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A more honest obituary for Richard DeVos Sr.

September 10, 2018

A few days have passed since the death of Richard DeVos Sr., yet the accolades continue to flow, especially from members of the capitalist class and organizations which he supported with his money.

One example of an organization that has made a public statement after the death of DeVos is the Acton Institute. The Acton founder, Rev. Robert Sirico stated, Rich DeVos never shrank from the conviction that the roots of liberty and the morally-charged life are to be found in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” 

Now, I’m not really interested in making any kind of determination about what the “eternal truths” of the Judeo-Christian tradition are, since that same tradition has been used to justify, slavery, genocide, the subjugation of women, the theft of land, homophobia, white supremacy and the unbridled accumulation of wealth. These justifications have not been made by some marginal group of people, but by the leadership in most of the mainstream Christian denominations for most of its history.

What I am interested in discerning is a response to the claims made by the media, particularly the West Michigan media, about the life of Richard DeVos, especially after he and Jay Van Andel founded Amway. What follows is a look at how Rich DeVos used his wealth, power and privilege to expand his own personal wealth, the impose his own ideological worldview on the public and to go to great lengths to support organizations which shared his ideological worldview, especially those organizations which sought to dismantle anything that is part of the public sector, attack organized labor, undermine public education and cause harm to the most vulnerable members of society – communities of color and the LGBTQ community.

When Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel founded the Amway corporation, they did so by embracing some of the most deeply entrenched lies about this country. Rich DeVos has written numerous books that promote his values. In his book Believe, DeVos, in talking about freedom, states, “that call of freedom went forth from a rugged wilderness, and Europe and Asia and Africa sent their sons of adventure to hew out a new society in a land of forests and savages.”

An early critique of Amway and their ideological stance came from a student at Calvin College in 1971, who wrote:

The most important issue in maintaining a wealthy economy is maintaining the control of the raw materials needed by American industries to keep producing the finished products. The United States simply does not have the raw materials to maintain its wealthy economy. Almost every significant raw industrial resource that American industries use is imported from poverty-stricken Third World countries in African, South America and Asia. Thus, the American Way has a vested interest in maintaining control over the countries from which the resources come. The continuation might be maintained by sheer economic brute force, by political manipulation or rewarding governments which are friendly to us, by CIA-inspired coups who are not cooperative with us or by wars to “maintain freedom” and to “prevent the spread of communism.”

Another early public challenge of the power and influence of Rich DeVos came from a Grand Valley State College student in 1977, when DeVos was a member of the Board of Control (similar to a Board of Trustees). The student called into questions DeVos and his unwillingness to allow students to have a say in school policy.

This example from GVSC continued right up until his death, since DeVos has contributed millions of dollars to the school, often with strings attached. Many people who attended William James and Thomas Jefferson Colleges before the school became GVSU, has stated that Rich DeVos lobbied heavily for the school to shed its counter-cultural history and adopt a more market-based school with an emphasis on business.

In 1994, when faculty and staff at GVSU were meeting with then President Lubbers over the university’s willingness to offer domestic partner benefits, word got out that this was going to happen. At the time GVSU was raising money for a proposed health education building on Michigan St and Peter Cook and Rich DeVos had pledged millions. Once DeVos and Cook found out about the proposal by GVSU to offer domestic partner benefits, they threatened to withdraw their financial support if the university would support a domestic partner benefits policy. GVSU acquiesced to the wish of DeVos and Cook. For further reading on Rich DeVos and GVSU check out What’s in a Name: A Popular Guide to Wealth & Influence at GVSU and our film A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids

Anti-LGBT Legacy of Rich DeVos

The example from GVSU of DeVos threatening to withhold money from the university if they provided domestic partner benefits is just one example of Rich DeVos’ legacy of supporting anti-LGBT campaigns and organizations.

For decades, through his foundation, Rich DeVos funded anti-LGBT groups and Christian organizations that had adopted a homophobic and transphobic position, like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and the National Organization for Marriage. These organizations identified themselves as pro-family, but what they really were promoting was a hetero-normative, patriarchal family structure, which was never tolerant of people who identified as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or queer. Rich DeVos contributed millions to these entities, in part, because they were anti-LGBT.

Other more specific examples of DeVos and his anti-LGBT stance came in the late 1980s when he was appointed to President Reagan’s AIDS Commission. HIV/AIDS had been devastating the LGBT community for years before the federal government created this and the LGBT community was demanding that the federal government take action.

With the appointment of this commission, Reagan was able to appease those who demanded a more sustained federal response to AIDS. He also answered the concerns of the New Right by appointing an AIDS commission that included few scientists who had participated in AIDS research and few physicians who had actually treated people with AIDS. In addition, the commission included outspoken opponents of AIDS education, such as New York Cardinal John O’Connor. O’Connor was not only opposed to AIDS education, he was openly hostile to the Gay community.

Another openly hostile opponent of the LGBT community was Rich DeVos, who was also on Reagan’s AIDS Commission. In an interview with MLive a few years ago, DeVos made some pretty revealing comments about his attitudes towards the Gay community while sitting on the AIDS Commission.

When HIV first came out, President Reagan formed a commission and I was honored to be on that commission. I listened to 300 witnesses tell us that it was every body else’s fault but their own. Nothing to do with their conduct, just that the government didn’t fix this disease. At the end of that I put in the document, it was the conclusion document from the commission, that actions have consequences and you are responsible for yours. AIDS is a disease people gain because of their actions. It wasn’t like cancer. We all made the exceptions for how you got it, by accident, that was all solved a long time ago. That’s when they started hanging me in effigy because I wasn’t sympathetic to all their requests for special treatment. Because at that time it was always someone else’s fault. I said, you are responsible for your actions too, you know. Conduct yourself properly, which is a pretty solid Christian principle.

