The headquarters of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty occupies an entire block of prime real estate in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. This past January, the imposing think tank—named for the Tory aristocrat who warned that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—featured a nativity display behind one of its plate glass windows. Here, at the heart of a typical Midwestern commercial district, was a perfect set piece for the Acton Institute’s far from intuitively straightforward mission: overseeing the seamless integration of Judeo-Christian truths with free market principles. But as I pondered the ironies and contradictions beckoning in the crèche installation, it started snowing with a vengeance.
So I ventured indoors, right into the heart of the Acton scene. On this midwinter weekday, Acton HQ was buzzing with activity. The receptionist, a former intern, was happy to answer my questions about what it is they do here, bundling up a stack of recent issues of newsletters and the institute’s admirably mission-conscious magazine: Religion and Liberty. I am invited to attend upcoming lectures and to use the library with its extensive collection of titles on faith, freedom, and the free market. If he was aware that mine was a sneaky, skeptical exploration, he gave no indication. As a native Midwesterner transplanted to the East Coast, I was surprised anew by the openness that my Heartland fellows showcase before relative strangers. Of course, there is another word for this young Actonian’s eagerness to share: evangelism.
I’d traveled to this western Michigan hub of sanctified commerce to learn more about Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to be the top education official in the land. DeVos, the name of the family that founded the multi-level marketing behemoth known as Amway, is almost universally recognized in the Mitten state, where Betsy and Dick DeVos, heirs to a $5.1 billion fortune, have increasingly come to dominate state politics. In Grand Rapids, the DeVos moniker outranks even that of the city’s favorite son: president Gerald Ford. To get here, I’d taken the DeVos Place exit off Interstate 196, then made my way past the DeVos Place Convention Center and the DeVos Performance Hall. And at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, I stood before the enormous portraits of Amway founders Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos Sr. From a gleaming brass plaque, I learned that downtown Grand Rapids owes its resurgence to these two men, and that the ubiquitous presence of their names is itself a tribute to their “fundamentals”: freedom, family, hope and reward. In their portraits, the men are posed along a selection of books: the Bible, The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, and Believe! God, America, Free Enterprise—a title that DeVos penned himself. I wondered if these very books are now part of the permanent collection at the Acton Institute, where Betsy was a director for ten years.
Betsy DeVos is a rabid anti–New Dealer whose crusade against the nanny state has never ceased.
Since Betsy DeVos was named by Trump as the one to shake our moribund public schools down to their very foundations, enough ink to fill Lake Amway has been spilled to explain the DeVoses and their many peculiarities. DeVos interpreters have marveled that the family is structured like a government, complete with a constitution that “captures its mission and values.” They have likewise explained that Betsy’s lifelong effort to breach the wall between church and state so that taxpayer dollars might flow to Christian schools is but a vehicle for realizing the conservative Calvinist ideal of “Kingdom gain.” Yet beneath the family’s piety, their “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” swagger, the DeVoses are a familiar archetype. They’re rabid anti–New Dealers whose crusade against the nanny state has never ceased. Western Michigan, a land of tulips and fine-grained religious disputes, is like nowhere else, but its right-wingers want what right-wingers across the land have wanted since the days of the DuPonts: freedom—from regulations that hamstring, taxes that confiscate, government that overreaches, and unions, above all unions, that gum up the whole profit-making works.
In Invisible Hands, Kim Phillips-Fein’s masterful history of American businessmen against the New Deal, the DeVoses don’t put in an appearance until late in the game. Richard DeVos Sr. and his Amway cofounder Jay Van Andel were contributors to the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, an academic-style journal that tirelessly extolled the virtues of the free market. As Phillips-Fein notes, the journal featured a signature broadside on “Government vs. the Entrepreneurs” composed jointly by DeVos and Van Andel, alongside monographs purporting to show how labor unions and the minimum wage were bad for African Americans. In the late ’70s, Van Andel parlayed his eleven-figure Amway fortune into the top spot on America’s largest business-lobbying concern, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organizing capitalists, large and small, into a social movement. Betsy DeVos’s pater, Edgar Prince, doesn’t make it into the book at all, but his career trajectory likewise tracks the evolution of the militant businessmen’s republic. He made his fortune manufacturing dashboard cupholders and lighted visor mirrors, and when conservative businessmen joined forces with the religious right at the dawn of the Reagan age, he was already there. The Princes gave so much money to help launch the Christian “public policy ministry” known as the Family Research Council that the FRC opened its sole satellite office in their hometown: Holland, Michigan.
