Josh Quad: Thank you for coming to Dallas. I want to welcome you to our 2019 conference. The rest of the week, we’re going to hear from people who’ve demonstrated valor in different circumstances.
Imara Jones: This is a man named Josh Quad, he leads a conference called The Gathering. I found it while trying to understand the people and money behind the Anti-Trans Hate Machine. Now, I know that “The Gathering” sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel, but it’s actually an annual convening where there are panels and fancy dinners. But unlike other conferences, to be here, you need to be someone who gives a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to Christian causes. But that’s not a surprise. That’s because The Gathering is the Davos of the Christian Right, a coming together of billionaires and millionaires with an extreme religious ideology.
Josh Quad: Wealth is not new, obviously, charity is not new, but the idea of using private wealth imaginatively, constructively and systematically to attack fundamental problems of mankind is new. And that’s what I would call impact investing at this point.
Imara Jones: As I was watching videos on their website, it struck me that everyone at The Gathering looks like they could be at any wealthy country club in America. But at this club, religious extremism is on the menu.
Josh Quad: The Gathering is a concentrated group of high capacity, Kingdom-driven individuals, that…The Gathering enables me to connect with those folks to share best practices and ideas and to, and to be there as friends and to build real authentic relationships.
Imara Jones: “Kingdom-driven.” That’s a phrase that keeps coming up at The Gathering. And more broadly, in my research on the far Christian right. It’s everywhere. “Kingdom-driven” basically means rich people trying to infuse christian fundamentalist values through every aspect of our society. And the people at this conference have the kind of wealth needed to bring about this religious world in which we would all be forced to live. The Gathering attracts some of the biggest and most influential people in America. One particular person from one particular family stands out, however. A family with an especially long history as backers of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine.
Interviewer: We’re so glad to have to Dick and Betsy DeVos with us tonight.
Imara Jones: Yes, that’s Betsy, as in Trump’s former Education Secretary, and her husband. they were there in 2001. The presenter gives them the stage:
Interviewer: They’re already wired up and miked and they’re gonna sit here and then we’re gonna move the podium back, and we’re gonna have a conversation.
Imara Jones: Now, this interview gives rare insight into the ideology driving Betsy, and her family. It was obtained by Politico. In it, Betsy talks about the importance of the religious fight for America, she uses the biblical term Shfela. It was the battleground between David and Goliath, between true believers and heathens in the Bible.
Betsy DeVos: …that has been something that has been really impactful for both Dick and me is to continue to think about where we can be the most, the most effective or make the most impact in the cultures in–culture in which we live today. And so, you know, our desire is to be in that Shfela to confront the culture in which we all live today, in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom.
Interviewer: Some people maybe even in this room would say, “Why waste your dollars on non-Christian things; just support Christian things. Why get involved in politics?”
Betsy DeVos: I think it goes back to what I just mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shfela of our culture to to impact our culture in ways that 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.
Imara Jones: “By changing the way we approach things,” the Betsy we’re hearing here isn’t the buttoned-up, guarded Education Secretary, but it’s the person behind that. The religious warrior who exhorts fellow billionaires and millionaires to join the fight.
Hi there. I’m Imara Jones. Welcome to The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality. Over the past three episodes, we told you about the institutions that are doing the work of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, churning out anti-trans laws and spreading hate across the country. Though they obscure their activities, if you look hard enough, you can see exactly what they’re up to. You can stare the harm they’re causing right in the face. But today, in the last episode of this season, we have to journey into the people who are hidden: the ones funding this machine. That means that we have to delve into the dark rooms where the Anti-Trans Hate Machine draws its power and strength. And it’s in these rooms were a highly calculated movement has gotten the wealth and focus that it needs to spread all across the country. One of the people helping us into these out-of-view places, is Heron Greenesmith. Heron is a Senior Research Analyst for Political Research Associates. It’s the think tank. Now Senior Research Analyst is a bit of a snooze title. But in reality, Heron is a spy. Heron infiltrates the far right and the meetings that they have, like the Values Voter Summit. Their first Values Voter Summit was in 2018. The summit is an annual event hosted by the Family Research Council. That’s the hate group which we investigated in Episode Two. Herron remembers exactly how they felt right before going the first time.