Not only does DeVos show his homophobic bias, his comments demonstrate his ignorance of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.

On the issue of same sex marriage, DeVos was also an active opponent, providing at least $20,000 to fight the ballot initiative in Michigan in 2004 and another $100,000 for the ballot initiative in Florida in 2008.

Some people have claimed that in his later years, Rich DeVos had a change of heart, as was demonstrated by his family’s donation to the families of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. While it is true that the family made such a donation, there was no acknowledgement that DeVos had funded the anti-LGBT marriage proposal in 2008 and that he had given millions of dollars to John Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church for decades, a church that is based in Florida and preached on the evils of “homosexuality” for decades, thus cultivating a climate of hate directed at the LGBT community.

Funding Right Wing Organizations that do harm

Beyond identity politics, Rich DeVos was also a champion of funding what are often referred to as conservative groups. However, such a label is not adequate, since many of the groups that DeVos funded were ideologically motivated and embraced far-right policy positions and above all a neo-liberal capitalist framework.

I wrote about the funding of these organizations in 1998, in an article entitled, Giving til it hurts others. Rich DeVos continued to give to some of these same entities right up until his death, groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation,  the Free Congress Foundation, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Acton Institute and a whole range of groups that sought to undermine social welfare policies, re-direct public funds to the private sector, an attack on labor unions, the privatization of education and the re-regulation of environmental laws and the financial sector.

The Heritage Foundation, for example, was a major architect of the Reagan administration’s policies to downsize government and to attempt to undermine social welfare policies. 

Closer to home, DeVos has supported the Acton Institute, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Policy Forum, all of which support the same neo-liberal capitalist platform we mentioned above. What is important to note about these groups and the funding they have received from Rich DeVos, is that all of these groups are working towards a radical reconstruction of government and society, one that is based on market principles. These groups all are involved in provided research and documentation that supports their ideological positions, that are them used to influence policy makers at the local, state and federal level.

Rich DeVos bought a lot of political influence

In addition to funding organizations that fit in the ideological framework of DeVos, he made it a point to buy as much political influence as possible. Depending on the source, some claim that Rich DeVos contributed roughly $200 million to candidates or incumbents since the early 1970s. According to, DeVos had already contributed more than $1 million in the current election cycle

Rich DeVos has contributed to the Republican Party at the federal and state level, plus he has contributed to specific candidates running for federal, state and local office from Michigan and in other states. DeVos has also contributed to support or oppose ballot initiatives in Michigan and throughout the country as well.

The amount of money that Rich DeVos has contributed to buy political influence is staggering, but it is also important to note that his contributions directly influence policy. Lets look at a few examples from recent years.

In June of 2014, Governor Snyder signed into law HB 4052, a law that takes away local control. Why is this relevant, because powerful entities like the DeVos family do not want local communities adopting policies like a living wage, regulations against wage theft or adopting anti-discrimination ordinances that would include or add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community. 

HB 4052 was introduced by Rep. Earl Poleski (R) and then went to the Committee on Commerce & Trade, which is chaired by Joseph Graves (R). Graves received $9,000 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, along with several other members of the Committee on Commerce and Trade. This committee recommended that HB 4052 be adopted and then it was put before the Michigan Senate. The Michigan Senate sent the bill to the Competitiveness Committee chaired by Mike Shirkey (R). Rep. Shirkey received $4,500 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, as did several other members of this committee.

A second example would be a bill that was also signed into law the summer of 2014, HB 4188. This legislation, often framed as a religious freedom bill, would allow adoption agencies in Michigan the ability to deny LGBT couples/partners/families from adopting.

HB 4188 was introduced by Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R). Rep. LaFontaine received $8,100 in campaign contribution in 2014 from the DeVos family.  Many of the cosponsors of this bill were also recipients of DeVos family funding. 

A third example would be legislation that was passed in September of 2017, legislation that is sort of a Citizens United for Michigan, allowing for greater amounts of money to be contributed during elections. We documented that in the Michigan Senate, most of those who voted for the legislation had received money from DeVos

The “benevolence” of Rich DeVos

One additional major claim that has been made in recent days is how benevolent Rich DeVos has been and how much money his foundation has contributed to charitable causes.

First, it is important to note that no matter what year one looks at the 990s from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, most of the larger donations are going to entities like the megachurch Willow Creek Community Church, the Haggai Institute, the American Enterprise Institute or Americans for Prosperity. Giving millions to groups like these is not charity, it is the funding of ideologically-driven groups that try to influence public policy or are engaged in work that does actual harm to people.

Second, the money that Rich DeVos has contributed to more traditional charity groups or service organizations, goes specifically to those organizations because they do not address root causes of problems or take a systemic approach to dealing with social ills. The non-profits that DeVos has contributed money to provide services to individuals who are looking for assistance in some way, but Rich DeVos never gave money to groups that were focused on challenging systems of oppression or those who encourage direct action to fight injustice. Contributions to non-profits helps to create a buffer between those in the capitalist class and those who could potentially be organized to challenge the wealth of the capitalist class, as we documented in our recent series on the Grand Rapids Power Structure. Obviously, a great deal more could be said about Rich DeVos and his wealth, power and influence. However, this article should provide you with ample evidence to counter the narrative from the commercial media since his death last week

If you want to read more about Rich DeVos and his family, check out our DeVos Family Reader entitled, We’re Rich and We Do What We Want

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