Brown, And His Church, Don’t Wear Religion On The Sleeve

Sen.-elect Scott Brown is a member of the New England Chapel, above, in Franklin. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

FRANKLIN, Mass. — New England Chapel may conjure up images of a white steeple and impressive stained glass windows. But Scott Brown’s church is nothing special on the outside. It’s hidden in a drab industrial park in Franklin and only identified as a church with a plain sign that reads “New England Chapel.”

It’s what happens inside the warehouse that makes congregants excited.

“It is a church for people who have given up on religion but not God,” said Rob Penchuck, a neighbor of Brown’s and a church member. “People who still have faith that there’s a superior being and believe in God. But there are many people that are disenfranchised with the formalities and sometimes the hypocrisy of churches that have become clubs, in a sense.”

Penchuck said the service has a rock band, and no one looks down on you if you wear jeans. There’s a cross section of ages and people coming from other religions.

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.

New England Chapel, with 400 members, is one of four congregations in Massachusetts. Brown didn’t respond to requests for an interview about his faith and New England Chapel referred all media requests to the senator-elect. He did speak briefly to ABC’s Barbara Walters. “I believe in God and I am very thankful for the things that I’ve been blessed with,” he told her. “Is there a higher being that’s looking out for people? I hope so, I’m hopeful.”

“It is a church for people who have given up on religion but not God.”

– Rob Penchuck, chapel member

Brown and his family left the Congregational Church in Wrentham a few years ago and joined the New England Chapel. The chapel was started 10 years ago in a member’s home as part of an evangelical movement to spread the religion.

Henry De Moor, a church member and professor at the Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan, said Brown’s chapel is an example of a church plant. “We have, of course, begun to reach out more aggressively to provide church homes for people all over North America,” De Moor said, “and we have planted — what we call planted — churches, or we have started to organize new churches within our denomination.”

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. 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.”

The church is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals and has taken positions on controversial issues such as abortion — it’s against it. And it believes capital punishment is permissible in certain circumstances. Brown hasn’t said if he will look to his church when formulating his political positions.

Richard Parker, of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said there are more than 1,200 Christian denominations in the United States. “This would be a denomination that officially, and I would imagine among its members preponderantly, would be Republican leaning,” he said, “would be considered conservative on what we call the social issues and conservative broadly on fiscal and governmental issues across the board.”

Although Brown and his family are members of New England Chapel, they have done work to support other faiths. They are helping the Cistercian Roman Catholic nuns at Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in his home town of Wrentham raise money to build a new candy factory.

Sister Katie McNamara, at the abbey, said the cloistered nuns pray for Brown and his family. “As we can attest to by experience, he generously rallies to the side of those who need his help,” Sister McNamara said.

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.

Correction: The broadcast version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Christian Reformed Church congregations in Massachusetts. The correct number is four, a church official said.

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  • N Karol

    First, let me say that I appreciate that WBUR covers the many angles of a story, however I see no reason whatsoever that we should focus on Scott Brown’s religion. I often wonder not just on a local scale, but on a national scale, what happened to separation of church and state? Regardless of whether a senator’s religious beliefs influence his stance I see no reason to focus on a particular person’s religious beliefs or disbelief. Their are many other influences in a person’s life that can steer a decision. We don’t know Brown’s deepest religious beliefs and never will, nor should, and you can’t accurately report on something that you do not have all the know facts about, correct? focus on anything else but leave religion out of it. Separation of church and State – plain and simple.

  • Jackson

    I could have sworn I was listening to fox news this morning when I heard this ” news report.” since when does NPR focus so much on a politician’s religion? Of all the news organizations out there, NPR should understand that our government is supposed to be secular. Kudos to Scott Brown’s staff for refusing to speak with your “reporter” about his personal religious beliefs. His personal religion is not relevant to his ability to be an effective senator. I am deeply disappointed in the slippage of journalistic standards at NPR, and WBUR in particular. As a non-religious person, I was offended by the obvious slant that the reporter had toward Portraying Scott Brown’s religion as some sort of fringe element.

  • KJ Rose

    I grew up in the Christian Reformed denomination, in a congregation in Northern New Jersey. There are many Christian Reformed churches in California and northern New Jersey, not just Michigan and Iowa. There are four more Christian Reformed congregations in Massachusetts than the church Senator-elect Brown belongs to, which you can find on the denomination’s website.

