Chuck Colson, founder of both the Prison Fellowship and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview — who last wrote for National Review Online on religious freedom less than a month ago — died on April 21 at the age of 80. Friends and colleagues remember him.
Charles Colson’s 35-year career as an unabashed Christian and evangelizer to prisoners won my profound respect. He combined compassion for the incarcerated with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, and he refused to blame “society” for the self-destructive habits that landed criminals behind bars. Colson also had to take a lot of guff from the mainstream media over his supposedly opportunistic conversion in 1973, and he bore that with admirable patience and charity.
But do you know what I loved about Charles Colson? His “Watergate” career! First of all, there is no evidence beyond speculation that Colson had anything to do with the Watergate burglary. His 1974 conviction, yielding seven months in prison, actually stemmed from a plan he (or somebody close to him) supposedly hatched in 1971 to break into the offices of the psychiatrist of that sanctimonious quasi-traitor Daniel Ellsberg, who endangered national security by leaking the Pentagon Papers, presumably on the ground that America was evil for getting into the Vietnam War. The horror! Revealing to the world the contents of Ellsberg’s Freudian mumblings on the couch to his overpriced shrink.
Colson was America’s first in-your-face “South Park” conservative. He relished his role as “evil genius” and “master of dirty tricks” — two epithets the media hurled at him. He said he’d walk over his own grandmother to get Richard Nixon reelected president in 1972. He helped run the “plumbers’” unit, the Committee to Reelect the President. And don’t you think he got a charge out of the fact that its acronym was “CREEP”? Colson, whatever his faults, displayed a healthy and refreshing contempt for holier-than-thou liberalism.
— Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.
WILLIAM J. BENNETT
It may not be possible to count the ways mean-spirited liberals hated Chuck Colson. His muscular Christianity was one. His fortitude on behalf of “the least of these” made him a true servant-leader. He used his strength and conviction to speak out and work in behalf of the weak and defenseless outside prison and the stunted souls inside prison.
When there was a human-rights crisis in the U.S. or in some immiserated place around the world, from genocide in Darfur to sexual trafficking, he was often the first person I would hear from. During the George W. Bush years, he would call around and get us to the White House in behalf of the long-suffering. His manliness, his Marine training, was ever present. He would take command.
One funny, yet revealing story: Chuck and I and our wives, Patty and Elayne, were on a boat along with two other couples, Michael and Karen Novak and Rich and Helen DeVos. The DeVoses were hosting us: four Protestants and four Catholics in all. Rich commented how blessed we all were and how joyful we should be that we were all believers in Christ and, therefore, were all saved souls. Novak and I (from the Catholic contingent) were not so sure. We said we wouldn’t know we were saved until it was all over. One final, mortal sin could still do us in.
Chuck roared with laughter and teased us about our stubbornness, but complimented us on our steadfastness. It was a lively and spirited theological debate, something he loved dearly and excelled in uniquely.
He literally transformed some of my best friends’ lives. He influenced me in many ways, perhaps most of all in getting me to rethink my incessant “tough on crime, tough on prisoners” doctrine.
Chuck reminded us through his actions of the centrality of redemption, forgiveness, and grace in our faith. He did it patiently and humbly, never looking for moral one-upmanship. And it is for us, now, his friends and colleagues, to pick up where he left off.
Who takes his place? I’m not sure anyone does.
— William J. Bennett is host of Morning in America, Washington fellow at the Claremont Institute, and author of The Book of Man.
My very first job out of college was working for Chuck Colson. He had just been released from prison and was starting a prison ministry. I was his first “research assistant/travel companion.” Chuck had been humbled and broken by his experience in prison and vowed when he left never to forget those he left behind. And he did not. Despite job offers that would have paid him seven figures after prison, he turned them all down to start Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Chuck took seriously the admonition of Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” I traveled with him as we visited state and federal prisons throughout the country. Observing Chuck speak in prison chapels and visiting with inmates on death row was a remarkable experience. Any elitism he had from his patrician upbringing or Nixon White House days was gone. He cared about the inmates, about the conditions they lived in, and about their plight — and they knew it. They were often big, burly, tattooed men of every race and background. Chuck hugged them all.
I saw him do this often — away from the TV cameras and the media — and it was always quite moving.
Many of the obits about Chuck have highlighted that he was Nixon’s “hatchet man” and “dirty-tricks specialist.” Too little has been said about the man who spent the better part of his life, post-Watergate, caring “for the least of these.”
— Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
JANICE SHAW CROUSE
Evangelical Christianity has lost one of its most authentic believers. Chuck Colson spent his post–White House years living out his repentance by serving the “least of these” in American society: prisoners and other vulnerable populations. He devoted countless hours to witnessing the transformative power of believing in Jesus Christ. Over the last 30 years he has also been one of evangelicalism’s most incisive and effective writers, with some 30 books and thousands of recorded speeches. His thoughts and Christian witness will continue to have profound influence for the one whom he called “Savior and Lord.” It was my privilege to be named “Woman of the Year” alongside him as “Man of the Year” in 2009 and to have him seek me out to express appreciation for my contribution to the “Christian Worldview” conference on the day that he went to the hospital. Those are two personal memories that I will treasure; I am also inspired by the example of one transformed life lived totally for Christ and His Kingdom.
— Janice Shaw Crouse is senior fellow at Concerned Women for America‘s Beverly LaHaye Institute.
I was born three years after the Watergate scandal. For me, as for many of his younger staff members, the Chuck Colson of that era was a sort of mythical figure. We had all heard of him, of course, but there was virtually no trace of him left in the man we worked with — aside from the “maniacal energy” that stayed with him all his life. At 80 he would charge through the workday, leaving 20- and 30-somethings stumbling exhausted in his wake.
But the Chuck Colson we knew was the Colson of Born Again, of Prison Fellowship Ministries and BreakPoint Radio — a man driven by a deep love for God, brimming over with ideas about how to preach the gospel, help the poor and marginalized, and reform the culture. And a man who was endlessly generous and encouraging to a young writer.
Yet we were all aware that the Colson of our time grew out of that other Colson. Chuck himself never tried to hide this; none of his critics was harder on him than he was on himself. It was his own story of wrongdoing and redemption that sparked his desire to help others find what he had found. Very rarely have I ever met a person so completely honest about who he was, and so insistent that his Redeemer get every bit of the credit for the change in him and for all the good that he did afterwards. A life transformed through Christ was his testimony, and will be his legacy.
— Gina Dalfonzo recently celebrated her tenth anniversary working for BreakPoint, Chuck Colson’s worldview ministry.
FR. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Chuck Colson was a Christian disciple, apostle, and evangelist. His life’s work was the proclamation of the Gospel, but his work drew attention to an urgent public-policy problem. Americans in general, and conservatives in particular, have a blind spot when it comes to criminal justice and the prison system. Neither is worthy of American ideals, nor even the basics of fundamental justice. Those ground up by the depredations of the system are often innocent, but even the guilty do not deserve to be demeaned as little more than human debris. Chuck Colson’s own experience and Christian faith taught him that human dignity must be respected at all times, that the guilty have the capacity for conversion, and that the incarcerated are precisely those of whom Jesus spoke as the “least of these” in whom the face of Christ appears in our midst. Following Matthew 25, there are many Christians who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick. Visiting the imprisoned has fewer subscribers. Chuck Colson took the Scripture seriously and did as Jesus commanded. And when visiting those in prison, he gave them the pearl of great price — his faith in Jesus Christ.
— Father Raymond J. de Souza is a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, a columnist for the National Post, and a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.
“The great scandal of Watergate really started when everybody tried to cover up for themselves after March 21, 1973,” biographer Jonathan Aitken recounts Charles Colson telling a group of women incarcerated in Texas during one of his thousands and thousands of visits to prisons all over the world. “But we twelve powerful men couldn’t hold a lie together for two weeks.”
“Look what pressure Jesus’ disciples came under,” Colson continued that day. “They were willing to die for something they knew to be true. No one gives up their lives for what they know is untrue. But the disciples were willing to give up their lives because they knew the resurrection of Christ is true. So do you and so do I. He is risen!”
It is an argument that Chuck Colson often made. Indeed he made it to me on air in the 1996 PBS special Searching for God in America where he patiently and persuasively defended the truth of the Gospel in a way designed to reach the public-television audience. He made other arguments in other places, always with great care to address the man or woman in front of him or the audience listening, as with his Break Point commentaries heard on thousands and thousands of stations across the world, and with his incredible outpouring of books, the most influential of which is Born Again. The most touching of his books? The one he co-authored with his daughter Emily about his much loved, autistic grandson Max, Dancing with Max. Chuck Colson was a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather as well as a profoundly significant public intellectual and Christian apologist.