Heron Greenesmith: I was so excited. I was just kind of like, perversely, like, “Yeah, I’m gonna, I’m gonna see what these folks are saying.”
Imara Jones: Their excitement, to me, is so relatable and terrifying. Being a fly on the wall where people are plotting your destruction would be exhilarating. Blending in with this mostly-Evangelical crowd, however, isn’t easy. Heron’s agender and bisexual, part of their hair is shaved, and they’ve got tattoos that they can’t cover up.
Heron Greenesmith: So I wore sensible sneakers and pantyhose, and a knee-length business skirt, and then a cute little blouse and a cardigan. And then I wore a necklace that had a Heron on it flying that looked like across from far away, so you would think it was a cross.
Imara Jones: And with that, they went into the belly of the beast.
Heron Greenesmith: I just got it so messed up. I was dressed up for a different Conservative denomination then Evangelism, which in very specific ways reifies gender essentialism through dress. So when I got there, I saw that many of the older women were wearing very form-fitting dresses and high heels and had teased hair. And many of the younger women were wearing kind of like cool, full length trousers and flats and, you know, little twin sets. And I just looked like some kind of weird…nun? I don’t know.
Imara Jones: Even though they didn’t quite hit the mark with their outfit, Heron was determined to learn everything they could. But not surprisingly, the first day of Heron’s mission ended with something that hit them particularly hard, as it would so many of us. They had attended a gathering of LGBTQ Christian fundamentalists actively trying to suppress their sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Heron Greenesmith: And that’s when it got hard. Because that panel of speakers joined the stage, and were talking about how they experienced same-sex attraction, but they knew that they could rise above it, by prayer, every day. And so many heads in the audience were nodding. And I was looking around at these beautiful young people who are part of my community–if you consider my broader community, people who are not cisgender and/or are not heterosexual–and I got filled up. That was it, that–that, that was–that was the last bit that I could handle in my body. So I walked out, I couldn’t do it.
Imara Jones: Seeing members of their community be at war with themselves at a conference opposed to their very existence was overwhelming for Heron. So they made it back to their hotel as fast as they could. They had to shake off everything that they had just witnessed.
Heron Greenesmith: I ordered room service, I ordered an entire bottle of champagne. That’s it. I took all of my clothes off. I pooped the biggest poop I’ve ever pooped in my entire life. I took a shower, and I lay on my bed naked. And I was just like crying and crying and just kind of like purging my body of everything that was the conference. And then I felt ready to do the next day.
Imara Jones: Despite it all, Heron spent the rest of the weekend gathering intel at the summit. And that was when they got their first real glimpse of those behind the anti-trans hate movement. And unexpected billionaire made an entrance into one of the panel rooms.
Heron Greenesmith: This little tiny woman walked in the room, very old woman with this like incredibly beautiful, you know, I guess I would say Chanel or Chanel-like suit. And there was like this murmuring, murmuring, murmuring. Every single person in that room, except for me, knew who she was. All of the parents, you know, who were there to oppose their local school non-discrimination policies, all of the church leaders, she just walked into the room — and everyone knew who she was.
Imara Jones: It was Elsa Prince, one of the biggest funders of anti-LGBTQ hate in America. She’s the matriarch of the wealthy Prince family dynasty, and the mother of Betsy DeVos.
Heron Greenesmith: Everyone knew who Elsa Prince was.
Imara Jones: And that buzz is what made Heron realize that billionaires were essential to understanding all of this.
Heron Greenesmith: The money is woven in to this world.
