Charles Colson

How a Watergate crook became America’s greatest Christian conservative.

John McCain and George W. Bush, who agree about virtually nothing, agree about Charles Colson. In his speech lambasting Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the “agents of intolerance,” McCain singled out Colson for praise, complimenting the Watergate felon for his prison ministry. Bush, meanwhile, has given Colson a Texas prison wing to run on Christian principles. The Inner Change program is the show horse of Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Colson is increasingly beloved outside the GOP, too. When the New York Times needed an op-ed about the Republican religious war, they turned to Colson, who high-mindedly deplored efforts to divide evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

Colson’s sanctification caps one of the most extraordinary redemptions in recent history. Colson doesn’t like to talk about his Watergate villainy. He calls himself a “sinner” and demurs, “I was a part of Watergate.” He has good reason to be cagey. As special counsel to the president, he was Richard Nixon’s hard man, the “evil genius” of an evil administration. According to Watergate historian Stanley Kutler, Colson sought to hire Teamsters thugs to beat up anti-war demonstrators, and he plotted to raid or firebomb the Brookings Institution. He eventually pleaded guilty to scheming to defame Daniel Ellsberg and interfering with his trial. In 1974, Colson served seven months in federal prison.

Colson had found Christ before he went to jail. (Democratic Washington, of course, considered his conversion a joke.) Prison cemented his faith. When he was released, he wrote the mega-best-seller Born Again and used the royalties to start Prison Fellowship Ministries. Prison Fellowship’s purpose is to save convicts’ souls and help them turn around their lives. (Colson once said he would trample his own grandmother to get Nixon re-elected. Now he would run her down to bring someone to Jesus.) Colson has given his life to the cause, visiting the bleakest prisons to preach the gospel.

Prison Fellowship thrived, and Colson has become the nation’s greatest prison reformer. Its 50,000 volunteers are active in the vast majority of American correctional institutions. Its pen pals correspond with 27,000 prisoners. More than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars every year. Prison Fellowship publishes the most widely distributed prison newspaper, provides post-release pastoring for thousands of ex-cons, and supplies Christmas gifts to hundreds of thousands of kids with a locked-up parent. Studies suggest that Prison Fellowship lowers recidivism.

Colson may be the inspiration of the joke, “A liberal is a conservative who’s been to prison.” On prison issues, he is a darling of the left. He insists that nonviolent criminals should not be jailed, that more convicts should be paroled, and that drug offenders should be treated rather than incarcerated. He works desperately to convince conservative lawmakers to reconsider their lock-’em-up views. Colson lobbies for better prison conditions. He champions “restorative justice,” a promising notion now being tested all over the country. Restorative justice holds that crime is committed not against the state but against a victim and against God. In restorative justice, nonviolent criminals stay out of jail, remain in the community where they committed their crime, and work to support their families and pay restitution to the victim. Ideally, the criminal seeks reconciliation with the victim, too.

Secular admirers overlook the central fact about Colson’s work: He is a hard-core evangelist. Colson seeks to convert prisoners to Christianity, not necessarily to rehabilitate them. If they repair their lives, all the better, but souls matter most. This fact shadows Colson’s ambitious Inner Change project. Colson’s volunteers run the daily lives of about 200 Texas inmates. From dawn to dusk, the inmates attend prayer meetings, Bible study, and chapel. All activities are explicitly evangelical and Protestant. Though Inner Change is being widely praised and imitated, Muslims in the program complain of ostracism, and civil libertarians are alarmed at the project’s aggressive promotion of Christianity.

Colson has become a revered figure not only because of his manifold good works but also because he avoids the errors made by other religious-right leaders. Christian conservatives such as Robertson and Falwell craved national prestige. But they sought it crudely. They were hinterlands preachers, not political sophisticates. They didn’t speak the language of politics, and their shrill self-righteousness scared away millions and made the Christian right a bugaboo.

Unlike other Christian conservatives, Colson has tasted political power. It destroyed him, and he is inoculated against it. This allows him to keep his distance from the ugliness of power politics. (Colson likes to joke that he can’t vote because he’s an ex-con.) Colson learned the language of politics before he learned to preach, so he knows how to speak to secular audiences in ways that won’t offend them.

This combination of reticence and political deftness has made Colson the most presentable of Christian conservatives. His prison work is selfless. He doesn’t thrust himself into the spotlight. Since he has never built a political organization, he has the credibility of a neutral party. In the culture war, he is Switzerland. Colson has been an equal-opportunity critic, smacking the left for its sneers at religion and the right for its intolerant moralizing.

There are hints that Colson is changing as his popularity increases. During the first two decades after he left prison, he invariably criticized Christian political activism for its self-righteousness. But that criticism is subsiding. In his radio shows and columns, which reach millions of Christians, Colson sounds increasingly like other religious-right preachers. He doesn’t yet have the bile of a Robertson, but he seems angrier and angrier, and he is more and more willing to wade into politics. He harshly criticizes evolution. He has lobbied to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. He has been increasingly vocal about his loathing for gay rights. (The villains of Colson’s apocalyptic novel are AIDS activists.) He pushed hard for the impeachment of President Clinton.

Through decades of service to the needy, Colson has made himself one of America’s greatest Christian leaders. Why would he tarnish that by becoming just another Gary Bauer?