Abraham Kuyper, left, and John Dewey. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

The battle over Betsy DeVos started more than 100 years ago

(RNS) Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation as education secretary was the narrowest approval of a Cabinet nominee in U.S. history. The 50-50 tie had to be broken by the vice president, following fierce opposition from Democrats.

Why do liberals hate DeVos so? So much so that Mother Jones published an article titled “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom’”? (Yes, with God’s Kingdom in scare quotes.)

To answer that question, we have to understand people are operating out of two profoundly different worldviews, especially regarding children, education and the government’s role in both.

And those worldviews can be traced back more than a century to two men: John Dewey and Abraham Kuyper.

Dewey was a humanist philosopher and one of the intellectual forces behind progressive education in America in the early decades of the 20th century. Seeking a reconstruction of society through a reformation of education, he wanted children to discover knowledge for themselves, with the teacher as a kind of social engineer. Dewey’s progressive design removed children from the home, the church and the control of parents and centralized their education under the control of the government. Why? Because Dewey didn’t believe parents — particularly religious parents — could be trusted to appropriately educate their own children. Nor could religious institutions. He believed religious and other traditional forms of education that relied on rote learning and an authoritarian view of the relationship between teacher and student were detrimental to society.

Dewey’s worldview could not be more diametrically different from that of Kuyper, another educational reformer.

Kuyper, a Dutch Calvinist theologian, founded the first political party in the Netherlands, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which rejected the principles of the French Revolution. As prime minister from 1901-1905, he railed against liberal influences both in the Dutch Reformed Church and in education, and he sought to improve the financial situation and the quality of Christian schools.

In 1880 he delivered the inaugural address of the Free University of Amsterdam, a Protestant institution that he helped found, and declared, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Betsy DeVos testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of education. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Betsy DeVos testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of education. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Yuri Gripas


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Herein lies the fault line between the Dewey Democrats and DeVos, who is steeped in the Dutch Calvinist Christian tradition.

Reformed Christians like DeVos understand the universe — all of it— to be under God’s sovereignty, with no dividing line between secular and sacred. Yes, there are distinct spheres of life: family, social, vocational, recreational — but God is sovereign in all times, in all places, over every thought, every deed, every decision, every policy, everything.

That does not mean that Reformed Christians believe in theocracy, nor that DeVos and others are looking to deny religious liberty to anyone. It does mean that those who call themselves Christians have a unique responsibility to bear out God’s sovereign will in every sphere in which they have influence.

Kuyper emphasized Christ’s all-encompassing authority and set out the philosophy called “Sphere Sovereignty,” which posits that there are different spheres of life – for example, state, church, family and work— and that each is equally under God’s authority and design.

And to honor God in our work, we don’t need to become a full-time vocational pastor or missionary. To be a doctor or teacher or secretary of education is equally Kingdom work.

So, when DeVos says, as quoted by Mother Jones, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education. ... Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” she is speaking an utterly foreign language to secular humanists who are disciples of Dewey. DeVos is simply articulating that God is sovereign over all.

Mother Jones warned that DeVos’ appointment might result in “a radical redirection of funds from traditional public schools to private schools, many of which are Christian.” What the publication missed is there was already a tradition of private and Christian education in America before there were public schools and that it was the Dewey disruption of that traditional educational model that radically redirected funds to the present model.

So, Mother Jones, it’s worse than you think. For anyone who believes education is rightly dominated by government with the goal of socially engineering citizens to serve an elitist vision of society, the new secretary of education is going to force them to think again.

(Carmen LaBerge is host of the daily Christian talk radio show The Reconnect)