October 13, 2005
By Joseph Loconte
Whenever liberals are in a mood to warn
Americans about the frightful threat of conservative Christianity,
they round up the usual suspects: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or
perhaps some wild-eyed sniper at an abortion clinic. One name they
never bring up is Charles Colson.
No wonder. The celebrated born-again Christian--a former Nixon
tough guy who did prison time for his part in Watergate--has spent
three decades ministering to inmates and their families. It might
easily have never happened: Colson's conversion story almost lured
him into the burgeoning subculture of celebrity Christianity.
Instead, he founded Prison Fellowship and plunged into the world of
barbed wire, watchtowers, and cell blocks.
Along the way, Colson has become one of the most influential
evangelicals of his generation, especially in the era of the Bush
White House. Yet he's never forgotten his experience behind bars,
as anyone who has traveled with him into prisons can attest. Here
is an evangelist to the core, a thoroughly converted man. "By
anybody's certification, it stuck," religious historian Martin
Marty once said of him. "It is very deep, very profound, very
In Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed, Jonathan Aitken offers a
character sketch of Colson's journey to the pinnacle of power, then
disgrace, vilification--and restoration. It's a task for which
Aitken is uniquely suited. A former member of parliament whose
perjury conviction ended his own political career, he himself has
converted to Christianity, making big news inside and outside of
church circles. This allows Aitken to trace Colson's spiritual trek
with care, though at times it may make his writing a little opaque
to the uninitiated.
Aitken devotes about half the book to the years before Colson's
crisis of faith. He reveals, for example, the young Boston lawyer
who scorns the establishment by hiring an African American as his
partner. Yet there's also Colson the Republican ideologue who
orchestrated smear campaigns against Democratic opponents. By the
time he arrived as special adviser in the Nixon White House, he was
as enamored with the promise of politics--what Hillary Clinton once
called the "politics of meaning"--as anyone could be.
Then came the crash. At the height of the Watergate scandal, Colson
turned to an old friend for counsel, Raytheon president Tom
Phillips. What he heard, instead, was the religious equivalent of a
habeas corpus: a riveting and incriminating description of the sin
of pride, drawn from the pages of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
As Aitken tells it, Nixon's "hatchet man" needed more than an
emotional appeal to repent and believe, and Lewis--the premier
Christian apologist of the 20th century--gave it to him. Since
then, Colson has written or coauthored 23 books on topics ranging
from crime to Christian theology. Few evangelical leaders have
spent as much time arguing that the intellectual life be cultivated
for the glory of God.
Aitken's treatment of Colson the social reformer forms the heart of
the book. It is thorough and fair-minded, though not as richly
drawn as it might be. Aitken only begins to suggest the profound
conceptual challenges that Colson's ministry presents to both left
For decades now, leaders of the religious left, from Jesse Jackson
to Jim Wallis, have raised their self-described "prophetic voice"
on behalf of the poor. What that voice usually demands is more
government spending for secular social services. So they create ad
campaigns, assemble political action groups, and get themselves
arrested at rallies in Lafayette Park. Not Colson. He just keeps
inventing new ways for churches to help inmates and their families
recover from the blight of crime.
Church-based voluntarism is the key. Founded in 1976, Prison
Fellowship now offers religious and educational programs to inmates
in over 800 prisons in 40 countries. The Angel Tree Ministry, a
staple of local churches across denominational lines, delivers
600,000 gifts each year to the children of prisoners. Colson's
program for ex-offenders, which pairs volunteers with former
inmates to help them find jobs and housing, has gotten support from
the Bush White House. There's even a program for the victims of
crime. All counted, Prison Fellowship sustains a $50 million
budget, with over 300 staff and nearly 24,000 volunteers, virtually
all privately supported.
Colson's theology presents a more fundamental challenge to
liberalism. All of his work among criminals is anchored in the core
doctrines of evangelical Christianity. The taproot of crime, he
says, is sin--not economic injustice. Thus, "rehabilitation"
depends, ultimately, on personal repentance and faith in Jesus.
Aitken, who followed Colson into several prisons, effectively
describes how he establishes rapport with inmates and brings a
message of hope and redemption, even to those on death row.
"You and I know about tombs, because prisons are the tombs of our
society and we're in one now," he tells Texas inmates at an Easter
Sunday service. "But you and I also know that the only way to come
out of these hellholes, these tombs, is by knowing the risen
If Colson's initiatives upset the secular assumptions of the left,
he also unsettles the political and religious right. Consider,
again, the issue of crime. Conservatives may be more likely than
liberals to talk about sin, but they also love incarcerating
sinners. The problem with that, Colson says, is that most prisoners
will be released--but probably unprepared for life on the outside.
So he's elevated the concept of "restorative justice," the idea
that offenders must be held accountable to their victims, make
restitution, and even be reconciled when possible. This is how
Prison Fellowship turns convicts into citizens.
Or take the issue of the culture wars. Colson is one of the few
evangelical leaders willing to chide his brethren for their
all-or-nothing approach to politics: They either behave as if
politics can usher in the kingdom of heaven or withdraw from
politics altogether. Aitken gives due attention to a long and
serious interest in cultural renewal. Colson's conclusion: It won't
happen until Christians think responsibly about how their beliefs
should shape the contours of modern life--intellectually, socially,
and politically. It's not a message, however, that makes for flashy
One story Aitken recounts captures Colson's sanctified grit. He was
in Georgetown University Hospital, recovering from a painful
stomach tumor. He learned that, in a room just above him, was
former CIA Director William Casey, a friend since his days with
Nixon. Casey was on his deathbed. Colson, with his intravenous drip
in hand, got cleared by CIA guards and slipped into his room. Casey
couldn't utter a word. But Colson took his hand, spoke with him
about Jesus, and prayed with him to receive Christ as his savior.
It was, he said later, "the real reason I was in that
Herein lies much of Colson's appeal. It's not just his track record
of translating his beliefs about God into visible acts of mercy.
For Colson, Christian faith must be informed by reason, conscience,
empathy, and experience. The English poet Thomas Traherne once
remarked that "he who thinks well serves God in his inmost court."
It's an insight that many Christians arguably ignore. Chuck Colson
learned it early in his walk of faith, and thousands would consider
themselves blessed by his discovery.
is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation
and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront
Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). He served as
a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United
First appeared in the Weekly Standard
How Charles Colson went from Watergate villain to Christian hero.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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