“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.