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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