W-w Giveth, W-w Taketh Away, Short Live W-w

Tim Carney’s piece on Trump-voting evangelicals is getting a lot of play and for good reason. He looks at churches outside the urban, suburban bubble, the ones that Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition try to own. And he finds that evangelicalism is not nearly as monolithic as scholars and evangelical leaders have said. He may even give reasons for abandoning evangelicalism altogether.

But Carney also opens a window on those Protestants where neo-Calvinist influence has had the longest shelf-life. In some cases, the results should hearten the redeemers of every square inch:

Trump’s single worst county in all of Iowa—far worse than Polk County (where Des Moines is) or Story County (home to Iowa State), or Johnson County (University of Iowa)—was Sioux County. Trump finished fourth place there, behind Ben Carson. Ted Cruz won every precinct of Sioux County.

Sioux is home to Orange City and Sioux Center, and it is the Dutchest county in America. Dutch ancestry is probably one of the best proxies the Census has for religious attendance.

Jordan Helming, a transplant whom I met at a Jeb Bush rally in Sioux Center, was astounded by the religiosity of the place, including the sheer number of churches. “There are 19 of them in this town—a town of 7,000 has 19 churches.”

Different strains of Reformed Christianity dominate in this overwhelmingly Dutch county, from austere old-world Calvinism (“the frozen chosen” they call themselves) to more evangelical flavors. Attendance (often twice on Sundays) is high, and the churches build strong community bonds.

“You care about your neighbors,” Helming explained, “you care about your environment, but you also take care of it yourself—don’t rely on the government.”

Carney does not mention that these Iowans also selected Steve King to represent them in the House of Representatives.

Reinforcing that uncomfortable detail are Carney’s tabulations of Michigan’s voting habits:

Back in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, analysts saw the GOP electorate in two categories: (a) establishment Republicans or (b) Evangelicals. The Establishment types voted for Mitt Romney or John McCain in 2008, and the “evangelical vote” went for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.

It turns out we were all oversimplifying things. That supposedly “evangelical vote” was a combination of two electorates: (1) the evangelical vote and (2) the rural populist vote. The 2016 primaries illuminated this distinction.

In Michigan, for instance, 2012 saw Romney carry the stretch of the state from Ann Arbor to Detroit, while Santorum won most of the rest of the state. Four years later, it was much more complex: Kasich won Ann Arbor, Trump won Detroit and most of the rural counties, while Cruz dominated in the handful of counties around Holland and Grand Rapids, where the Dutch Reformed church dominates.

Cruz would likely be better than Trump. But why don’t Christian Reformed institutions own up to being oh so Republican? You’d never know from reading the Banner, Reformed Journal, Pro Rege, or In All Things. If the leaders of Evangelicalism, Inc. could be so out of touch with non-urban Protestants, are the professors and pastors in the Christian Reformed and Reformed Church of America world all that connected?

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What Hath W-w Wrought?

One of our southern correspondents sent us this, which must be causing some embarrassment to Grand Rapidian neo-Calvinists:

After graduating from high school in 1975, Betsy [DeVos] enrolled at Calvin College, her mother’s alma mater. Calvin’s mission, as stated in the 1975–1976 course catalog, was “to prepare students to live productive lives of faith to the glory of God in contemporary society—not merely lives that have a place for religion … but lives which in every part, in every manifestation, in their very essence, are Christian.”

Once w-w is out of the bottle, gate keepers can’t control the gate. W-w can go Left or Right. The neo-Calvinist with the most money decides seemingly:

The DeVos family is Dutch, thoroughly so. All four of Richard DeVos’ grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands, and today, the family continues to observe the tenets of the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. Calvinism believes in predestination—that God has decided whether our souls are saved before we are born—and emphasizes an “inner worldly asceticism” in its practitioners. Historically, in avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth, Calvinist Protestants have instead turned their economic gains into savings and investments. One of the bedrock texts of sociology, Max Weber’s 1905 Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is expressly about the links between Calvinism and economic success. (“In the place of the humble sinners to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith,” Weber wrote, “are bred those self-confident saints whom we can rediscover in the hard Puritan merchants of the heroic age of capitalism.”)

In this, Dick and Betsy DeVos’ familial roots serve as an object example. Dick is the eldest son of Richard DeVos, who co-founded Amway in 1959, and grew it from a meager soap factory into a multinational colossus with $9.5 billion in annual sales, enlisting his children to manage and expand the company. Betsy hails from a dynasty of her own. In 1965, her father, Edgar Prince, founded a small manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion on the strength of Prince’s automotive innovations, which include the pull-down sun visor with a built-in light-up vanity mirror.

Not to mention, that Christian day schools become a threat to public schools (the CRC beats the RCA):

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ed and Elsa Prince advanced God’s Kingdom from the end of a cul-de-sac just a few miles from Lake Michigan. There, they taught their four children—Elisabeth (Betsy), Eileen, Emilie and Erik—a deeply religious, conservative, free-market view of the world, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and sending them to private schools that would reinforce the values they celebrated at home, small-government conservatism chief among them. . . .

In 2001, Betsy DeVos spoke at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting of some of America’s wealthiest Christians. There, she told her fellow believers about the animating force behind her education-reform campaigning, referencing the biblical battlefield where the Israelites fought the Philistines: “It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture—to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country.”

Dick DeVos, on stage with his wife, echoed her sentiments with a lament of his own. “The church—which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school,” Dick DeVos said. “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church and school and family much more tightly focused and built on a consistent worldview.”

I understand that Right neo-Calvinists find private schools reassuring, the antithesis and all. But Left neo-Calvinists don’t have the stomach for such partisanship.

Will the real neo-Calvinism stand up? Calvin and the CRC or their daughter, Betsy DeVos? Faced with that choice, the spirituality of the church looks pretty appealing.