Betsy DeVos's Faith in Free Markets

Betsy DeVos, the billionaire whom President-elect Donald Trump has picked to lead the U.S. Department of Education, spent a decade serving as a board member of a free-market think tank led by a Catholic priest. Her family has long been a major player in conservative religious circles. While some Catholic leaders will find affinity with her signature support of school vouchers, the DeVoses are well known in Michigan for funding a slew of anti-tax and anti-union initiatives at odds with the church’s teachings on labor and economic justice.

Heirs to the Amway fortune, the DeVos family played a key role in financing the successful passage of Michigan’s 2012 so called “right-to-work” law. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a retired auxiliary in the Detroit archdiocese, described it at the time as an “unjust law” that “should not just offend Catholics, but all Christians and members of all faith traditions.” Gumbleton noted what the U.S. bishops’ conference underscored in its 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.” Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who leads the Acton Institute, disagreed; he praised the law as a “landmark event.” Betsy DeVos sat on the Acton Institute’s board from 1995 to 2005. The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey recently detailed DeVos’s philanthropy, both religious and otherwise, and her deep ties to the Christian Reformed community in Michigan. It’s worth reading.

In a recent American Prospect article, I took a deep-dive look at how groups like Acton and the business school at The Catholic University of America benefit from the largess of billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch.

The brothers bankroll a vast network of political and advocacy groups that deny climate change, fight efforts to expand Medicaid, and push to deregulate industries that poison the environment while padding their own profits. Trump has railed against the influence of major donors in Washington, but as Jane Mayer of the New Yorker writes:

It would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures…

While the DeVoses are less well known than the Kochs, they have played a similar role in bankrolling the rightward march of the Republican Party. Starting in 1970, the DeVos family, which is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, began directing at least two hundred million dollars into funding what was then called “The New Right.” The family supported conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation; academic organizations such as the Collegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses; and the secretive Council on National Policy, which the Times called “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” The Council’s membership list, which was kept secret, included leaders of the Christian right, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly…

After the Huffington Post called attention to an article at the Acton Institute, originally titled “Bring Back Child Labor,” several prominent reporters and commentators, including Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter for the New York Times, took to Twitter to express outrage. While Acton doesn’t want children back in the coal mines, the institute strikes a decidedly different stance than Pope Francis, who has criticized trickle-down economics and reached out frequently to leaders of popular movements, grassroots activists, and labor groups you would never find at an Acton or DeVos gathering.

The glistening glass-and-steel DeVos Place in Grand Rapids hosts the Acton Institute’s annual gathering, dubbed “Acton University," a four-day immersion into free-market principles that attracts more than a thousand participants from sixty countries. Acton has been a long-time beneficiary of DeVos funding. Sirico, a one-time activist on the left before co-founding Acton in 1990, is no stranger to Capitol Hill. During testimony before the Environment and Public Works Committee in April, he preached the gospel of free-market fundamentalism with vigor even as he downplayed the significance of Laudato si' and Pope Francis’s robust calls to address climate change.

Now that he has an old ally in the Trump administration, don’t be surprised to see Fr. Sirico back in Washington more often.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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