(RNS) The position for which Betsy DeVos has been confirmed — secretary of education — is one of the least powerful in the Cabinet, in terms of its budget and position in the line of succession to the presidency.
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And yet, after a confirmation hearing in which she struggled to answer questions, some Senate offices had received more calls opposing DeVos than any other Cabinet nominee.
As president of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote Tuesday (Feb. 7) to confirm the businesswoman and philanthropist as education secretary. It is the first time a vice president has cast the deciding vote on a Cabinet nominee.
DeVos is the chair of Michigan-based investment and management firm The Windquest Group. She has been active in politics for more than 35 years, according to her website; most recently, her focus has been on school choice.
Here are five faith facts about DeVos.
1. DeVos has roots in the Christian Reformed tradition.
DeVos grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and graduated from schools affiliated with the tradition: Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Mich., and Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The Christian Reformed Church, formed by Dutch immigrants settling the Midwest in the 1800s, grew out of Dutch Calvinism – splitting from the older Reformed Church in America in the 1850s. One of the churches’ disagreements was about education: The Reformed Church in America viewed schooling as the responsibility of the government, while the Christian Reformed Church viewed it as the responsibility of the family.
But, Abram Van Engen pointed out at Religion & Politics, the Christian Reformed Church says nothing about vouchers or charter schools, and it never has threatened public education.
Most recently, DeVos has been a member and elder at Mars Hill Bible Church, the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church founded by popular author Rob Bell in Grandville, Mich.
2. DeVos supports school vouchers — the use of public money to send children to private schools, including religious schools.
DeVos has supported expanding charter schools and school vouchers, both as an advocate and as a philanthropist. Vouchers allow students to take taxpayer dollars with them to private schools. That includes religious schools.
Vouchers are popular with conservative Christians, and Pence had expanded taxpayer-funded vouchers, as well as charter schools, when he was governor of Indiana.
Laura Turner explained that support in Politico:
“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.”
3. DeVos also has financially supported Christian schools.
A Mother Jones analysis found the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation had given nearly half of its donations between 1999 and 2014 – out of a total $100 million – to Christian organizations. That includes $8.6 million to religious schools such as Holland Christian Schools, the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association and the Ada Christian School.
4. DeVos has said she wants to “advance God’s kingdom” through education.
In an oft-quoted audio recording of a 2001 gathering of Christian philanthropists obtained by Politico, DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, the former CEO of multilevel marketing company Amway, confirmed they share a Christian worldview that comes from the Calvinist tradition.
“Our desire is to … confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to advance God’s kingdom, not to stay in our own safe territories,” Betsy DeVos said.
Van Engen suggested this is less about “theocracy” and more about a “service-oriented vision of vocation.” As Dick DeVos immediately added in the interview, it would be easier only to work within Christian schools – those “safe territories.” But the couple is motivated by their worldview to be part of the world, not separate from it; to take a more systemic approach; to “drive better performance across all education,” he said.
5. Evangelical support for DeVos as secretary of education was mixed.
Some Calvin College alumni spoke out in support of DeVos’ nomination, as did the Illinois Family Institute. And in an op-ed for Fox News, Faith & Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed chalked up opposition to her nomination as a “liberal smear campaign against Mrs. DeVos’ religious faith,” a tactic he called “despicable.”
But fellow Christians also had opposed her nomination.
More than 2,700 Calvin alumni signed a petition saying they oppose DeVos’ nomination because they did not believe she was qualified: She has never worked as an educator and does not have a strong commitment to public education, among other reasons.
DeVos has said she is not opposed to public education, but that “all of the schools would become better as a result” of more competition from other schools.