Imara Jones: Elsa is now in her late 80’s. But she’s out there. She’s not content to passively give her money. She wants to be seen as waving the flag on the barricades, encouraging others to follow her. And her daughter Betsy, inherited Elsa’s zeal. In fact, in almost all of these dark rooms, there’s always someone from their family. It’s an intergenerational network that funds the Anti-Trans Hate Machine. Here’s Andy Kroll, an investigative journalist for Rolling Stone magazine.
Andy Kroll: The DeVoses are not naive about how they spend their money at this point, I mean they’ve been doing it for decades.
Imara Jones: To understand the influence of these families, we need to go back to February of 1979, to a church with stained glass windows and roses on the pews, as 21-year-old Betsy Prince, soon to be Betsy DeVos, walked down the aisle to marry 23-year-old Dick DeVos. These two families became one in what many called the wedding of the century. That’s because this union represented a powerful merger of fundamentalist Christian wealth. DeVoses were new money, co-founders of the multi-level marketing company Amway, some call it a pyramid scheme. The Princes were old money, their fortune came from manufacturing auto parts. But these two families had similar values, similar wealth, and were both from Western Michigan. And together, they would radically reshape American politics.
Andy Kroll: I came to think of the DeVos family as the “royal family” of the Christian right in America.
Imara Jones: Andy Kroll says this marriage between Betsy Prince and Dick DeVos united two of the most influential families on the religious right, and in coming together, they multiplied their power.
Andy Kroll: When you pull all that together, the merger of these two families, the money that they’ve spent, the commitment, if you will, to pushing this view of the world over so many years, there’s no family that rivals the DeVoses on the Christian right.
Imara Jones: And that has a lot to do with Betsy. When she married into the DeVos family, she brought a level of sophistication and strategy that they didn’t have before. To be clear: we’re not talking about rich figureheads here, but a clan who uses their money to make things happen on the religious right. They aren’t just major backers of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine. They help build it. Betty’s father Edgar was a founder of the Family Research Council. Again, that’s the anti-trans hate group we covered in Episode Two. Both the DeVoses and Princes literally funded that group’s DC headquarters. Plus, there’s a whole center funded by the DeVoses is focused on anti-trans policy at the Heritage Foundation, which we explored in our last episode. It’s called the Helen and Richard DeVos Center for Religion in Civil Society. And all of this is just scratching the surface of this family’s influence.
Andy Kroll: We are living now in a world that families like the device family created. It’s kind of infuriating sometimes.
Imara Jones: The family foundations of this clan have invested well over a billion dollars in their vision for the world over the last 20 years. At least $26 million of that funding has poured directly into the pieces of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine we’ve been investigating through this series. With all this money strategically placed, Betsy’s family has been able to propel the right-wing movement into a totally different space. The way that they combine money, support for nonprofit institutions, political advocacy, and policymaking has become the model for the wealthy Christian right. Their power and reach mean that they are the gold standard for their peers like the McClellan’s of Tennessee, the Bolthouses of California, and the Wilkses of Texas. And a secret way that many of these wealthy conservative Christians help fund the Anti-Trans Hate Machine is through dark money groups called Donor Advised Funds. One of the most consequential dark money groups is called the National Christian Foundation. And thanks to all that secret money from wealthy families, the National Christian Foundation is the biggest known single funder of anti-trans hate in America. Dan Stroud is CEO of the National Christian Foundation.
Dan Stroud: Our team at NCF has as helped thousands of individuals and families discover ways to create what we call today, a giving strategy. And we believe that giving strategy is based on Biblical principles. It helps you give with Kingdom impact, it allows you to have a meaningful legacy. And it’s essential to helping design and explore God’s unique story for your generosity.
