When Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote that put billionaire Betsy DeVos in charge of the Department of Education, his action highlighted once again the curious alliance between the most libertine president in American history and the most politically powerful flock of evangelical Christians Washington has ever seen.
Giving an evangelical Christian power over the public education of America’s children is only one of the many gifts Donald Trump is expected to shower on the religious right in exchange for their showing up to support him on Election Day. Eighty-one percent of white born-again/evangelical Christians cast their ballots for the Republican who was caught on tape bragging about how he could “grab” women “by the pussy,” versus 16 percent who backed lifelong Methodist Democrat Hillary Clinton, the biggest margin by party since 2004.
In exchange for helping him possibly build an actual ballot-box majority in the next election, the most secular president in American history will be giving these followers at least one anti-abortion Supreme Court judge and possibly more than 100 like-minded lower court judges.
One great mystery of Trumpism is how his movement—and now the government—was so swiftly colonized by people who wouldn’t have shaken the new president’s hand a year ago. There are at least nine self-described evangelicals on deck to be confirmed or already confirmed to powerful positions within the administration, and together they are in a position to shove their belief system—a minority view—down the throats of ordinary people and transform secular America.
Evangelicals have been forced to cede a few things over the years. They’ve lived with legal abortion for almost two generations of women. They loathe Roe v. Wade not because they are too concerned about actual human babies but because women forced to gestate and give birth are prevented from working outside the home. As American women have gained growing economic power along with the ability to make their own decisions, patriarchal family power—the sine qua non of evangelism—has declined. Legal gay marriage is another affront to the same system.
Evangelicals like to complain that their religious “freedom” is under attack. But polls show the majority of Americans do not agree with them, and because of that, they have long struggled for the added “freedom” to force their views into public schools, bedrooms, hospitals, doctors’ offices, the armed services and federal agencies that deal with problems like climate change.
A long-term, deep strategy led the movement to this moment of power. It involved hundreds of millions of dollars, battalions of lawyers, alliances with corporate America and a consistent, pious Washington presence. Pence, DeVos and their compatriots now burrowing into the White House and federal agencies belong to a political movement aimed at degrading the American tradition of separating church and state.
According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study on global Christianity, the largest concentration of evangelicals in the world—roughly one-third—live in the United States. At around 26 percent of the population, they are a demographic minority responsible for some of the most regressive tendencies in American politics. They are reliably anti-science and anti-environment, and they pretend to believe, or actually do think ,that the long collapse of the nuclear family is due to feminism, rather than income disparity, the decline of the American communal instinct, the destruction of labor unions and all the other late-capitalist social disasters.
Despite their minority status, America’s evangelicals are extremely well-represented in Washington and in the courts—they just haven’t been so much on the winning side lately. Adherents feel discriminated against when they are legally required to bake a cake for a gay wedding, for example, or to sell contraceptives to women. By allying themselves with Trump, evangelicals are now poised to take actions to reverse these requirements—and to reach for much more.
Starting in the 1980s, a core of committed political evangelicals burrowed into the nation’s capital via a secret outfit calling itself “the Family.” Journalist Jeff Sharlet, in his 2008 book on the group, likened the Family to a “shadow government” that successfully pushed its anti-gay and anti-feminist goals not just within the U.S. but in countries around the world. The Family’s annual National Prayer Breakfast has become a must-attend event for the president and other politicians of both parties.
Much of the Family’s financing comes from “the Gathering,” an annual get-together in Scottsdale, Arizona, that started in the mid-1980s. There, professional theocrats organize and inspire super-rich evangelicals and Catholics to open their wallets and part with huge sums—a billion dollars a year, according to reports—for the purpose of making America more godly.
The Gathering is to the religious right what the Koch brothers are to the anti-government Tea Party movement. The DeVos family (baby brother is Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a notorious, private mercenary force that changed its name after employees were convicted of massacring 17 Iraqis) has donated to the Gathering.
Also among the Gathering’s financiers are the Oklahoma-based Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, which brought a religious freedom case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.) that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that said requiring employers to cover contraceptives violates some people’s religious freedom. The Hobby Lobby company name was on the lawsuit, but the case itself was organized by a privately funded legal group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which gets its $40 million annual budget from the Gathering and its patrons.
The Greens have also spent $800 million on a high-tech Bible museum near Washington’s National Mall, which will feed potentially millions of visitors a bunch of ahistorical fiction annually, scholars have told Newsweek. The Greens have also financed a Bible textbook program that they hope to put to use in American public schools.
Lifetime Michiganders, Betsy DeVos and brother Prince are scions of the state’s richest family—their father founded Amway, the multilevel beauty products company. They were raised in the Christian Reformed Church, which regards education as the responsibility of the family. Not content to support home-schooling only within her religious sect, DeVos—who has no degrees in or experience administering public or private education—has used her family fortune and her family standing to divert desperately needed public funds from the Detroit public school system into charter schools.
According to one report, members of the DeVos family spent $1.45 million over just two months—$25,000 a day for seven weeks—to stop efforts to redistribute the monies to public schools. While private and charter schools do often have better results than public schools, they are also overwhelmingly white and too often serve as modern manifestations of the South’s “segregation academies”—private schools for the connected, rich and white.
Pence’s tie-breaking vote putting DeVos into the Cabinet was historic, but it’s surely not going to be the last time Trump’s evangelicals will attempt to force-feed their minority views to the United States. Overreach, though, could ultimately make them even weaker than they were before they jumped on the Trump train. Author Michael Wear, who advised President Barack Obama on faith issues, says evangelicals can look forward to Trump’s earthly rewards now, but he predicts their deal with the devil might derail them in the long run.
“What evangelicals must be aware of moving forward is that even if a reprieve from their cultural and legal embattlement is granted by Trump, and even if short-term policy advances are made, the cost of making those advances in an alliance with Trump will end up costing a great deal in the long term if they are unable to provide bold, clear opposition to other policies—like the Muslim ban, mass deportations, draconian criminal justice enforcement and other stated objectives of the Trump White House,” Wear says.
“The next four years,” he adds, “will offer evangelicals the opportunity to separate their political identity from the Republican Party, and they should take it, lest they sacrifice their witness on the altar of political expediency.”