The rise of the Calvinists

Massachusetts Senator-Elect Scott Brown Comes To Capitol Hill

When Scott Brown, R-Mass., was elected to the U.S. Senate a couple of weeks ago, I noted the lack of media coverage of his religious views. I had just assumed he was Roman Catholic since no one had said anything. Turns out he’s Protestant and belongs to a type of church that normally doesn’t get much media coverage.

Boston’s NPR news station WBUR ran a story yesterday about his church and its views on public policy. But it also attempted to describe the church’s teachings. Reporter Monica Brady-Myerov began her piece by describing Brown’s church — the New England Chapel. It sits in an industrial park and worship is accompanied by a rock band:

National church leaders said the sermon is the most important part of Sunday services. The chapel posts recent sermons on its Web site. One by Pastor Chris Mitchell encourages people to pray for Haiti after the earthquake:

“The best thing that we can do here is pray, and hopefully that you develop some kind of prayer trigger or prayer reminder in your life and if you didn’t, you can, you know, starting this week, you know, do something like take your watch off your normal hand and put it on your other hand and then every time you feel it, saying, ‘Well that feels weird over there,’ it reminds you to pray.”

Prayer, and the centrality of God, are some of the key components of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a Protestant Christian denomination. The church has fewer than 300,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, mostly in Michigan and Iowa.

There has to be a more specific way to describe the CRC than pointing to prayer and the “centrality” of God. Few Protestant church bodies wouldn’t fit that description. Still, it’s nice that the reporter aimed to describe the teachings of the church. She notes that the chapel began as part of an evangelical movement to grow the church body 10 years ago.

The church body is probably best known for its Calvin College and the story quotes some of the professors there. Most of what I know of the church comes from knowing a bit about its history. Like my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the CRC is featured in D.G. Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism. That book describes those Protestant church bodies that historically rest neither on the mainline left nor the evangelical right but, rather, are confessional in nature. This means that they tend to be focused more on salvation than politics, worship over pietism, etc. I was reminded of that when reading this portion of the story:

New England Chapel breaks from the Christian Reformed Church guidelines because it follows a modern translation of the Bible called “The Message” as its primary text. It’s a paraphrase of the Bible that was published in segments, mostly in the 1990′s.

To give you an idea of how it’s written, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Genesis in “The Message”:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth – all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

“The Message” is meant to bring the New Testament to life for those who haven’t read the Bible

Interesting. Of course, Genesis isn’t in the New Testament. Still, I love details such as this and pointing out differences between the denominational guidelines and individual congregational practices.

While the church body has long had a bit of tension with American evangelicalism, I wondered if the church’s history as a confessional Protestant church body didn’t explain these remarks:

The church focuses on nurturing a personal relationship with God through Christ. Rev. Jerry Dykstra, the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, said politically it’s a conservative church.

“On the spectrum, I think it probably falls in the middle area of Protestant churches in the United States,” Dykstra said. “In terms of being conservative or liberal, I’d say it’s on the conservative side but much more towards the middle.”

Much of the article deals with trying to “pin down” where the church stands politically. I wish that, in addition to the other worthy folks quoted, the reporter could have spoken to Hart or someone like him who could explain that not all Protestants can be so easily labeled.

After talking about how Brown has been working to help raise funds for an abbey in his hometown, and learning that the sisters pray for him daily and thank him for all his work, we learn:

Scott Brown does not wear his Christianity on the sleeve of his barn jacket. He didn’t thank God in his victory speech and rarely mentions prayer or church. Still, people will be watching to see how Brown votes on a number of issues and what, if any, impact his faith will have on his voting.

I completely understand what the reporter is trying to say. But if wearing something on your sleeve means making one’s views known, should public mentions of church be more important or legitimate than public displays of charity? Are there ways to “wear” one’s Christianity other than public shoutouts to God? Apart from Brown in particular, I think it’s not quite right to say that only those politicians who briefly allude to their religion at campaign parties wear their faith publicly. Worship attendance, personal piety and charity can also be public manifestations of one’s Christian faith.

In any case, this NPR story was wonderfully informative and a great idea for the local affiliate in Boston.

