Bill DeWitt, a co-founder of Bill Mar Foods and longtime financial supporter of the religious right, died this past Sunday. The longtime Zeeland, Michigan resident’s death received limited attention in the local corporate media in light of the death of President Gerald R. Ford on Tuesday, despite the fact that the DeWitt family has become well-known for its funding of civic projects in the West Michigan area. DeWitt’s death received only a three-sentence mention on WOOD TV 8 and was the subject of a short article in the Grand Rapids Press. Both stories touted Bill Mar’s founding as a rags-to-riches story in which brothers Bill and Marvin DeWitt invested in 17 turkeys in 1936 and built up the business into a nearly $200 million per year operation which they sold in 1987 to Sara Lee. However, while the Press story told readers that DeWitt was going to “heaven” and that he valued “family and work,” it made no mention of how the DeWitt family spent its fortune. Some of the money from the sale of Bill Mar Foods went towards endowing the family’s DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation in 1988, which has provided funding to a variety of religious right groups over the past 18 years. Bill DeWitt served as Vice President for the foundation at the time of his death according to the latest IRS documents available.
The DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation has provided support to a number of conservative churches, but has also made significant contributions to the religious right. In his 1996 book, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, author Russ Bellant described the Foundation as supporting groups such as Focus on the Family and the Michigan Family Forum and prominent religious right figures including Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy. A review of more recent data (2002 to 2004) by Media Mouse shows continued support by the Foundation for religious right groups. The family has funded a number of prominent religious right groups including Focus on the Family, who is largely anti-gay and opposes abortion, in addition to supporting religious education and taxpayer vouchers for religious schools. Focus on the Family received $307,538 from the DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation from 2002 to 2004, while the organization’s Michigan affiliate, the Michigan Family Forum, received $34,000 in that same period. Another prominent organization connected to Focus on the Family, the Washington DC based Family Research Council, received $38,500. The Michigan chapter of the national anti-abortion group Right to Life received $28,000 from the Foundation. The family has also provided $16,000 to the Promise Keepers, a Christian “men’s movement” that promotes traditional patriarchal values and is connected to a variety of prominent religious right figures. The less known Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson, has also received DeWitt money in order to support the continued operation of his conservative evangelical prison ministry.
Like its funding of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the DeWitt family has funded a variety of evangelical missionary organizations. The work done by these missionary groups varies greatly, but some of the more interesting ones include Wycliffe Bible Translators and Campus Crusade. Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization that translates the Bible into indigenous languages as a means of spreading Christianity, received $19,146 from the Foundation from 2001 to 2004. The organization has a long history of involvement with the Central Intelligence Agency and in the 1970s came under criticism for its involvement in Central America. In one noteworthy case, Wycliffe Bible Translators produced a dictionary for Tzotzil people that eliminated words for “ideological concepts that threatened the status quo” including “class, community, conquer, exploitation, oppression, repression, revolution, revolutionary, [and] rebellion.” The family has also provided funding to International Aid, a Spring Lake, Michigan-based organization assisting missionaries and who actively provided services to rightwing evangelical groups and paramilitaries in Central America in the 1980s. The Campus Crusade movement, designed to combat “secular humanism,” promote and defend “family values,” and “to Christianize America,” received $78,495 from the DeWitt family. The Campus Crusade organization has been active since the 1960s on college campuses and maintains a presence on most campuses. Similarly, the family has given $9,500 to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, another campus evangelical organization and one that has gained attention in recent years for its opposition to homosexuality. The West Michigan-based evangelical organization Gospel Communications International has gotten $104,750 from the Foundation. The DeWitt family’s Don DeWitt serves on Gospel Communications’ board.
The DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation can be expected to continue funding religious right organizations in the years to come, as several family members will continue to be involved in distributing funds. The DeWitt family will also continue to fund the religious right through another foundation, the Jack and Mary DeWitt Foundation, which has funded many of the same organizations supported by the DeWitt Families Conduit Foundation.