Colson is easily among the most influential Christians of the past 40 years, but while he was an undeniable force within the Beltway and among the powerful, his ministry to the imprisoned — and to their families through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree — was his passion, their saved and changed lives his greatest legacy.
“Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead,” said D. L. Moody, a great evangelist of another era. “Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal — a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.”
— Hugh Hewitt is host of The Hugh Hewitt Show and author of the 2007 book A Mormon in the White House? Ten Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney.
Most mainstream-media obituaries of Charles Colson emphasize his role in the Watergate scandal. A few opinion columns point to his excellences as a human being and the fine work accomplished through the Prison Fellowship Ministries organization that he founded. But, in my mind, both of these approaches miss what may end up being his most lasting accomplishment: a sea change in conservative policy thinking about crime and imprisonment.
Consider the roles that the two political parties played during the period of ever-rising crime that lasted from the 1950s to the 1990s with only a few respites: Republicans wanted “tough on crime” lock-’em-up justice while Democrats wanted to invest in efforts to change prisoners’ lives, drug treatment, and “Midnight Basketball.” Eventually, that changed. Democrats, under the leadership of Bill Clinton in the White House and, to a large extent, then-senator Joe Biden copied the conservative playbook. They built more prisons (which created more government workers loyal to them), put many more cops on the street (ditto), and even wrote a new federal death-penalty statute. Then, for a variety of reasons — partly the effectiveness of these policies, partly cultural changes, partly demographics — crime fell so sharply that it ceased to be an issue in national and statewide elections.
When it became clear that crime was not going to pop right back up, Colson and his organization reminded people on the right that conservatism itself could only work as a governing philosophy if it evolved with current realities. And the types of policies that made sense in this reality had something in common with those once favored by the Left: Drug treatment for addicts is a good idea however one looks at it and even programs to keep youth out of trouble (yes, midnight basketball) aren’t all bad in a society where crime is reasonably controlled. Efforts to change prisoners’ lives can sometimes work, though they tend to do the best when they rely on the time-tested road to personal change (religious faith) rather than trendy academic theories.
And this type of thinking — all of it radiating outward from Colson — has had real consequences. Notoriously tough Texas has become a national model for compassionate, cost-saving prison reform and conservative rising stars such as Bobby Jindal now mention prison reform in stump speeches.
The work of changing conservative thought on crime still isn’t finished. Many Republicans and some right-leaning suburban and rural Democrats still won’t support anything that doesn’t seem “tough” on its face. But conservative attitudes about crime and prisons today are different than they were 20 or even ten years ago. In the end, Charles Colson transformed not only himself but also an entire political movement.
— Eli Lehrer is vice president of Washington, D.C., operations at the Heartland Institute.
No doubt his conversion story and prison ministry were my first impressions of Chuck Colson, growing up in that thoroughfare of evangelical ministries, Wheaton, Ill. But it was reading his Kingdoms in Conflict — integrating that redemption and heart of service with critical thinking about culture and political realism — that really got my attention.
A quarter century after publication, the book remains as relevant to the questions troubling the rising evangelical generation. It warns against conflating political and religious means and ends on the one hand, and of divorcing faith from politics on the other. “Every generation has an obligation to seek anew a healthy relationship between church and state,” Colson wrote in Kingdoms in Conflict. “Both are reflections of man’s nature; both have a role to play.”
So many of us can point to a Colson book prompting us toward our callings, helping form our intellectual framework for grappling with faith, culture, and politics in an increasingly pluralistic age.
In what would be his final months, Chuck communicated a deep sense of urgency about protecting life, marriage, and religious liberty — and especially our freedom to speak and act on Biblical teaching about them. As Chuck finished his race, he was busy equipping Christians for the steep grade ahead, as we face challenges such as the HHS anti-conscience mandate and the redefinition of marriage.
In 2009, I interviewed Chuck for a Heritage Foundation project called “Seek Social Justice” on poverty and social breakdown. He was generous with his time and, toward the end, contemplative: “At this point in life . . . the honors and degrees and stuff you get are meaningless,” Chuck reflected. “But to see lives transformed, that’s the greatest thrill there is.”
Amen, testifies the chorus of tributes to a life redeemed.
— Jennifer Marshall is director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century.
One of the opportunities I have been afforded during my time as president of the Family Research Council is not only to meet, but to become personally acquainted with many of our nation’s greatest conservative and Christian leaders. One of the foremost of these has been Chuck Colson.
Long before I arrived at FRC, I admired Chuck Colson because of his commitment in showing both the truth and the love of Jesus Christ. He was a living example of the power of a redeemed life.