Imara Jones: From 2015 to 2017, just over the course of two years, the National Christian Foundation gave more than $55 million to anti-trans hate groups. As my team and I looked deeper at this dark money group, I was astounded that I hadn’t heard of the National Christian Foundation before. Somehow one of the 10 largest charities in the country, that’s been funding an incredible amount of hate, has been able to fly under the radar. The National Christian Foundation spends more than a billion dollars each year. To put it in perspective, that’s twice as much as the Ford Foundation, which is one of the biggest traditional foundations. But what’s driving all these wealthy Christian people to invest so much in the anti-trans hate movement? As I pondered this, I kept going back to something Betsy said at The Gathering: that’s the secret conference for wealthy right-wing Christians we explored at the beginning of this episode. Again, at The Gathering, Betsy spoke about the religious battleground called the Shfela. And she used it as a metaphor to tell other rich people that they had to get involved.
Betsy DeVos: Our desire is to be in that Shfela to confront the culture, which we all live today, in ways which will continue to help advance God’s kingdom.
Imara Jones: What strikes me here is that what she says, is truly ominous. But she delivers it with such calm and such resolve. And it seems so out of character for billionaires to be this zealous, honestly, this focused. How in the world did this wealthy woman from Western Michigan arrived at this level of intensity? Sure, maybe it was because of her family. But how did they get like that? I asked a bunch of people this question for months. Finally, in an interview with Anne Nelson, I posed it almost as an afterthought. And I finally got an answer which made sense. Anne’s an investigative reporter focused on the right-wing movement.
Imara Jones: I was wondering if you’d ever heard the recording of Betsy DeVos at the 2001 The Gathering panel that she did?
Anne Nelson: Yes.
Imara Jones: And it sounds as if in many ways that she is a true believer. And I’m wondering if that’s your impression as well? Or–What’s your impression about the degree to which she’s actually attached to the things she’s advocating?
Anne Nelson: Let’s look at Betsy as somebody who was born into this family, in this religious enclave, in a community where everyone around her and all of the information around her corresponds to this worldview. In their vision, God decides in, at the beginning of history, who the winners and losers are, and if you’re rich, it’s because God has given, has graced you as being one of the people who is “the elect,” as they call it. And so that leads them towards a concept that, that is called Dominionism — where because they’re the elect of God, they should have dominion over all other human beings, because God chose them, not you, as well as dominion over all living creatures and the earth. And if that is the only thing that you’ve been exposed to, it doesn’t surprise me when, when that comes out of her mouth, that’s her entire formation.
Imara Jones: Dominionists believe that we need to build the kingdom of God on earth, for Christ’s return. And these mega-rich Christians believe that their wealth is a sign that they’ve been chosen by God, to prepare the world. To bring about God’s kingdom, they must conquer seven mountains of society. No, literally: seven mountains of society is what they call it. They believe that they must take control of government, business, education, religion, family, media, and the arts. Basically, Dominionists seek to control the world. And they’re prepared to do anything for Christ’s return. To understand this strange, dark world, and how it’s fueling anti-trans hate, I reached out to Frederick Clarkson. He’s a journalist who has been going undercover for more than three decades to keep tabs on the Religious Right. Frederick says, to understand why they’re funneling all this dark money, you have to understand how extreme Dominionists are.
Frederick Clarkson: They understand that they’re in a war and some of it could end up being a physical war, in some respects. It’s not necessarily that most of them [that] seek that. But they do understand that it’s a possibility, some think it’s an inevitability.
Imara Jones: When Frederick said this, I was floored. I mean, in the worst way. And one of the most troubling things is how these extreme ideas have shaped our politics.
Frederick Clarkson: The ideas of Dominion has been, whether stated or unstated, have been the driving ideology, moving the Christian Right in the directions that it’s gone for decades now. And this is an ongoing trend, and it’s going to continue.
Imara Jones: Until recently, this was not part of mainstream Evangelical thinking. Once upon a time, Evangelicals typically stayed out of politics. They believed it was too sinful. But that all changed with something called the New Apostolic Reformation. It’s one of the fastest-growing branches of modern Evangelicalism. Leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation teach that there’s demonic control over government and society. Seriously. They believe that claiming dominion over the seven mountains is a key part of overcoming these dark forces. All of this is totally bizarre and unimaginable to most of us. But don’t be fooled. Dominionists are growing in number, political sophistication, and political clout.
