From Whence Do They Come?

In as much as neither Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos nor her brother Erik, former owner and CEO of Blackwater, a controversial private military contractor now under a different name, has made public any personal faith statements, the following is part of an attempt to understand their thinking by examining historic and recent religious influences which may have informed and shaped their thinking:

Ms. DeVos and her brother were born and grew up in Holland, MI. (also my home) and were educated in the Calvinist parochial schools of the Christian Reformed Church, a sister denomination to the other dominant denomination in the area, the Reformed Church in America.

Albertus Van Raalte was a secessionist from the state church, the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, who emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States to establish a Christian community and became the founder of the Dutch settlement in 1847 along the shores of Lake Michigan known as Holland, Michigan.

Van Raalte held to a strict interpretation of Calvinism particularly on providence and sovereignty. Van Raalte’s view was that the community of Holland should reflect the will of God and that Van Raalte and his fellow travelers were the elect chosen by God to live out that divine will, and who better to guide and implement that undertaking than Reverend Van Raalte himself?

He was an advocate of the separation of church and state but believed the state should reflect Christian principles. Van Raalte supported Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and the community has remained a strong Republican enclave ever since, even as the Republican Party has gone through many metamorphoses since its founding under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Kuyper ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Kuyper) has to be considered as an influential person on Christian Reformed views and therefore, one would assume, the belief systems of Betsy DeVos and her brother Erik Prince. In contrast, Kuyper remains an insignificant figure in the Calvinism of the Reformed Church in America.

Kuyper was a brilliant, albeit complex clergyperson, diplomat and politician during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in the Netherlands and a contradictory figure in some ways: he was for separation of church and state but for equal funding of Christian schools and public schools by the secular state. While he would not have been an advocate of mandating a Christian theocracy, apparently he was an advocate of a Christian worldview in all matters.

My late wife Doris had a professor of philosophy at Trinity Christian College (an independent, baccalaureate granting religious school with strong ties to the Christian Reformed Church), during its infant days as a two-year school in a Chicago suburb, who was a disciple of Kuyper and philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Dooyeweerd). Her teacher espoused the Kuyperian /Dooyeweerdian idea of viewing all of life as a Christian enterprise and from a Christian perspective. All academic disciplines were to be thought of as Christian and studied from a Christian perspective: science, medicine, politics, education, art, philosophy, business, etc.

Dooyeweerd believed that there are basic assumptions underlying any examination and study and that these assumptions provide the underlying “ground of meaning” to the study and all underlying assumptions are religious in nature. He advocated for a “creation, fall, redemption” assumption to engage other thinking based on other religious assumptions — Greek, Medieval, Humanist, etc.

I don’t know that Dooyeweerd ever advocated for the imposition of Christianity on everything as he did the study of everything from the perspective of his underlying assumption (ground of meaning), the construct “creation, fall, redemption.”

Then there is the interesting notion developed in the 1960’s of the imposition and enforcement of Old Testament law upon the state as in the theonomy and Christian Reconstructionsim (a branch of Dominionism) of Rousas Rushdoony, an Orthodox Presbyterian and strict Calvinist, who advocated against pluralism and diversity. He is credited with being the “Father of Homeschooling.” One source labeled Rushdoony a racist and bigot (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/2009/05/r-j-rushdoony-reconstructionist-and-racist-bigot/).

Dominionism (including Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism) has a close connection with the Christian right with which Ms. DeVos and her brother Erik would have intimate knowledge, their late father Edgar having been a significant financial contributor and ardent supporter of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

Here are excerpts from Wikipedia on Dominionism and its relation to the Christian Right:

Journalist Frederick Clarkson defined dominionism as a movement that, while including Dominion Theology and Reconstructionism as subsets, is much broader in scope, extending to much of the Christian Right in the United States.

In his 1992 study of Dominion Theology and its influence on the Christian Right, Bruce Barron writes, “In the context of American evangelical efforts to penetrate and transform public life, the distinguishing mark of a dominionist is a commitment to defining and carrying out an approach to building society that is self-consciously defined as exclusively Christian, and dependent specifically on the work of Christians, rather than based on a broader consensus.”

In 1995, Diamond called the influence of Dominion Theology “prevalent on the Christian Right.”

Journalist Chip Berlet added in 1998 that, although they represent different theological and political ideas, dominionists assert a Christian duty to take “control of a sinful secular society.”

In 2005, Clarkson enumerated the following characteristics shared by all forms of dominionism:
1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
2. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
3. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, insofar as they believe that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_Theology.)

Dominionism equates to domination which requires coercive power (political, military) to enforce Old Testament law against subjugated peoples resulting in the elimination of democratically based freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, and a society devoid of justice, peace, compassion, inclusivity, universality and all this enforced in the name of Jesus.

And so, somehow, John Calvin, Post-Calvin Scholasticism, Albertus Van Raalte, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, Hyper-Calvinism, Cornelius Van Til, R. J. Rushdoony, postmillennialism, fundamentalist eschatology, the Christian Right and the misbegotten theological mishmash known as Dominionism, a very real threat to our Republican form of democracy when coupled with totalitarianism are all in some way, perhaps, informative of Betsy DeVos and her brother Erik’s worldview.

As the hapless kid in the insurance commercial about a couple of kids getting a flat tire at night on a lonely stretch of highway responds to his buddy’s question, “Is this a lug wrench?” — “Maybe.”

Maybe the Betsy DeVos/Erik Prince worldview is about enforcing (by whatever means) a Christian state in preparation for the return of Christ.  I can’t say for sure because they aren’t saying, but there are significant religious influences upon them and sign posts from their own behavior to consider making something more than just an educated guess.

The merger of political power with weird, theological literalism and absolute certainty is indeed scary and something against which to protest peacefully in the tradition of Dorothy Day, Gandhi and M.L.King, Jr. and, for me, also in the name of  The Compassionate Servant To All who shows us the inclusive, universal love of God — Jesus.

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One thought on “From Whence Do They Come?

  1. Bob, very interesting essay. It should be shared much further than just your blog – perhaps a tweet to the president himself, a letter to the editor NY Times, Washington Post. etc.

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