It’s now a cliche that when people to go prison they suddenly find religion. And the religion lasts while they’re in prison — then, in many cases, the newly found religion magically evaporates if they get out and go on to live post-prison lives. But not with Chuck Colson, who during the Nixon presidency was considered one of the Nixon’s most utterly ruthless operatives, a man who once said he’d walk over his own grandmother to advance Nixon’s cause. He strongly observed his religion in prison and went on to become a highly respected Evangelical leader who later touched the lives of many in positive ways. He died died yesterday at 80.
The Washington Post’s story notes the famous grandmother quote as well. It typified the Colson of that era — a Colson who genuinely, honestly, reinvented himself:
Charles W. Colson, the Republican political operative who boasted that he would “walk over my own grandmother” to ensure the reelection of President Richard M. Nixon and went on to found a worldwide prison fellowship ministry after his conversion to evangelical Christianity, died April 21 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 80.
The death, after a brain hemorrhage this month, was confirmed by a family spokeswoman, Michelle Farmer. Mr. Colson was a resident of Naples, Fla., but he maintained an apartment in the Leesburg area.
Mr. Colson’s reputation as a “dirty tricks artist” overshadowed his achievements as a darkly brilliant political strategist. He helped lay the groundwork for the Nixon landslide of November 1972 by appealing to disgruntled Democrats and blue-collar minority voters.
If you lived through these times (as I did) Colson was often written in news stories about as a top Nixon political operative before the Watergate scandal.
A self-described “hatchet man” for Nixon, Mr. Colson compiled the notorious “enemies list” of politicians, journalists and activists perceived as threats to the White House. And most fatefully, he helped orchestrate illegal activities to discredit former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, who was suspected of leaking a top-secret history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
It was the targeting of Ellsberg — rather than Mr. Colson’s peripheral involvement in the growing Watergate break-in scandal — that eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice. In the midst of this crisis, Mr. Colson said he underwent a profound religious transformation in August 1973.
Acting against the advice of his lawyers, Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a step that he depicted as “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”
Released on parole in January 1975, after seven months in a minimum-security prison, Mr. Colson became a leading voice in the evangelical movement and an advocate for prison reform.
The need for such work, he said, was drawn from what he called his frightening experience in confinement. Prison, he said, was filled with embittered prisoners who contemplated escape and revenge at every turn.
Mr. Colson had brain surgery to remove a clot after becoming ill on March 30 while speaking at a conference, according to Jim Liske, the group’s chief executive.
Mr. Colson was sent to prison after pleading guilty to obstructing justice in one of the criminal plots that undid the Nixon administration. After having what he called his religious awakening behind bars, he spent much of the rest of his life ministering to prisoners, preaching the Gospels and forging a coalition of Republican politicians, evangelical church leaders and Roman Catholic conservatives that has had a pronounced influence on American politics.
It was a remarkable reversal….
…..“I went to prison, voluntarily,” Mr. Colson said in 2005. “I deserved it.”
How often do people who’ve been in prison say that?
He announced upon emerging that he would devote the rest of his life to religious work. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which delivers a Christian message of redemption to thousands of prison inmates and their families. In 1983, he established Justice Fellowship, which calls itself the nation’s largest religion-based criminal justice reform group. In 1993, he won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and donated it to his ministries.
By the end of the 1990s, Mr. Colson had become a leading voice in the evangelical political movement, with books and a syndicated radio broadcast. He helped form a conservative coalition of leaders from the Republican Party, the Protestant evangelical community and the Catholic Church. The Catholics and the evangelicals, once combatants over issues of religious doctrine, now joined forces in fights over abortion rights and religious freedom, among other issues.
Mr. Colson also reached out to the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic theologian who edited the journal First Things and who had warned of a coming tide of secularism in his book “The Naked Public Square.” They inaugurated a theological dialogue that resulted in the publication of the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994.
Rarely in American
Mr. Colson said that he had initially gotten hate mail from evangelicals because of that initiative, and that the Prison Fellowship had lost a million dollars in donations. But the manifesto, pushing for religion-based policies in government, cleared the path for a political and cultural alliance that has reshaped the political debate in America, adding fuel to a rightward turn in the Republican Party and a rising conservative grass-roots movement.
In 2000, Mr. Colson was a resident of Florida when Gov. Jeb Bush restored his rights to practice law, vote and serve on a jury — all of them having been lost with his federal felony conviction. “I think it’s time to move on,” Mr. Bush said at the time. “I know him. He’s a great guy.”
With that, Mr. Colson re-entered the political arena. In January 2001, six days after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, a Wall Street Journal editorial praised Mr. Colson’s prison work as “a model for Bush’s ideas about faith-based funding.”
When he went to the White House to state his case for religious faith as a basis for foreign and domestic policies, he found himself pushing on an open door. “You don’t have to tell me,” Mr. Colson said the president told him. “I’d still be drinking if it weren’t for what Christ did in my life. I know faith-based works.”
Forget about Democrat, Republican, liberal, moderate or conservative.
In his transformation, Colson’s story was a remarkable one. When it came to prison and discovering the importance of and strength given by religion, Colson didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. And when he walked that walk, he didn’t have to walk over his grandmother to do it.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.