Frederick Clarkson: [You] have to respect your formidable adversaries; you are putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage in the world of, in this case, politics and religion. And I think that everybody to the left of the Christian Right, makes that basic strategic error all the time.
Imara Jones: And where does this aggressive anti-trans agenda fall in Dominionism and the New Apostolic Reformation?
Frederick Clarkson: A new Boogeyman, a new scapegoat that’s a threat to civilization, Christian civilization, as we’ve known it.
Imara Jones: It also seems that it’s the thing that also unites all of the Christian Right, right? So if you’re Catholic, if you’re Evangelical, you know, Southern Baptist, like this is one thing that everybody can, can literally get behind. And as I say that, it then makes sense that they’ve all kind of rallied around this issue because it is, it is a cross-cutting understanding, as it were.
Frederick Clarkson: That’s exactly right. And it brings about a unity that hard, often hard to achieve. Having the common, common enemy and the common threat is essential in a lot of aspects of politics, but particularly in this world.
Imara Jones: Now, I know, this has all been a lot. We’ve gone to some places that most of us never knew about, or want to think about. But to truly understand the power behind the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, there’s just one more thing. There’s actually one room where the biggest decisions get made, where the billionaires and the heads of the organizations that they run, and the religious leaders all get together. It happens at something called the Council for National Policy. On paper, the council for national policy looks fairly small and insignificant. It meets three times a year, and has a tiny budget. But it’s where the wealthy and most powerful people on the right determine the priorities for the Conservative agenda. And it’s highly effective.
Anne Nelson: It’s this whole political operation of funding and media and strategy that, that feeds into the Republican project. But it’s not answerable to the Republican Party. And in fact, it, it serves as an institution to pressure the Republican Party, and to move it dramatically to the right over the years.
Imara Jones: That’s Anne Nelson, the investigative reporter we heard from earlier. She’s also the author of a book about this powerful group, called Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. And Anne says that Betsy DeVos’s family have been big players in this dark room from the beginning. Betsy’s father in law, Richard DeVos used to be President of the organization. And Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince is a decorated member who has served on its board. Anne says that all these influential leaders are the ones who decide which organizations get created, like those parts of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine that we’ve been speaking about throughout the series, and who’s going to fund them,
Anne Nelson: If they didn’t have an organization that fulfilled a specific function, they’d invent it. They would they would get somebody to found it and then fund it. And a very important part of their operation was to include major donors.
Imara Jones: Their ultimate goal is to bring about a religious government in America. And that’s been in the works from the beginning. When Betsy’s family and other right-wing religious leaders joined the Council for National Policy in the 1980s, they thought that the country was getting too liberal, they could see that attitudes about gender and sexuality were starting to shift. And they worried that fundamentalist Christian values would lose their hold on American Life. So they plotted. The plotted how they could bring about a religious government in America, even as their ideology became unpopular. This is why the anti trans agenda is front and center. Not only are the Council for National Policy members opposed to trans people on religious grounds, but they have found that using anti-trans issues is a way to motivate white, rural voters to go to the polls. And because white rural voters show up in huge numbers, even in off-year elections, the Council for National Policy can use these voters to seize power.
Anne Nelson: They conducted very active focus groups and polling to see which hot-button issues they could make them respond to. And often it was done through untruth.
Imara Jones: I think that that’s so essential in understanding why there’s a push around particularly trans issues right now, because it seems very much in line with what you’re saying that it’s about animating a specific group of people that they have found can help them retain power by turning out in the polls, in marginal elections in parts of the country that are just not being paid attention to by Democrats.
Anne Nelson: Absolutely. And it just is agonizing to watch
Imara Jones: As much as the anti-trans hate coming from these dark rooms is a political strategy, it’s also the goal. Our existence stands in the way of their vision for the world. In their mind, trans people don’t belong in God’s kingdom. So these leaders are using all that money and political strategy to try to eradicate us. But how do we make people believe that this is actually happening? I asked Heron Greenesmith, how they grapple with this. Heron spends their time seeing the unseen in this underworld. And as a person who infiltrates the anti trans movement, including the Values Voter Summit, they’re constantly sounding the alarm. And people, including trans people, struggle to hear it.