  • rich

    I don’t care what his believe is, he has the right to his religion just like any body else. As long as he doesn’t impose any of his religion view on the rest of the people by putting it into any kind of national policy. The last thing our state needs is a Christian fanatic to impose on our freedom.

  • Spud

    The line in your story “Brown hasn’t said if he will look to his church when formulating his political positions.” is truly shocking to me.

    First, wouldn’t this be pretty much the entire reason why Scott Brown’s choice of church would garner any airtime at all? To simply make a statement that implies that his church would somehow possibly impact his political opinions and then to not actually directly pursue that statement in the story is truly bizarre reporting.

    Second, there is the broader issue that it would somehow be acceptable for this state to have elected an individual to public office who WOULD ostensibly allow his religious faith to direct his policy positions. What has become of our nation if it can so easily and casually cast off…or just ignore (which is the most criminal behavior of all)…the basic premises upon which this country was founded. It seems that the citizens of Iran have a better concept of the separation of church and state than do the weak and lazy minded populous of the U.S. Shame on us all.

  • Chip

    It sometimes amazes me that our country is still great since we have clearly raised a nation of people ignorant of their own constitution. There is no such thing as “separation of Church and state”, there is however, the 1st amendment which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The key here is that the government will not establish a state religion and it will not stop someone from worshiping or believing as they want. In that sentence there is no “separation”, there is no freedom from, there is a simple statement that we can have whatever religion we want and guess what, religion informs the person, it is a part of who they are and if they are serious about their faith they act according to those beliefs. Sometimes that means they even vote according to how their faith informs their intellect. Just so we’re clear though, there is no “separation” clause, there is an establishment clause. Read the Constitution folks!

  • Kate Tuttle

    I think it’s a legitimate inquiry for WBUR to make. Especially since Brown has been so cagey in sharing his actual stances on key issues — or, as in the case of abortion rights, has disingenuously tried to inhabit both sides of the fence on them — I think it’s fair to explore any key influences on his worldview. The fact that he belongs to a very conservative Evangelical church is relevant, given how politically active those churches have been in the past two decades.

  • Sarah

    I think this is a legitimate inquiry too, but I’m a bit saturated with Scott Brown stories. I know him better now than I did before the election when giving this level of information about the candidates would have actually been helpful to me.

  • j fisher

    Let me start by saying, I am by no means a fan of Scott Brown- I did not vote for him. However, as a member of New England Chapel for over 7 years I had no idea that he belonged to our church! I am so glad that his presence, campaign and election has not effected our church at all and for this I am grateful. We have a wonderful church with an amazing congregation made up of people with a variety of political beliefs (both left AND right)and I would have been very upset if he had used our church for campaigning or publicity.

  • tim

    Chip, excellent comments with finally a little truth and common sense.
    The anti-religion left has been exaggeratedly obsessive over this so-called separation for too long.
    If a person wants to have faith they should be allowed to without being demeaned and demonized.
    The anti-religious living among us is some of the most fanatical people this country has to offer.

  • Dave

    As a member of the Christian Reformed Church out in Washington State, the following quote from a commenter doesn’t sit well with me: “However, as a member of New England Chapel for over 7 years I had no idea that he belonged to our church!” I’ve heard through the grapevine that he may not actually be a “member” in the traditional sense of the word, maybe more of an “attendee” who identifies with NEC as his “church home.” But I wonder how often he actually attends and has been involved, or whether it’s just a safe place to put on his resume. And that someone who has been a member there for 7 years has “no idea” about Brown’s “belonging” – that just raises a lot of questions in my mind. Is the church being “used” out of convenience?

  • John

    Of course there is a separation of church and state in the constitution:

    The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government, can openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organization or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.” Justice Hugo Black, U. S. Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education, 1947.

  • C Churchill

    I have gone to NEC for many years now. I didn’t know Scott Brown went there, but than again I don’t know 90% of the people that go there. Maybe more. I probably stand on the complete opposite side of politacal issues that he does. So that says alot about what kind of church we have. You feel welcome, loved and accepted. No one judges. Very conservative? Well, I’m not and it’s my home church, so I guess to each his own.

  • C Adams

    As a lifelong member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (in five congregations in four different states), I think Jerry Dykstra, who is quoted in the article, is incorrect to paint the denomination as politically “conservative.” In fact, in the book “Salt and Light: Evangelical Political Thought in Modern America,” the authors describe the Reformed churches as fitting a more “liberal” mode.

    The real answer probably lies somewhere in between. Fundamentalists and many evangelicals find us hopelessly “liberal”; mainline churches find us hopelessly “conservative.” (And what do those words really mean, anyway?)

    There are probably more self-described Republicans than self-described Democrats in the denomination, but much of that is a function of geography and history given our past as an ethnically Dutch, predominantly rural denomination with its largest base in the midwest.

  • Beverly Cawley

    Enough already on Scott Brown! All this “former nude centerfold model” did was get elected running against the Terry Schiavo of Democratic politics.

  • Laurence Glavin

    The “contemporary-sounding” Bible passage was amusing; I wonder if the “Book of Joshua” has Jehovah ordering Joshuua to go on a killing spree, wading through the blood of the inhabitants, and commandeering all of the Canaanites’ property? That’s a good approximation of the content of this book.

  • Peter Petraitis

    Religion is and always has been an arm of show business and snake charming. You can dress it up, dress it down, it all comes out to the same thing–how they can get your money into their pockets working on your naivete and guilt.

  • Matt

    I mean, it’s not like the Republicans made a big deal out of Obamas church and his pastor. Oh wait, never mind.

    I see lots of hypocrisy here. So it’s ok to destroy a president and spend thousands of hours looking into his church but if it’s a republican then you call for seperation of church and state.

    Good grief.

  • bill

    Did Browns pastor say the US government invented aids to kill the black man or the American people deserved 9/11?
    If he did, then you are right, there is hypocrisy here!

  • Joe Jim

    ummmm… chip and tim, interestingly enough I’m taking a constitutional law class currently and the meaning on the constitution is constantly changing but in 1947 the supreme court ruled that the establishment clause also encompassed a separation of church and state powers so check your sources, the constitution only means what the supreme court says it means

  • http://n/a Tom Johnson

    What I like about Brown’s diffidence in using his religious connections to reach to influence voters is the diffidence itself.
    Religion has become a Karl Rove political net, thrown out to gather and collect zombie like votes for his candidates.
    Cheers to Brown for getting beyond that.

  • max baxter

    [National church leaders said the sermon is the most important part of Sunday services]

    A Christian Church with no Sunday Eucharist?

  • linda

    Dave: it is not a very traditional CRC church. I have been a member for over 5 years and only know a third of the people there on any given sunday. There are over 1000 people present on any given sunday and 4 active entrances.
    We make a real point not to judge peoples motives for coming to NEC. We never pass a collection plate or ask for money. I do know our good senators family have been on mission trips with the church to Mexico. Listen to a sermon online and find out what we are about….

  • http://hischurchinwf.org Apostle Bill Sharon

    His, Bill

  • Csterk

    JoeJim (are you related to BillyBob?).

    It is apparent that you never receied a literary education. That is not bad. I value my education in mathematics and physics. And I do not feel in any diminished for it. Just the same, the meaning of a historica text is not the same as a current interpretation of the US Constitution by political ideologues–such as that motley crew of misfits, morons, and dolts that are currently Justices on the USSC (or should I say that dedicated group stalwart jurists who are committed to justice under the rule of law — your choice).

    USSC interpretation of the US Constitution cannot be the meaning of the US Constition–the USSC interpretation is the USSC’S interpretation at the particular time that the then current composition of the USSC interprets it, with the majority and minority opinions. Historically, the USSC has reversed itself on its interpretation of the US Constitution–so does the US Constitution actually mean self contradictory things. The “meaning” of the US Constitution, i.e., the the meaning of the text of the US Constitution is best disclosed by literary scholars of historical texts using historically and phenomenologically objective techniques of literary criticism as to the authorial, textual, historical, grammatical, and semantic sense of the text. Your contention that it, the US Constitution, somehow means what the USSC “says it means” is as meaningless as saying that what Shakespeare, Plato, Vergil, or any other historical author means is what the USSC says it means. The USSC HAS RARELY, IF EVER, BEEN GRACED WITH ANY JURIST WITH LITERARY CRITICAL ACUMEN.

    At most, you would be correct to say that at any given time, the AUTHORITATIVE interpretation of the US Constitution is the interpretation of a majority of nine not particularly gifted people, as far as literary interpretation of historical texts in concerned, who are the then current Justices of the USSC. Of course, the authoritative interpretation–NOT THE MEANING–will change when the composition of the USSC changes. These nine people have never been known as reliable scholars of historical texts. They have been primarily lawyers, and, even worse, former judges. The current composition is even more unreliable than many courts in the past–in assessing the “meaning” of the US Constitution.

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