Listen closely to Betsy DeVos on the state of the nation’s public schools, and you can hear distinct echoes of the sturdy free-market shibboleths advanced by the families’ economic heroes, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Public schools are a monopoly. They are government schools, and “government truly sucks,” as she said a couple of years ago at a South by Southwest gathering in Austin, Texas. It is the free market, not loathsome and unholy government regulations, that will at last propel America’s youngsters, its school-bound serfs, to the top of the international test scores. The education marketplace will make our children free, whilst making others rich—and that, too, is OK.
In sum, the DeVosian vision of school reform is the anti–New Deal offensive launched by the free-market reactionaries of the American Liberty League, retooled for schools and delivered with evangelical zeal. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos gave a pointed shout-out to a handful of schools that are doing it right. Acton Academy, described by Forbes as “Socrates’ Antidote for Government School Hemlock,” was one of these. Acton Academy (also named for the Lord of sainted laissez-faire memory) offers up “disruptive education” to propel its students on a “hero’s journey,” all the while teaching them to treasure “economic, political and religious freedom.” You can start your own franchise today!
Twelve miles due East of Grand Rapids is the upscale suburb of Ada, home to Dick and Betsy DeVos, and to the world headquarters of Amway. According to the magazine in my room at the Amway Grand, tours are available. As I lit out for the headwaters of Grand Rapids’ evangelical self-marketing empire, I bypassed the highway and took Fulton Street, the old dividing line between the city’s Polish population and its Dutch immigrants, and headed out of town. Even in the sudden snow squall, the Amway complex was hard to miss. Its eighty buildings stretched a full mile. There’s the eponymous lake that’s home to some five hundred species of fish and wildlife, my Amway tour guide noted.
The tour consisted of an inspirational eleven-minute video, an escort through the Welcome Center’s featured exhibits, and a staging ground for selfies to be snapped with cardboard cutouts of Richard Sr. and Jay Van Andel, known here as Rich and Jay. Most of the people who come in for tours are Independent Business Operators—IBOs in Amway parlance. They come from all over the world, especially China, where Amway business is booming. Often, eager Amway pilgrims will come straight to Ada from the Detroit airport. My guide left me to take in the interactive history display, which chronicles the company’s evolution from its early days as a consumer distributorship called American Way, when containers of its concentrated organic cleanser were stacked up in garages all over Western Michigan, to its contemporary guises, first as Quixtar, and now as Alticor, a global company “helping people live better lives.”
It’s a selective history of course, omitting the various lawsuits alleging that Amway is a pyramid scheme, including the one that the company paid $56 million to settle in 2010. Nor is there an entry for the precise moment when Rich and Jay determined that the real money would come their way when they leveraged the mundane rounds of soap-peddling into the more ambitious scheme of instructing home-business operators in the spiritually uplifting quest for riches. My friend Tim Fournier, who works as an administrator in the Grand Rapids schools, grew up surrounded by relatives who sold Amway products. He was a college student, living in Hamtramck, when he got his first Amway sales pitch. It came from his roommate, Action Jackson, who was “into Amway.” Fournier recalls coming home one night to find men in suits in the apartment. “It was the hard sell. They had easels set up with pictures of yachts on them,” says Fournier.
In western Michigan, the Amway sales pitches are a regular part of life.
Once he moved to western Michigan, the sales pitches became a regular part of his life. Once the teacher at his school asked Fournier and others to come to his classroom, then popped an Amway recruitment video into the VCR. Then there was the time that’s still hard to talk about, when a close friend from the Peace Corps invited him to meet for the first time in years. “We met up at a Burger King and he starts drawing a circle on a napkin to represent my earnings potential.” In their East-town neighborhood, the Fourniers are surrounded by Amway; their neighbors on three sides are Amway engineers. But they don’t sell the stuff or pitch the dreams. These days, the most robust market for Amway expansion is overseas.
