Chuck Colson: Crime and Redemption
I never met Charles “Chuck” Colson, who passed away this past Saturday at the age of 80 from brain hemorrhage complications. I have heard a lot about him from my father, however, who knew him and worked for a time at Colson’s BreakPoint. I also knew a bit about him because I’m a political junkie, and I’m fairly familiar with President Richard Nixon (R) and the Watergate scandal.
Serving as White House Special Counsel after Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969, Colson quickly earned a reputation as the administration’s ‘hatchet man.’ Writing in Slate in 2000, David Plotz described Colson as having been “Richard Nixon’s hard man, the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.” Colson himself wrote that, at the time, he was “valuable to the President . . . because I was willing . . . to be ruthless in getting things done.” According to Plotz, Colson’s over-the-top approach to politicking led him to recommend hiring Teamster thugs to beat up anti-war demonstrators, and to propose firebombing the non-profit Brookings Institution as a cover for stealing politically damaging documents.
Colson compiled the infamous ‘Nixon’s Enemies List.’ The cover memorandum to this list stated, in part, that it was meant to aid in “dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration. Stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
He later became involved in the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), an organization rife with money laundering and slush funds that ultimately executed the well-known break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. That incident and the subsequent cover-up nearly led to Nixon’s impeachment, but the President resigned before Congress had the chance.
Colson resigned from the Nixon White House in March 1973 to return to private law practice, and was indicted a year later for his involvement in the Watergate burglary and cover-up. Just as he was facing arrest for his crimes, Raytheon chairman Thomas Phillips gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which inspired Colson to a religious conversion. He soon became an apparently-devout Christian believer. When news of this conversion came out, the cynical media generally chalked it up to a ploy by Colson to reduce his sentence—an assumption that I, admittedly, may have leaped to myself, if I had been politically-interested (and, um, alive) at the time.
He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges, and was sentenced in July 1974 to ‘one-to-three’ years in prison and a $5,000 fine. He served seven months at the Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama. And that might have been the end of Chuck Colson, at least as far as the general public was concerned. He’d just be one of a thousand political cronies convicted of an inexcusable abuse of the public trust, linked indelibly to a disgraced, immoral elected official, sentenced to too-short a sentence and let out too early, and then left to fade into obscurity.
But Christianity—truly expressed and practiced—is not about wallowing in the disgrace of our sins. No; Christianity is about redemption. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, you and I are still worth saving. Indeed, we have already been saved by Christ’s sacrifice, and all we have to do is cooperate fully with that salvation. Many condemn Christianity because there are sinners in our ranks, much like the Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with tax collectors (cf. Matthew 9:9-13). Well, yeah. That’s the idea. Christ tells us that, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
G. K. Chesterton expressed it this way in Heretics: “Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men.”
But we can rise above that foolhardiness. We can rise above the sins and errors, crimes and misdeeds. We can acknowledge our failings and become great men anyway. Paul, a Roman Jew who happily persecuted and killed Christians shortly after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, experienced a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus and went on to become one of Christianity’s most revered authors, theologians, and Saints. Although Colson wasn’t persecuting Christians (as far as I know) before his conversion, he was similarly diabolical—a word that means ‘pertaining to or befitting the devil.’
Elected officials and their chosen appointees take on a solemn public trust, and the betrayal of that trust is (in my humble opinion) one of the most serious crimes somebody can commit. If I had been around at the time, I’d have been calling for Colson’s head just like I always do when politicians are caught in the midst of serious criminal activity. Whether corruption, perjury, obstruction of justice, fraud, or bribery, I have little patience for it on either side of the political spectrum. I have been equally harsh toward Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (R), Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY 15th), Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (R), Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH 17th), Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX 22nd), President Bill Clinton (D), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), and Attorney General Eric Holder (D) . . . to name just a few of the notable examples from the last 15-or-so years.
Too many of these people got off scot-free after committing crimes that would have landed me or almost anybody else in prison. Some, like perjurer (and incumbent Attorney General) Holder, were never even charged for their crimes. I’m pretty sure that authorizing government agents to sell guns to arms traffickers and Mexican drug cartels is a crime, even if lying about it to Congress isn’t. . . . But I digress.
Colson, though deservedly included in any good list of U.S. political criminals, quickly became pretty unique among that motley crew. He pleaded guilty to the crimes he committed. He served his time willingly. Speaking in 2005, he said, “I went to prison, voluntarily. I deserved it.” I can’t think of any other political criminal who both went to prison and admitted that they deserved it. When he left the federal prison, Colson announced that he intended to devote the rest of his life to religious work. And, perhaps surprising to those who thought his conversion was just a ploy for a lenient sentence, he did exactly that.
In 1976, Colson founded Prison Followship, an organization dedicated to Christian outreach to prisoners and their families—in accord with Christ’s statement that when we visit the imprisoned, we visit Christ (cf. Matthew 25:34-46). In Catholic theological tradition, we refer to this—along with the other things listed in Matthew 25—as the Corporal Works of Mercy. The Fellowship helps prepare prisoners for release back into the community, provides religious guidance to those who seek it, and continues to work with prisoners as they transition back into society. According to one study, the Prison Fellowship’s ‘InnerChange’ program reduces prisoner recidivism by well over fifty percent over a two-year period following release.
In 1991 Colson launched BreakPoint, a daily Christian radio commentary, and then in 2009 he launched the Charles Colson Center for Christian Worldview dedicated to espousing the Christian perspective on important social and moral issues. He has also written a number of books on religious matters, including the noteworthy Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission.
At the time, it was particularly controversial in ‘evangelical’ Protestant circles to promote working with Catholics. Although there is much theological disagreement between ‘evangelical’ Protestants (like Colson) and Catholics (like myself), there are in fact innumerable things we can agree upon with regard to the basic tenets of faith and morals. Colson was one of the earliest and most-consistent voices in favor of these disparate Christians groups working together, at least in those areas where we can agree, and Colson apparently went to great lengths to engage his Orthodox and Catholic brethren on an equal footing with his fellow Protestants whenever possible.
More recently, Colson was an instrumental force behind the Manhattan Declaration, a clear, powerful, ecumenical document defending the right of Christians to hold to our traditional religious beliefs and to espouse those beliefs in our lives—even in the public square. This basic 1st Amendment right wasn’t up for debate until very recently. The Declaration was initially signed by over 150 religious leaders, including Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians, who have since been joined by over 525,000 more signers.
If Colson only became a Christian to reduce his prison sentence, he sure went overboard with it.
But of course it is clear that Colson’s conversion, like billions of others over the course of the last 2,000 years, was true and sincere. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Colson was touched by the Christian faith—by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—and it compelled him to change his life for the better. He went from being the (deservedly) reviled ‘hatchet man’ in one of the most corrupt political administrations in American history to being one of the strongest defenders of the weak, the imprisoned, and the persecuted. He went from being a man without any apparent moral compass at all to being one of the most morally upright voices in the public square. As the Boston Globe’s editors wrote in a 1973 editorial, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.”
And that’s exactly the point of this Christian faith that Colson so heartily embraced decades ago. Yes indeed, there is hope for everybody.