In a terrifying coordinated attack, leftists in the media teamed up with advocacy groups to paint President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of Education as a religious extremist.
On November 23, Trump announced he had chosen Betsy DeVos, chairwoman of the clean energy Windquest Group and head of the American Federation for Children, a school choice organization. Later that day, three liberal organizations attacked DeVos as a threat to the “separation of church and state.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan urged Congress to “scrutinize” DeVos’ record, attacking her support for school vouches as “a misguided idea that diverts taxpayer dollars into private and parochial schools and perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state.”
“Billionaire activist Betsy DeVos has dedicated years of her life and vast sums of money to undermining our nation’s public education system in favor of private, largely religious and politically conservative, institutions,” declared Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance. Moline attacked Trump’s decision of DeVos, arguing that it shows “he has little regard for our nation’s public schools or the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
The Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed, calling Trump’s choice of DeVos “an insult to public education.” Echoing his fellow liberal activists, Lynn attacked DeVos, saying she “fought to divert resources away from public schools into private, mostly religious institutions. She is the leader of the crusade to create school vouchers across the country.” (emphasis added)
“Private school vouchers violate the fundamental principle of religious freedom because they fund religious education with taxpayer dollars,” Lynn argued.
Also later that day, The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer called DeVos “a religious conservative who has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.” Mayer not only mentioned DeVos’s history as an elder at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., but also emphasized the benefit to religious schools from a 2000 school voucher referendum the donor supported, and her husband’s 2006 campaign to defeat Democrat Governor Jennifer Granholm.
Mayer also pointed out the DeVos family’s opposition to same-sex marriage laws, even going so far as to cite the Michigan-based LGBT publication PrideSource.com on their spending for a referendum declaring that marriage is between a man and a woman in 2004. DeVos’s mother’s support for California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 also warranted a mention.
But attacks on DeVos’s Christian faith also appeared in America’s newspaper of record. The New York Times‘ Katherine Stewart penned an attack, “Besty DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools.”
The piece begins with a creepy description of religious extremists lurking in the shadows behind the Republican Party.
At the rightmost edge of the Christian conservative movement, there are those who dream of turning the United States into a Christian republic subject to “biblical laws.” In the unlikely figure of Donald J. Trump, they hope to have found their greatest champion yet. He wasn’t “our preferred candidate,” the Christian nationalist David Barton said in June, but he could be “God’s candidate.”
This alleged fringe group, which Stewart seems to believe is not a work of fiction or left-wing conspiracy theory, must be full of hate. After all, DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, “contributed to the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as extremist because of its anti-L.G.B.T. language.”
Yes, Stewart in The New York Times glibly cited the SPLC, which designated the Family Research Council (FRC) as a “hate group.” This extremely misleading designation inspired a terror attack on this pro-family non-profit organization.
But this was just the beginning. Stewart also emphasized DeVos’s 2001 declaration (at a gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists) that education reform is a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” Voila! Direct evidence that Betsy DeVos is a regressive, hateful, right-wing misogynist who hates women, the LGBT community, and poor starving children in Africa.
To say this is a stretch would be an understatement. Among Christians, “advancing God’s kingdom” is a euphemism for helping the poor, serving the afflicted, and in general bringing some degree of God’s love, mercy, and justice to a hurting world. When Betsy DeVos championed education reform in this way, she wasn’t pushing for an established religion, she was telling Christians that school choice will help the poor and satisfy Jesus Christ’s command that we should love one another.
Stewart’s New York Times article increasingly grasps at straws, cherry-picking an ancient quote from evangelical broadcaster D. James Kennedy, who said in 1986 that children in public education were being “brainwashed in Godless secularism.” Stewart followed this up with a quote only eleven years old, where Kennedy told followers to “exercise godly dominion” over “every aspect and institution of human society.”
What’s Kennedy’s connection to DeVos? Oh, one of her many philanthropic organizations donated to his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church once. The fact that Stewart had to resort to two ancient quotes from a source vaguely connected to DeVos should suggest that all this hullabaloo about Trump’s education pick establishing a Christian school system is based on approximately zero evidence.