When you can look over the lives of great people, their efficacy in serving others is often in direct proportion to the degree that an event or events in life have humbled them and broken them from self-seeking ways. Going from the pinnacle of power in the office of President Nixon to the powerlessness of prison, Chuck found his purpose — knowing and serving his Creator.
I consider myself privileged to have had Chuck as a mentor and teacher. My prayers go out to his wife Patty, the Colson family, and all of his team at Prison Fellowship.
Chuck Colson finished the race of life strong, leaving a legacy that will continue to bring light to the darkened hearts of millions.
— Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council.
Chuck Colson was a skilled practitioner of hardball politics who rose to the highest levels of American politics as a trusted adviser to Richard Nixon. But nothing he achieved there would compare to what he accomplished as an evangelical leader and founder of the global ministry Prison Fellowship. Chuck’s life was the embodiment of the truism found in Scripture that what the enemy means for evil, God can turn for good. He demonstrated in his own life that, with Christ, there is always hope for a better future for us all, a future free from bitterness or regret. Through his ministry, Chuck brought hope and the Gospel to millions languishing in prisons all over the world. His acceptance speech upon receiving the Templeton Prize in 1993 remains one of the most moving and eloquent defenses of the transformative power of the Gospel I have ever read. Chuck was also an influential figure in the larger culture, a behind-the-scenes player in the rising political aspirations of evangelicals and an important interlocutor in Catholic-evangelical dialogue and cooperation. Chuck’s social and theological views were firm, but he expressed them with civility, dignity, grace, and a respect for others with whom he disagreed, something which is all too often missing in our civic discourse.
The first book I read after I came to Christ (other than the Bible) was Chuck’s Watergate memoir, Born Again. The book and Chuck’s testimony had a major impact on me and millions of others. Along with the passing of D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell in recent years, Chuck’s death marks the passing of a remarkable generation of leaders who ushered evangelicals from political and cultural exile into the mainstream of American life. Beyond that, he was a brilliant and good man who used his talents, energy, and intelligence to touch others with the love of God. It was a life well lived, and he will be greatly missed.
— Ralph E. Reed Jr. is president of Century Strategies and the former head of the Christian Coalition.
ALAN E. SEARS
Chuck Colson was a friend to me, to Alliance Defense Fund, and to countless other leaders. He encouraged, pushed, and stood with us.
He “pushed us” is really an understatement. With Chuck’s gift at rhetoric he would call you, outline his idea, ask for your reaction, and before you knew it he would so thoroughly tie you into agreement that by the time he asked you to put your name onto the document, be part of the effort, or devote your time and resources to the mission, there was no possibility of declining. You would smile, say “yes,” and do it. Everyone would, because Chuck never asked anything for himself. He asked from his love of the Gospel, for America, and for the cause of liberty.
No one but Chuck could have assembled the Manhattan Declaration drafters. I sat in the room in utter amazement at who was at my table and what unity he had forged before serious editing began.
My last conversation with him was from a hotel room in Houston the afternoon before he was stricken. And I left that call once again saying “yes,” agreeing to devote some significant effort and resources to yet another project he proposed. Our nation will greatly miss this good man’s drive.
— Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund.
Fifteen years ago, Chuck Colson stirred his large evangelical audiences to speak up against religious persecution abroad. Though his ministry was primarily devoted to helping prisoners of all kinds, he was active on many fronts within the movement backing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Without his key efforts, the Act — which, among other things has created first-rate comprehensive annual reporting by the State Department on the status of religious freedom worldwide — may well have been as doomed as the foreign-policy establishment was then confidently predicting. I was deeply honored when, among his many efforts in this cause, Chuck wrote the foreword to my 1997 book on global anti-Christian persecution, In the Lion’s Den. In it, he rallied the churches to end their indifference and passivity:
Christian citizens need to do something when the U.S. government refuses to safeguard religious liberties around the world. It is time for Christians to use pulpits and publications to cry out in defense of fellow believers. It is time to write to representatives in Washington, D.C., demanding reforms in INS policy and calling for the protection of persecuted Christians as a top priority when the U.S. negotiates with other countries. We need to try to influence foreign-service policy to require any country receiving assistance from the United States to maintain basic standards of human rights and religious liberties.
Now, with as many as 40,000 Christians in North Korea’s gulag, all religions under tight surveillance and regulation in places such as China and Iran, and a new pattern of church bombings in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and other countries, his words are as salient now as then. The Chuck Colson I knew was generous, impassioned about religious freedom, compassionate for those who sought justice, and full of wise counsel. He will be deeply missed, not least by the world’s persecuted.
— Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
The last time I saw Chuck Colson in public was at a “Socrates in the City” Christmas gala in New York in 2010. He spoke about the connection between Biblical truth and the worldview such truth should bring to the Christian.
While a young reporter in Washington during the Watergate years, I was familiar with the media’s portrayal of Colson as a tough “hatchet man” who did the dirty work of President Richard Nixon. Like most of Washington, I was shocked and at first cynical about his professed conversion by Jesus Christ, but after meeting him it was clear the man was different from what he had been.
In personal conversations and later in correspondence when he was in prison for seven months, I became convinced that Colson was a “new creation,” as Scripture promises to the redeemed.
That the “natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit, because they are spiritually discerned” was evident throughout much of Colson’s post-Watergate life. But even hardened media critics came to grudgingly accept that Colson was for real because of his consistency and his work with Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded and through which he promised not to forget inmates who were where he had been.
Still, the Washington Post in its obituary couldn’t resist finding a criminologist to express doubt about Prison Fellowship’s success record in turning the lives of inmates around and producing a recidivism rate in the single digits, far lower than the world’s attempts to reform prisoners: “‘There is a self-selection problem,’ said Allen Beck, a criminologist who has served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and several state prison systems. ‘The inmates who sign up for such programs tend to [be] people who are a relatively good risk in the first place. Trying to ascertain cause and effect is very difficult.’”
It would appear that Beck never entered a prison with Colson on an Easter Sunday, as I did, and spoke to even those on death row who said they had been redeemed. While it is true some prisoners “get religion” in hopes it will set them free, death-row inmates are not afforded that opportunity. I have met many former inmates who have gone through Prison Fellowship’s Bible study program. They exhibit a quality rarely seen in the secular prison system: a changed life.
It’s amazing how much faith the world places in what doesn’t work, especially politics. Charles Colson’s greatest contributions came not through the “kingdom of this world” and its phony promises to improve people’s lives; it came through and by a “kingdom not of this world,” which is why he found ultimate power, not in the White House, but in the “house” of the Lord he came to serve, a house in which he now resides.
Charles Colson has heard the only pronouncement on a life that matters. It hasn’t come from the Washington Post, but from Jesus of Nazareth: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
— Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.
Every obituary of Chuck Colson that I read in the first hours after his death began with a phrase like “Watergate felon,” before moving on to Colson’s post-Nixonian accomplishments as the founder of Prison Fellowship. Chuck would have understood; he knew how the game was played. Yet from his present station, I expect that Charles W. Colson is enjoying a last laugh. For his enduring impact on American public life had nothing to do with Watergate — except that Watergate drove him out of “politics,” as conventionally understood, and opened up possibilities for him to have a truly historic effect on America.
Chuck Colson did not invent the evangelical-Catholic alliance that is one of the most potent cultural forces in 21st-century American politics; but he legitimated it for vast numbers of evangelicals who were not altogether sure, 20-some years ago, that Catholics were their brothers and sisters in Christ. In that respect, Colson’s ecumenism — his absolute commitment to the reconciliation in truth of those divided by the Reformation — was his greatest contribution to the future of the country he loved. For if America is to undergo, in Lincoln’s phrase, a “new birth of freedom,” it will be because the evangelical-Catholic co-belligerency in the American Culture War will have effectively proposed, and embodied, one of America’s founding ideas: that freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to goodness and virtue.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
It is starkly telling that the Wikipedia passage that addresses Chuck Colson’s conversion to Christianity frames it by commenting that “some believe” his conversion “sparked a radical life change that lasted the remainder of his life.” This one phrase encompasses some of the most important hallmarks of Colson’s life: the turning point in his life; the secular skepticism; and the persistence of his faith. The conversion of President Nixon’s hatchet man was a radical change indeed. But it was radical, not just because the change for Colson himself was so dramatic — his personal transformation brought radical change to the larger world through his vision for ministry. The same depth of intellect and determination that he had used to serve a president, Colson used to serve the desperate and the despised. He knew what it was to be scorned and reviled — as the snide phrase “some believe” bears witness. He remained a lightning rod for critics throughout his life. And yet, he never gave them cheap and easy fodder. He ran the race to the very end, faithful to his family, to his calling, and to his God.
— Charmaine Yoest is president and CEO of Americans United for Life.