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  • michael

    Look on the bright side. At least the ‘centrality of God’ beats the ‘periphery of God’.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    …public displays of charity… can also be public manifestations of one’s Christian faith

    Are you talking about particular kinds of charity? For example, a lot of atheists donated time and money to relief in Haiti.

  • Matt

    Yes, a good article.

    This may have simply been beyond the scope of this report, but it might have been helpful to mention Vern Ehlers, the congressman representing the Grand Rapids MI area who is a former Calvin College professor, not to mention the late Paul Henry (son of Christianity Today founder Carl) who was Ehler’s predecessor both as congressman and as Calvin College professor.

  • Laura

    Apart from Brown in particular, I think it’s not quite right to say that only those politicians who briefly allude to their religion at campaign parties wear their faith publicly. Worship attendance, personal piety and charity can also be public manifestations of one’s Christian faith.

    This is a point that a lot of modern discourse about religion misses. Many people — some faithful, some not — equate talking about God to being religious or having faith. It’s a very visible (or audible) indicator, sure, but it’s not the only one. But because it’s such an obvious indicator, people forget about or don’t look for others. And unfortunately, it’s also one of the most easily faked.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    New England Chapel breaks from the Christian Reformed Church guidelines because it follows a modern translation of the Bible called “The Message” as its primary text. It’s a paraphrase of the Bible that was published in segments, mostly in the 1990’s.

    To me, this sounds like something analogous to the KJV-Only churches – “following” a single version of the Bible to the letter, to the exclusion of all other versions. Surely that’s not the case.

  • Tyson K

    I think we’re talking about the difference between “religiosity” and actual religious beliefs here. To me, this story just shows how the media’s paradigm for religion views it as simply a political force. Trying to “pin down” a church politically is trying to define it in a way that often makes little sense.

  • http://arabianknits.blogspot.com/ Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    Joel: It may simply be a matter of the denominational preferred text for use in services as well. Many churches have standardized which translations are read from the pulpit/lectern so the readings will be more uniform over the country/world.

    As for the article it is another in what looks like a spate of new articles in which the authors actually take time to learn about their subject rather than sneer at it.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Joel,
    I was curious about the section about The Message, too, since I don’t know any churches that use it as their sole translation. Quite helpfully, the CRC provides a list of Bible translations that the denomination has approved for use in worship:
    http://www.crcna.org/pages/beliefs_bibletranslations.cfm

    Quite a bit of variety is allowed – everything from the King James to the NRSV, NIV, and very recent translations like the TNIV, ESV, and NLT. It also notes that the NASB is approved “for Bible study only” – I think that means for private or group study, i.e. not public worship. The Message is not on the list, so Brown’s church does depart from the CRC standard.

    BTW, I found it hard to believe that The Message was its primary Bible version. It’s frequently used for emphasis or for a change of pace, and rarely as the primary text. But, sure enough, it says so right there on New England Chapel’s website:
    http://newenglandchapel.org/index.php?s=au&nid=62109

  • Justin

    Agreed, it’s not a bad article, although it does show that a lot of people don’t know what to do when the church isn’t either a liberal Episcopal church, mainline ELCA, Evangelical Saddleback, or conservative Southern Baptist.

    I grew up in the Dutch Reformed church tradition, although it was in the Reformed Church of America rather than CRC (RCA’s a little more mainline). Politics were usually not on the plate, although missions were. If Brown didn’t thank God in a speech, that may just be part of the culture — it’s not exactly the evangelical world where that’s the first thing out of your mouth, but it’s also not the mainline world where any social program can be justified by quoting a few verses from the OT about justice.

    And I doubt the CRC is too dogmatic about The Message thing, it’s just not the standard translation they’d use in worship — not a big surprise since it’s a paraphrase. I’ve heard NIV, KJV, NKJV, and ESV in their churches.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I kind of figured they probably weren’t. It’s a poor wording on the reporter’s part, perhaps infused with a misunderstanding of what sola scriptura is. There seems to be a meme out there that every religious group “follows” some scripture letter for letter. Kind of like the guy in Life of Brian shouting “Blessed are the Cheesemakers!”

  • Julia

    Is confessional the same as credal?

    Or does confessional mean different things to different faith groups?

    worship over pietism

    Does this mean public worship in church over getting together in small prayer groups outside of church services?

    I’m Catholic and we don’t know the vocabulary.