Imara Jones: I was talking to someone about this, and they said, “Well, how are you just going to convince people to keep listening because this just sounds like a conspiracy theory.”
Heron Greenesmith: Mm hmm.
Imara Jones: I honestly was so caught off guard that I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to people who say, this is just a conspiracy theory?
Heron Greenesmith: I think…I’m stressed about it because I don’t know…I don’t know that there is a good answer. I don’t. I mean, are we afraid that if we…that if we transition from an amorphous enemy that just hates trans people, for some reason–and changing hearts and minds will surely shift that–to an enemy that is knowable, identifiable, and has a fuck ton of money…is it almost too much to bear? Is that–Is that too much to bear for people to truly awaken and understand that we have knowable enemies to justice and democracy in the United States? I don’t know.
Imara Jones: What’s clear to me at the last year of working on this series, is that these enemies, as Heron puts it, are waging a battle that goes beyond trans people. This fight is about who gets to define who we are. It’s about whether our gender is assigned by God. We have to understand that in the worldview of the Anti-Trans Hate Machine, this divine order of gender is fundamental to everything. They believe that the division of the world into men and women, each in their biblical roles, is the only way that God will return. And their faith is so structured around these patriarchal ideas, that they’re convinced that trans people are the ultimate threat to God Himself, to His divine order. That’s why they’re throwing everything they’ve got into this fight. And it’s why I think that this is just the beginning. They will stop at nothing to destroy anything that stands in the way of building God’s kingdom. While trans people may not have the same resources, we do have our voices. And we are using them to fight for a totally different vision of the world. One with hope and possibility for all of us, both cis and trans. Our victory may not be certain, but nor is theirs. We can disassemble this machine by ripping the veneer of credibility off of everything that it does. And by challenging its every move to take away our rights. The people we spoken to for this series, like Lindsay, Phineas, Cecilia, Tanya and Heron are doing that. They’re working to take apart this machine, piece by piece. And that’s what we all have to do in our own individual way. No matter how large or small the effort. You see, there’s no overnight solution to make this decades-old billion-dollar operation just go away. We have to grind it down little by little with the same persistence and diligence that was used to construct it. That’s the only way to ensure its collapse.
Thank you for joining us in this first season of The Anti-Trans Hate Machine. Yep, you heard me right. The first season, there’ll be another. If you learned something or appreciate the work we’re doing, it would mean a lot and help us get the word out to write a review on Apple Podcasts or share your thoughts on social media. The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality is a podcast from TransLash Media. Before we get to the heart of our credits, I want to give a special thanks to Alex Cutch. His reporting and insight into the National Christian Foundation helped us to understand the money behind the machine. This project is made possible with support from the New York Women’s Foundation and the Heising-Simons foundation. I’m Imara Jones, your host and Executive Producer. Oliver-Ash Kleine is our Senior Producer. Tiler Wilson, Annie Ning, Ruby Fludzinski, Callie Wright, and Jaye McAuliffe are our producers. RJ Quinn is our editor. Sound Design and mixing are by Alexander Charles Adams. Montana Thomas is our production coordinator and research is provided by Sidney Bauer. Gillian Branstetter is in charge of communications, along with pivotal support from Elle Communications for this series. Our digital strategy is led by Daniela Capistrano of DCAP MEDIA. Social media and production assistance are provided by Yannick Eike Mirko. Graphic and social media support are from Resistance Communications. Justin Kloczko is our fact checker and our intern is Jordan Mirana. Our theme music was composed by Ben Draghi; additional music courtesy of Matt Large, Mo Runa, Martin Landstrom, Lennon Hutton and Alexander Charles Adams.
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