The Washington Examiner‘s Jason Russell explained just how ridiculous Stewart’s arguments really are. Russell noted that Stewart tried to paint DeVos as “an extremist who might want to force America’s children into private Christian schools.” The New York Times writer “rolls out tenuous relationships and 15-year-old quotes to make this case.”
As Russell rightly argued, “unless DeVos gives a shocking answer along the lines of, ‘As secretary, I want to advance God’s kingdom by encouraging all schools to use Christian curricula,’ there isn’t much cause for concern.”
“Perhaps this will come as a shock to those who aren’t very religious, but just because Christians want to convert nonbelievers doesn’t mean they want the government to be a tool in their efforts,” Russell added. “For most, changing hearts and minds on a personal level is the tool of choice.”
Indeed, The Washington Examiner author’s response understates the case. The Bible is replete with references to “circumcision of the heart” (Romans 2:29) and the importance of personal spiritual conversion. Evangelical Christians — and those seem to be the ones liberals are most concerned about — believe that conversion must be personal and not forced, otherwise there is no real relationship with God.
The only legitimate issue at stake, as explained by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is the public funding of religious schools, which are one of the options covered by school choice and voucher programs.
This debate has a long history in America, because many Americans long distrusted the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign power, and many of the schools which provided another option for students were Catholic parochial schools.
School choice is not a smokescreen to sneak religion into public schools, however — it is a genuine effort to provide more options for students, especially those who live in areas with failing public schools.
This April, a study from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice showed “how effective open enrollment, charters, and educational choice programs are at improving student outcomes.” The study found that non-residential alternatives to ZIP code-based public schools are growing rapidly, and that competition from private school choice and charter schools do the most to improve schools, allowing public school dollars to follow the student.
School choice provides a clear incentive to better serve families and attract new students. In fact, the study found that educational achievement grows in proportion to the amount of school choice available. In Florida and Milwaukee, Wisc., for example, robust school choice has enabled significant leaps in education.
New schools which operate on a choice or voucher system experience the same or better outcomes as public schools, but at lower costs, according to the study.
This is why Betsy DeVos supports school choice — because it benefits students and saves taxpayers (and parents) money.
Yes, DeVos is a Christian who is committed to her faith. But that does not mean she wants to force students to attend Christian schools, or that her goal in school choice is to prop up a secretive right-wing Christian establishment. Christian organizations make no pretense of being anything else, and no group DeVos supports explicitly wants to run the U.S. under “biblical laws.”
This coordinated attack against DeVos merely highlights the astounding ignorance liberals have about Christians in America, and the readiness of liberal organizations and media to assume that if a Christian wants to get involved in public service, he or she must be a threat to freedom everywhere.
Many Christians, however, accept the Augustinian idea that believers in Jesus Christ are in exile on Earth. We are to pursue the peace of the city in which we live, but take our significance not as Americans but as members of God’s holy church. This means that there is a separation between our ultimate values and political power.
Even if school choice and voucher programs mean that government money will end up partially funding religious schools, this does not violate the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment stipulates that Congress shall make no law regarding “an establishment of religion,” which means privileging one church with taxpayer dollars.
Religious schools may be run by churches, but they are separate institutions, and any voucher program should make absolutely clear that the money funding the school cannot be used by the church associated with it.
As Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued in the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, when an individual uses public funds to make a private choice — including when a parent uses a voucher to send his or her child to a private religious school — it does not violate the First Amendment.
Voucher programs are “neutral in respect to religion [because they] provide assistance directly to a broad class of citizens, who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice.” So long as a school choice program allows “true private choice” and is “religiously neutral,” it does not violate the Constitution.
Ed Patru, a spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos, made her position abundantly clear. “Betsy has never and will never attempt to impose her personal beliefs on anyone,” Patru told PJ Media in an email statement. “To the contrary, she’s been an outspoken advocate for empowering parents to choose how their children are educated.”
Nether DeVos nor other school choice advocates want vouchers to establish a religion. Papers like The New York Times and The New York Post should know better, and so should liberal advocacy organizations. But it seems they will grasp at any straws to attack Trump’s education pick, no matter how ancient or how tenuous.