Amway’s celebration of its founders touches only lightly on their political activities. I’d hoped to see footage of Jay Van Andel making his triumphant 1975 speech in Washington, D.C., in which he exhorted a crowd of thirty thousand to join him in a new American revolution aimed at “get[ting] the government’s hands out of our pockets.” Instead, there’s only material celebrating the anodyne wonders of “people potential.” The sharpest reminder of the political agenda for which Amway heirs Betsy and Dick DeVos have come to be known is a rather inadvertent one. One lavish exhibit showcases the company’s line of high-end water treatment devices. Retailing at more than $1,000, eSpring purifiers use advanced UV technology to treat tap water, making bottled water unnecessary. “Clean water is a gift,” reads the ePurify motto.
Of course, potable water is rather a touchy subject in Michigan these days. When Michigan Republicans swept to power in 2010, they immediately set about enacting a long list of DeVos priorities: lowering taxes, privatizing public services, reining in unions. Among the early measures to cross the desk of new GOP Governor Rick Snyder was the emergency manager law. This was the infamous measure prompting Flint’s disastrous switch to the cheaper river water that corroded the city’s pipes and spiked the lead levels of its children. Public Act 4 enshrined in statute what the DeVoses and their conservative allies had been arguing for years. Michigan’s poor cities are too corrupt and incompetent to manage their own affairs; send in the clean-up crew. Within a few years of the law’s passage, more than half of black Michiganders were living under some form of emergency management, and the black-majority city of Flint was being poisoned by the fallout from the DeVoses’ free-market gospel.
Mid-century Michigan conservatives no doubt felt their ideological zeal ratcheting up because, for much of the post-war era, unions called most of the shots in the state’s political economy. Especially during the 1970s, when Amway was hitting its stride and the young DeVoses and Princes—whose ranks included Betsy’s brother Erik, who would gain plenty of infamy of his own as the founder of the private-army concern Blackwater—were coming of age, union power was peaking in the state. By 1974, unions represented more than 40 percent of workers in Michigan, the highest rate in the country. The shift in the balance of power between labor and capital, set off when the auto workers sat down in Flint in 1936, had been tilting steadily in the workers’ direction ever since. Worse still for free-market ideologues of the DeVosian stripe, public sector workers in Michigan—its teachers, police and firefighters—had collective bargaining rights too. Not only was the government “in our pockets,” it was handing over the money it confiscated to the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
The union tide that swept across Michigan never reached the western part of the state, though. As Jeffrey Kleiman documents in his history of the great Grand Rapids furniture strike of 1911, that action, which paralyzed the city’s major industry for six days, ended in a near total loss for labor. Not only did the thousands of workers who’d walked off the job fail to win a single concession from their bosses, the strike also concentrated the power of local businessmen, bankers and industrialists. In a pamphlet called “What’s the Matter with Grand Rapids?” the Industrial Workers of the World argued that ethnic tensions kept the city’s workers divided, while high rates of homeownership and churchgoing kept them conservative. Local historian Robert P. Swierenga has a more straightforward explanation: the west Michigan Dutch, with their legendarily strong work ethic, didn’t really go in for unions. Polish workers were the main force behind the furniture strike, and the Dutch crossed the picket line. “The aura of a willing labor force and strong work ethic has not been lost on industrialists coming into the region,” Swierenga writes.
In 2012, the DeVoses pulled off something that would have seemed unimaginable to their free-market forebears: they made Michigan a right-to-work state. Workers in the state are finally free; they can no longer be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment. A subsequent law has made it illegal for employers to process union dues, while simultaneously making it easier for corporations to deduct PAC money from employee paychecks. By 2015, just 15 percent of workers in Michigan were union members. “They won,” former state Rep. Ellen Lipton told me. “It may have taken them longer than they wanted, but they won.” Lipton was referring to the DeVoses’ remarkable success in shaping the state to conform to their hardcore laissez-faire vision over the past two decades. This improbable crusade was immeasurably aided by Michigan’s strict term-limit laws, which keep legislators beholden to donors and party apparatchiks rather than to their constituents.
The tourist motto for Grand Rapids these days is “cool city.” It’s a nod to a campaign by Michigan’s last democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, whom Dick DeVos tried and failed to unseat in 2006. Granholm donned sunglasses to dramatize her fealty to the trendy development counsel of urbanologist Richard Florida. Across Michigan the word went forth: the key to a bright future for the state’s battered cities was to make them cool, filling them with the sorts of amenities that the young and college educated find irresistible, such as farmers markets, lofts, and art. The right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy, funded by the DeVoses, mocked the concept, arguing that “cool cities” discriminated against the extractor class, people who “build things and use energy and emit pollution — things that are not considered environmentally correct by the political ruling class.” Success was mixed. Flint and Pontiac never made it onto the cool list, while Detroit was somehow too cool to be included. But Grand Rapids took the business of being cool seriously.
“It’s a cool place, for a company town,” Mary Bouwense told me over craft beers at one of the city’s many brew pubs. There are more than a dozen breweries in Grand Rapids—including one at Gerald Ford International Airport. Bouwense, who is the president of the local teachers union, offered to take me on a tour of DeVos-related sites, but the snow once more intervened. Founders, the brew pub where she brought me instead, was packed on a Sunday afternoon, a sign, perhaps, of the diminishing influence of the once all-powerful Dutch Christian Reformed Church that helped incubate the moral conviction of the DeVoses. Since the tour was off, Bouwense, who is of Dutch descent, was helpfully guiding me through the theological divides separating the Christian Reformed and the Dutch Reformed. She also confirmed that the DeVoses are apostles of a different sort of Protestant ethic altogether, where conspicuous consumption no longer provokes much anxiety on the part of the believer. “I can see their helicopter coming and going from my office window,” she says.
The DeVos family helped pull off something that would have once seemed un-imaginable: making Michigan a “right-to-work” state.
Besides the beer, art is another big draw here. Since 2009, Grand Rapids has played host to ArtPrize, a city-wide arts contest in which the public gets to vote on art that anyone can display in any venue. Billed as a radically open art competition, this, too, is a DeVos production. Dick and Betsy ponied up most of the money for generous cash prizes for artists in the contest’s early years; their son Rick is the chairman of the ArtPrize board. The event draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids each year, a good number of whom decide to stay here. Even as Michigan’s other cities continue to lose population, and Detroit is finally holding steady again after years of hemorrhaging residents, Grand Rapids is swelling. It’s now the second largest city in the state, an honor once held by Flint.
The irony is that the city’s newest residents, the hipsters who crave twenty-one different kinds of beer on tap, or the young families who have found their way to a city they can afford to live in, aren’t so keen on blowing up what’s left of the nanny state. They like the things that taxes pay for: Grand Rapids’ surprisingly robust public transportation system, neighborhood schools, and the public works that plow all that snow off the streets. Western Michigan’s first family has responded to the progressive tilt in the populace by conceiving of ways to give locals less say over how the city is run. The public can vote on the art—but on the other stuff, not so much. In 2011, the DeVoses headed up a secretive effort to abolish Grand Rapids’ government and replace it with a more efficient “metropolitan” entity, an initiative that promptly foundered when the public found about it. Late last year, they briefly succeeded in pushing a bill through the legislature that banned local officials from communicating with their constituents about ballot measures—the school property-tax assessments and bonds that fund local services. A judge threw the measure out because it was “unconstitutionally vague”—officials who mentioned a ballot measure in their local newsletter within sixty days of an election could be prosecuted.
The DeVoses’ rather crass bids to sew up their western Michigan empire as a de facto Amway fiefdom may well gain new life in the Trump era, however. With Betsy likely to be one of the most ardent true believers in the Trump cabinet, the couple will have more than their Croesus-like wealth to expand their sphere of influence. They will be cloaked in the irresistible aura of ruling-class charisma. And if Betsy DeVos manages to use America’s schools to accomplish the integration of Judeo-Christian truths and free market principles, well, then the contradictions and ironies that beckoned me to the window of the Acton institute will be smoothed over at last. As Paul says in Ephesians 3:21, “World without end, amen.”