As President-elect Trump names his cabinet secretaries, opponents are grasping at straws to paint appointees-in-waiting as extremists, either by association or by comments made so long ago they might as well be ancient history.
A Tuesday op-ed in the New York Times by non-fiction author Katherine Stewart tries to paint Trump's pick to lead the Education Department, Betsy DeVos, as an extremist who might want to force America's children into private Christian schools.
"At the rightmost edge of the Christian conservative movement, there are those who dream of turning the United States into a Christian republic subject to 'biblical laws,'" Stewart writes. DeVos is supposedly a member of this fringe because of the "broader conservative agenda she's been associated with."
Stewart rolls out tenuous relationships and 15-year-old quotes to make this case.
For example, DeVos' father contributed to the Family Research Council, "which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as extremist because of its anti-L.G.B.T. language." (One could argue the Southern Poverty Law Center is itself an extremist group, because it tries to equate the Family Research Council with the American Nazi Party: One group wants "an all-White America," the other believes marriage "is a union of one man and one woman," but doesn't call for an "all-straight America.")
In 2001, DeVos said "changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country ... may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run." When Politico ran this quote under the headline "Trump's education pick says reform can 'advance God's Kingdom,'" it sounded as if it were breaking news about her impending agenda, not something she said at a Christian conference 15 years prior.
In a combination of ancient quotes and tenuous relationships, Stewart mentions that a pastor whose church the DeVos family has donated to said public school students are "brainwashed in Godless secularism." In 1986. Someone who was in kindergarten at the time would now be 35 years old.
What does Stewart think all this means for public schools? "Gutting public education will be just the beginning," she concludes. But she doesn't explain how school choice would gut public schools, or what DeVos could do as secretary of education that would push religious curriculum or schools onto anyone that disagreed.
The letter of the law is now quite restrictive on what the secretary of education can do on academic standards. "No officer or employee of the federal government, including the secretary, shall attempt to influence, condition, incentivize or coerce state adoption of the Common Core state standards or any other academic standards common to a significant number of states or assessments tied to such standards," the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed in December 2015, says. It's not like the education secretary can walk in on day one and force high-schoolers to pass a biblical knowledge test before graduation.
To be sure, this doesn't mean it's not worth asking DeVos about religion and education during the Senate's confirmation process. But unless DeVos gives a shocking answer along the lines of, "As secretary, I want to advance God's kingdom by encouraging all schools to use Christian curricula," there isn't much cause for concern.
Perhaps this will come as a shock to those who aren't very religious, but just because Christians want to convert nonbelievers doesn't mean they want the government to be a tool in their efforts. For most, changing hearts and minds on a personal level is the tool of choice.
Jason Russell is the contributors editor for the Washington Examiner.