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.
At any rate, he paid for his sins fully, and he devoted the rest of his life to making amends by touching the lives of other sinners. I can’t help but hope that God, who also has little patience for the holier-than-thou, will remember what he said to another sinner, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
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.