I talk to Calvin College alumna Sara Moslener about why her letter in opposition to Betsy DeVos has struck such a chord among Calvin Knights (and Calvinites…)
EduShyster: Your open letter to students and alumni of Calvin College, opposing the confirmation of fellow alumna Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, has now been signed by nearly 2,800 Calvin Knights. What prompted you to write the letter, and did you have any idea that it would provoke this kind of response?
Sara Moslener: Like a lot of people I’ve been feeling an urgency about becoming more directly involved in politics. To me that meant sending a letter to my two Senators here in Michigan about Betsy DeVos and her lack of concern with federal regulations, something she’s demonstrated in her previous work and at her confirmation hearing. Without those federal regulations, there’s no assurance that students with different kinds of learning needs will be served, which ends up reinforcing a social hierarchy. After I wrote the letter, I thought that maybe some other Calvin College graduates might like to sign it, and that if I could get 30, 40 or even 50 people to sign, well, that would really say something. By Monday night there were almost 1,000 signatures. Then the Calvin College newspaper got a hold of it and current students started signing on.
EduShyster: Calvin alumni from as far back as 1947 have signed on, but it’s the opposition to DeVos among younger alumni and students who are attending Calvin now that’s so striking. As an historian of evangelicalism are you surprised by this?
Moslener: When you look at the letter, once you get past 2005, the lists of students from each successive year just get longer and longer. It doesn’t surprise me at all, by the way, that students are engaged. What I know about young evangelicals is that they are much more politically progressive than older evangelicals. This is also true of students at Calvin, which is in the Christian Reform tradition and on the cusp of evangelicalism. Many millennial evangelicals supported Obama, and they care deeply about climate change. Now the narrative is that 85% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, so I think this is interesting in light of that.
EduShyster: During my recent trip to Grand Rapids, I dropped by a fave DeVos organization: the Acton Institute, which seeks to integrate Judeo-Christian truths with free market principles. And during her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos gave a special shout out to Acton Academy, a chain of charter schools that teach students to treasure *economic, political and religious freedom.* Can you shed some light on this co-mingling of Christianity and capitalism?
Moslener: It goes back to the emergence of the religious right and a deliberate effort by Republicans, not by evangelicals themselves, to create an evangelical voting bloc. Remember the Moral Majority? Free market ideology was a big part of that, and what I think of as an anointing or sanctification of the market, as a way to move God’s work forward. That view is very strong in western Michigan and to me it’s what the DeVos family is about. I’ve been hearing from people all week who share my concern that the DeVoses are using Christianity to promote capitalism. I just got an email from someone saying something about *let’s drive the money changers out of the temple,* if you know that reference. In western Michigan, as powerful as that blend of religion and capitalism is, there are people who are vehemently opposed to it, both Christians and non-Christians.
EduShyster: What I find so puzzling about all of this is that I thought Calvinists were supposed to be frugal. I’ve spent the last year working on a study of President Ford’s first Secretary of Labor, John Dunlop. He was the son of Calvinist missionaries and seems to have been constitutionally unable to spend money. Yet the DeVoses seem to represent an entirely different tradition, what I’ve come to think of as *lavish Calvinism.*
Moslener: The philosophy behind wealth and Calvinism is that wealth is a sign that God has blessed you, but you don’t want to show it off. I don’t know what the DeVos’ lifestyle is like, what kind of cars they drive or what their houses look like, but they are lavish in their giving. That is also consistent with the Protestant ethic. If you’ve been blessed by God then you need to do something good with it and give back. That’s no doubt what the DeVoses believe they are doing. Betsy DeVos was born into this wealth and then married into it and has found the particular ways that she wants to use that wealth. I think what makes people uncomfortable is that with all that giving comes a degree of control over the groups and individuals they’re giving to.
EduShyster: Your letter is focused on K-12 education but if Betsy DeVos is confirmed, she’ll also oversee a vast and complicated higher education portfolio. As a professor at Central Michigan State University, do you have any particular concerns about what DeVos could mean for higher education?
Moslener: Aside from all of the money the family has given to Calvin College, I don’t know if DeVos has ever thought about higher education. Personally I’m very worried about student loans. It got so much better with the Obama Administration. I can actually afford my payments now and I’m on track for loan forgiveness in three years. I was glad to hear Elizabeth Warren asking DeVos questions about student loans, but it’s clear that that’s something she has never had to think about, as a student herself or as a parent.
EduShyster: Speaking of the DeVos’ generous donations to Calvin, I’ve been very impressed at how the college has responded to your letter, going so far as to encourage students and alumni to weigh in. That can’t have been an easy call for administrators to make given how dependent Calvin is on the family’s largesse.
Moslener: Here’s the thing about Calvin. It is heavily supported by donations from both the DeVos and Prince families. In the last 10 years, Calvin has grown and built a number of new buildings, one of which is the Prince Conference Center. I’ve been inside of it and it’s huge and lovely. When I was in college we used to have to run across the East Beltline, a busy main street, to get to where you lived. Now there’s a pedestrian bridge that crosses it, and I’m sure the DeVoses were part of that, which means that college students are no longer putting their lives at risk to cross the street. I recognize their many contributions and that I’ve benefited from them, but my education also taught me to be really suspicious of people using Christianity for other ends. I was taught to be aware of how the most vulnerable are faring, and to be concerned about systems of injustice and social inequalities, even if my own life is going well. What makes Calvin a really great academic institution is that it prepares students and encourages them to to participate in these kinds of conversations. Unfortunately many of Calvin’s students leave feeling completely disgusted with much of what the school is about and especially about the college’s affiliations and how it’s funded.
EduShyster: You can really sense that tension in the comments from students and alumni in response to the story in the Calvin College newspaper, the Chimes, which, by the way, is one of my favorite student newspaper names of all times.
Moslener: One thing I realized once the Chimes picked up the story is that this provoked some divisions that were already there. This has happened before at Calvin, by the way. In 2005 George W. Bush gave the commencement address. It was the height of the Iraq War. Someone like me initiated a letter and collected enough money to put a full page ad in the Grand Rapids Press, stating that we as alum want to state our opposition to the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq. That created a stir. People who disagreed with the letter were calling and threatening to pull money from the school, and you have to wonder where the DeVoses stood on that. At some point last week I realized that I’d tapped into the same thing.
EduShyster: I’ve just added your book, Virgin Nation, about sexual purity and American adolescence, to my *must read in 2017* list. The book is a history of purity movements in America but it also recounts your own story growing up as an evangelical teenager. I’m guessing that your teenage self would not have been leading the charge against Betsy DeVos…
Moslener: As an evangelical teen I was helping organize the March for Life. I went every year with my high school, that’s just something we did. My elderly parents are in Washington for the march right now. They’re the ones who taught me to do this stuff. We don’t agree on the issues anymore, but we’re in agreement that if your conscience prompts you to stand up for something, you do it, even if you’re 75 years old.
Sara Moslener is assistant professor of religion at Central Michigan University and a graduate of Calvin College. She’s the author of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence.