Thoughts on Chuck Colson (16 October 1931-21 April 2012)
Seven days ago, former Nixon aide-turned-Evangelical-pundit Chuck Colson died. Because my feelings about Colson are mixed, I waited this week before writing anything about him. Especially through Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded, Colson did some real good and I hope that influence lives on. But my overall assessment is that, even post-conversion, he was a negative force in both church and society and I hope his passing allows a fresh start. That’s my thesis, now let me argue for it.
Charles Wendell “Chuck” Colson was born in Boston, MA to an upper-middle class Republican family that hated the New Deal and raised him to oppose almost all progressive social reforms. He went to an elite private high school (The Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, MA), graduating in 1949. He then earned a B.A. in political science, cum laude, from Brown University in 1953. From there, Colson went on to earn his law degree, again with honors, from the law school of George Washington University in 1959. From 1953 to 1955 Colson served in the U.S. Marine Corps, earning the rank of captain. He founded his own law firm and worked on Republican political campaigns. His first marriage (to Nancy Billings) lasted from 1953 to 1964 before ending in divorce. They had 3 children. He then married Patricia Ann Hughes in 1964 and this marriage lasted until Colson’s death.
Colson first came to national attention in 1968 when he joined the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. He was assigned to the “Special Issues Committee” informally known as the “Dirty Tricks Group.” Colson proved to be especially good at dirty tricks. He would hire Young Republican college students to volunteer for various Democratic campaigns and spy for Nixon, sabatouging the campaigns, and planting evidence in other campaigns. After Nixon was elected, Colson was appointed as Special Counsel to the President–and soon became admired by friends and feared by enemies as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Colson himself has written that he was “useful” to the president because he was willing to be ruthless to get things done. (See Colson, Born Again, chap. 5.) He was considered the “evil genius” of an evil administration–the Lee Atwater or Karl Rove of his generation.
As such, Colson was implicated in the Watergate Scandal. Synopsis for a generation too young to remember. In the 1972 presidential campaign, the Committee to Reelect the President [CREEP], which, in an age before ANY campaign finance reform, had whole suitcases of cash to use in various schemes, hired some inept burglars to steal campaign plans and secrets from the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. They were caught and eventually (after the election), the authorization of this burglary was traced to the White House. It is unknown whether or not Nixon or Colson knew of the original burglary, but both were heavily involved in the illegal cover-up. Colson was also involved in the burglary of the private files of Daniel Ellsberg, the decorated Marine and Pentagon consultant who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (proving that several presidents in both parties lied to the American people repeatedly concerning the Vietnam War). Colson’s plan was to derail criticism of both Watergate and the Vietnam War by getting the news to cover Ellsberg’s psychiatric counseling. (This backfired. Ellsberg was charged with illegally releasing secret information–even though, unlike the United Kingdom, the U.S. has nothing like an “Official Secrets Act.” The burglary and leak of Ellsberg’s psychiatric files led the judge to throw out the case.) In 1974, Colson was sentenced to prison for his role in the Watergate coverup, as were dozens of other officials in the Nixon administration.
While Colson was facing arrest, a friend gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and introduced him to a prayer and Bible study group. Colson was converted and became an evangelical Christian. When the press learned of this, most were extremely skeptical, believing that Colson was simply trying for a reduced sentence. (Many of his fellow Watergate convicts thought the same thing.) It may be that Colson or someone close to him did release the conversion story with that in mind, but I think his conversion was genuine. I have not doubted the sincerity of his faith, but rather the terrible shallowness of his theology. Colson reveals the huge weakness of evangelical Christianity in cultivating genuine discipleship and a Christian identity that is trans-national and with loyalties that resist the Powers and Authorities and stand with the poor and marginalized. Although 19th C. American evangelicalism displayed these characteristics, they have been mostly missing in 20th and 21st C. evangelicalism and Colson exemplifies this weakness. But there is no need to claim that his conversion was faked. It appears genuine.
Colson’s prison sentence opened his eyes to the huge problems of the U.S. “justice” system and especially the prison system. Upon release from prison, Colson could no longer practice law or vote as a convicted felon. (In 2000, Colson, then a resident of Florida, had his voting rights restored by FL Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (R).) He published his spiritual memoir, Born Again, which became a bestseller. It fit with the times. After the secular ’60s (including the notorious “Death of God” movement at the end of the decade), there were several national revivals in the 1970s: It witnessed the birth of Jesus People, USA (an intentional community of ex-hippies); it saw several campus radicals become Christians (many retaining their liberal politics in the birth of the “Evangelical Left” of the 1960s), even the conversion of a few Black Panthers and former gang members. It saw the highly successful “I Found It!” campaign, the birth of “Jesus Rock” (later watered-down and commercialized as “Contemporary Christian Music”), the height of popularity for evangelist Billy Graham, and much more. Even the flourishing of many cults and new religions in the 1970s reflected a nation that was exhausted by political protests and social change movements turning inward to seek spiritual grounding–in both familiar paths to American Christians and in movements and ideas that, however ancient elsewhere in the world, were novel and strange on U.S. soil. In that context, Colson’s redemption narrative–a form of spiritual memoir at least as old as St. Augustine’s Confessions–was eagerly read by many.
I’m sure that Colson used money from the book sales to pay his many legal bills, but I don’t conclude that his sole motivation was monetary. I think that, at one level, he was seeking to give testimony, to learn to share his faith evangelistically. I think the book was popular for at least one other reason: Many conservative Christians, including the like of Billy Graham, felt horribly betrayed by the Nixon administration. Graham had endorsed Nixon as a person of faith and the conservatives turned to him in reaction to the Chicago riots at the ’68 Democratic National Convention and the secular spirit that (it seemed to many) had dominated the movements for social change of the ’60s. (This despite the numerous clergy, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, who had major leadership positions in both the Civil Rights and Peace Movements.) Watergate had made many feel like they had been duped and that their faith had been made a laughingstock before the world. Colson’s Born Again reassured many of these people that they hadn’t been completely wrong. They treated him not as a notorious sinner who had been saved but needed intense discipleship before he could be trusted with any form of leadership, but as a prodigal son returning to the fold. Unlike the ex-hippie radicals in the Sojourners Community or Open Door or Jesus People, USA, etc., Colson’s conversion was to a form of Christianity and church life that looked “safe” and familiar.
But he did do one challenging thing after his release from prison that didn’t fit the comfortable conservative Christian mold: He created Prison Fellowship. It was and is an outreach ministry to prisoners. Now, Christians have been reaching out to the imprisoned since Jesus commanded it in Matt. 25. In the 19th C. in the USA, evangelical Protestant Christians had literally hundreds of prison ministries. They also led the nation in prison reform efforts, including movements to abolish the death penalty. But, by the early 20th C., this had mostly disappeared. Most denominations still produced a few ministers who would become prison chaplains, but, with the exception of Catholics and the Black Church, few members of local churches ever visited prisoners or tried to help them find employment after prison, much less did anything toward prison reform. Colson’s Prison Fellowship soon became the largest para-church prison ministry in the nation and it was very successful in many ways. In that way, it reconnected American evangelicals to a phase of their more radical history. But, despite Colson’s own opposition to the death penalty (until the arrest of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing), he and Prison Fellowship did very little to actually reform prison conditions or the penal code. They did evangelistic outreach and some (limited) post-prison support. But it was a very important ministry that changed the lives of many–and did not easily fit the cynical meme that “Colson just went from conservative politics to conservative religion with no real changes in basic outlook.” At least in this area, he did change.
[Correction from a reader’s comments: I did not know that Colson was an early supporter of for-profit prisons, an incredibly unjust industry that has exploded in popularity since the 1980s. It’s very un-Christian and Colson’s support undermines one of the few areas of respect I had for him. It may be the process I describe below that corrupted even Prison Fellowship.]
At this point, American evangelicalism did something that hurt Colson as a Christian: Instead of insisting he stay out of the headlines for a time (as even the converted Apostle Paul did for 3 years) and learn. including unlearning all his habits as a political operative, they gave him a soapbox. In the late 1970s, Colson was given a regular column in Christianity Today, the most popular Christian magazine in the country, with a HUGE circulation that dwarfs all competitors. From this post, he became a pundit and a leader–and this did much harm to his own spirituality and to the life of both the church and the nation. From his position at Christianity Today, Colson helped to launch the movement known as “The Religious Right.” Thus, he went back into the game of politics, conservative politics, where he had been tempted to have no ethics and few scruples. He was soon hob-nobbing with those who still had no scruples: Richard Vigurie, Adolph Coors, Grover Norquist, and many others. And, while some of the leaders of the Religious Right later regretted the way they were co-opted by the Republican Party for its own uses (most notably, Frank Schaeffer, who broke with the movement in the 198os and became an Orthodox Christian, but also others), Colson never expressed any doubts about his use of many of the same tactics that led to his imprisonment to push the Religious Right agenda: outlawing abortion, pushing state-sponsored prayer in public schools, art censorship, anti-science campaigns (first against evolutionary biology and later against human-caused catastrophic climate change), restrictions of civil liberties, eroding the social safety net in ways that please big business and hurt organized labor, promotion of huge military budgets and an overly militarized foreign policy, and, especially, an all-out crusade against GLBT persons and against women’s equality. This agenda is hardly Christian and shows an inability to separate loyalty to the church universal from what should be lesser loyalties to particular nations, races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, etc. For Colson, and the Religious Right he helped to create, Christian faith was/is inseparable from the Republican Culture Wars.
For much of his post-Watergate life there was a notable exception to this: Colson’s opposition to capital punishment. In 1960, polls showed that a majority of Americans wanted to abolish the death penalty. By the early 1970s, this was no longer the case, which made for an incredible backlash when the Supreme Court temporarily ruled against the death penalty in 1972. (By 1976, they had okayed it, again!) From the mid-1970s until the late 1990s, the popularity of the death penalty grew every year in the USA. Only the advent of DNA testing (about 800 people have now been released from death rows by DNA evidence proving they could not have been guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted) changed that trajectory. As a longtime death penalty opponent, I can testify to how lonely one could feel in America at that time. But Colson swam against the stream and argued against the death penalty during its rising popularity. Until the Oklahoma City bombing. He returned to a pro-death penalty stance just at a time when many other conservative white, evangelicals, including the likes of Pat Robertson, were questioning their support. Colson ceased to be a prophetic voice, on the only issue in which he was one, just as that voice was needed most.
Even more than this, however, Colson helped twist U.S. evangelicalism by the promotion of “worldview theory.” Now, the term “worldview” for a coherent philosophy or outlook, is not new. And Colson did not invent the outlook I’m about to describe: It was proposed first (I think) by the 19th C. Dutch Christian statesman, Abraham Kuyper. Colson probably got it not from Kuyper, but from Francis Schaeffer, another early leader of the Religious Right. The idea is that people carry around coherent, airtight, “worldviews” that are more than just doctrines or ethical behaviors, but entire, self-contained perspectives on the world. And these various worldviews are in mortal combat. One cannot hold “THE” Christian Worldview and dialogue with someone who has an Enlightenment Worldview or a Hindu Worldview, or a Muslim Worldview. One can only defeat the rival worlview through superior logic or conversion or by some form of coercion or force. Now, this is a problem on many levels: It fails to understand that worldviews are NOT air-tight and coherent. The search for a pure “biblical worldview” is as elusive as finding someone who is of “pure race.” Go back far enough and we’re all mix-breeds, folks. The Bible itself contains elements from dozens of other cultures–sometimes in conflict and sometimes not. The Enlightenment has elements in tension with Christianity, but is itself a product of Christianity. Colson and other “worldview” types look back to the Middle Ages in nostalgia for when Christianity dominated the education of the universities–but this is only part of the story. The Western Medieval university itself was an idea borrowed from Muslims from North Africa–who also brought the concept of zero, calculus, Arabic numerals (which they borrowed from India even earlier), astronomy, and advances in architecture. They also led the Medievals to recover many of the Greek classics, including Aristotle. The thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, which synthesized the theology of St. Augustine with the philosophy of Aristotle, would not have been possible without the work of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averröes. This is just one example of many as to the way that cultural influences mix and mingle. The “worldview” idea distorts all that.
Colson’s promotion of “worldview” ideas also makes responsible citizenship in a pluralistic democracy all but impossible. It encourages total defeat of all who disagree as not only “the enemy,” but even as GOD’S enemy. “Compromise” and “dialogue” are turned into swearwords. No one is able to learn anything from anyone not already viewed as an insider because “worldviews” can only clash, never dialogue, never learn from one another.
More than any particular campaign against gays or feminists, or Muslims, etc., the concept of “worldview” Colson promoted has led to our dysfunctional civic life.
For all these reasons, I believe that the majority of Chuck Colson’s influence has been negative. I mourn the passing of all persons, but I hope Colson’s passing allows for fresh winds to blow in American Christian life.