marginalized in society for not being neurotypical,” Nish Weiseth, an evangelical author and speaker who also has a son with autism, told me. “How much more could he be marginalized and made vulnerable because of education policy?”
Eigenbrood, who was a special education teacher before he began working at the college level added that if high-performing students are given the choice to leave their local public schools for charter or private schools, they will interact less and less with students with disabilities, who may not be covered by IDEA at non-public schools. “If you’re a child growing up and you don’t get to go to a school where you encounter people with disabilities, I think you’ve lost an important part of what it means to be able to function in a fully-inclusive society that includes people with disabilities,” he says.
Other evangelicals worry that as some in their faith community become more socially liberal, DeVos will set them back. Calvin College alumna Sara Moslener—a religion professor at Central Michigan University who no longer considers herself evangelical but still has deep ties in the community—wrote the January 23 alumni letter opposing DeVos. She did so, she told me, because DeVos’ nomination reminded her of the religious right’s heyday as a powerful force in American politics. “I suddenly feel like I’m 15 years old again … and Jerry Falwell is in charge of everything,” Moslener says, a reference to the fundamentalist powerbroker (and father of Jerry Falwell Jr.) who was also president of Liberty University himself. Moslener’s letter ended up with more than 2,700 signatures—many of them from younger alumni, she says: “Their generation has reacted against what Betsy DeVos represents.”
An evangelical Virginia-based policy analyst I spoke with, who did not want to be named because he knows people who support DeVos, said he originally started working in education because his faith has led him to care about social justice, but he worries that DeVos’ education philosophy will lead to the further marginalization of LGBTQ students and students of color. DeVos hasn’t been vocal about LGBTQ rights, and in fact has quietly supported them in the past. But the concern may arise from the fact that her father gave millions of dollars to start the Family Research Council, a group that “often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Ultimately, DeVos’ beliefs about education seem most closely aligned with the Republican Party, not a faith tradition. DeVos, who has long been active with the GOP in Michigan, has spent decades pushing for school choice and seeking to privatize education in the state, which leads the country in for-profit charter schools. Her support for charter schools has roots in the cozy relationship among Republicans, Christianity and the business world, which have been aligned for decades in support of individualism and, by extension, industry deregulation.
But not all evangelicals share DeVos’ beliefs about education. When private and charter schools replace public schools as the most common option in a low-income student’s area, for-profit school administrators are “literally profiting off the poorest kids,” says Liz Riggs, a former Teach for America staffer who currently works for an education nonprofit in Tennessee. That, she says, “feels totally misaligned with my values as a Christian.” Charter schools also say that as private institutions they are not subject to disclosure laws, which means a lack of accountability and oversight.
Eigenbrood’s lasting concern is for the children who wouldn’t be served by charter or private schools—those who would be left behind in the public schools DeVos has no record of supporting. “When it goes back to Betsy DeVos, I don’t think she is the person who would help every child in the United States be successful,” he said. Although American evangelicals have traditionally sided with conservative policy, when it comes to education, more and more seem to be agreeing with Eigenbrood’s belief that care for some of God’s children at the expense of the most vulnerable is no care at all.