Every conversion story is, at heart, a story about being wrong. Whether they are agonizingly slow or all but instantaneous, whether they happen in a garden or in prison or on the road to Damascus, conversions don’t just represent the embrace of a new worldview. They also represent the utter rejection of the convert’s past. Consider, for example, Chuck Colson, and the strange tale of how (as this magazine once put it) “a Watergate crook became America’s greatest Christian conservative.”
Today, Colson is a prominent evangelical leader and founder of the Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview . During the Nixon administration, though, he was, by all accounts (including his own) secular, self-obsessed, and scary. Officially, he was special counsel to the president. Unofficially, he was Nixon’s hatchet man and “the White House tough guy.” In 1973, as the waters of Watergate rose around him, Colson simultaneously found God and found himself in prison for obstruction of justice. Below, he and I talk about why he converted, what he regrets most about his involvement with Watergate, and why Christianity is “the religion of second chances.”
You have a fairly dramatic conversion story. What first prompted it?
I was the principle strategist behind the 1972 reelection campaign of Richard Nixon, and when it was all over I should have been absolutely on top of the world. I’d succeeded, we won, it was a historic landslide. But instead I found myself staring out of the office window thinking, “So what?” I was getting ready to go back to my law firm and was going to make a fortune — literally, a half a million dollars a year. And I felt dead. Really dead.
Then I met a man who’d been a client of mine before I’d went to the White House. I’d not seen him the whole time I was in the White House, and when I went back to be his general counsel again, he was totally different, completely changed. I asked him what had happened to him. And he said these words: “I’ve accepted Jesus Christ and committed my life to him.”
Well, I’m not from the Bible Belt. I come from New England, and I’m not used to people talking like that. I was startled, and I just sort of stared at him uncomfortably.
Was that just social discomfort, or was it an inner discomfort — the first stirrings of your conversion?
It must have been the latter, because about four months later, I called him up one night and said, “I’d like to come see you.” I drove over and spent an evening on his porch — this was August of 1973 — and he read to me from a little book entitled Mere Christianity , by C.S. Lewis. It was about pride, and it described me to a T.
That night when I left this gentleman’s home, something happened that had never happened to me before. I was getting into my automobile and I sat there and I couldn’t drive because I was crying too hard. I spent an hour on the side of the road right next to my friend’s home, crying, thinking about my wife, wanting to know God, wanting to be clean. I’m a former Marine captain and I was the White House tough guy, and I used to never cry — and if did, I wouldn’t let anybody know it. I thought the next morning I would wake up and be embarrassed. But I felt better than I had in years.
Can you recollect what you were crying about?
Sure, I can remember vividly. I was feeling totally lost and lonely and helpless and really conflicted about my own sinful behavior. A lot the stuff I was charged with in Watergate, some of it was true and some of it wasn’t, but my attitude towards other people and my self-obsession — I had a lot to think about in my life that I wasn’t very proud of. For the first time in my life, I realized I’d made a mess of things.
I’m trying to figure out the timeline here. When did that evening in your car happen in relation to Watergate?
That was in August of 1973, and that fall, my life absolutely plummeted. Initially the lawyers had told me I was not a target of the Watergate investigation. Within one month of my conversion, they told me I was a target, and I began to see the whole thing closing in on and me and getting worse and worse and worse and worse.
People think it was a jailhouse conversion — that my life fell apart and I converted. But I knew before that I was a different person. I began to have different values and a different attitude. I began to study the Bible. I was in a small prayer group with a group of men who really nurtured me and taught me lots of what I needed to know as a Christian and helped me to live my faith.
I admit I was one of those people who assumed it was a jailhouse conversion — that the pressures of Watergate prompted your spiritual crisis.
They really ran on parallel course. When the new [Watergate] prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed, the first thing he said in his press conference was, “We have to look at the role of Mr. Colson.” So I knew then that I was going to be dragged into it. That was two months before I went to visit my friend, so certainly by then I was beginning to feel the pressures of Watergate.
I was also feeling very depressed because I had worked around the clock for two years to get Richard Nixon reelected. He was my friend, I liked the man, I believed in him, and I’m watching everything I’ve worked day and night to build collapse around me. That was a very disillusioning experience. As much as being worried about my own future, I think that was what had me searching for something more meaningful in life.
How many of the Watergate revelations did you already know about?
A lot of it came as great surprises. I had no idea about the meetings that had taken place. As the prosecutors said when they brought the indictment against me, they could only charge me on two counts because I hadn’t been in the vast majority of the meetings that constituted the cover-up. I also didn’t know there was a taping system, so that was shattering. I spent most of 1973 being shocked by headlines, and not believing a lot of them at first.
Speaking of being wrong! It must be pretty stunning to learn such things about people you’d been working closely with for years.
Yeah, but you don’t make any close friends in the White House. No one does. So that part wasn’t so bad, but I realized how easily everything you put your heart and soul into for two years, three years, four years could go down the garbage. That was the disillusioning part.
If Watergate didn’t prompt your conversion, do you feel that your conversion affected how you handled Watergate?
Oh, yes. One day I did a show with Mike Wallace. This was when Watergate was absolutely at a fever pitch and the trials were going to begin and by this time I’d been indicted. He asked me how I could be a friend of Richard Nixon, given the things Nixon had said on the tapes. And I said, “Well, he’s my friend and I don’t turn my back on my friend.”
I got home that night and realized that there was no way I could be a good witness for Christ if I compromised on what I could say, or was not as fully honest as I could be. So I decided the best thing I could do was plead guilty. I sent my lawyers into the Watergate prosecutors to say I wouldn’t plea bargain, and that I had not done what they charged me with [conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary], but here was something I had done [obstruction of justice] — and if they wanted to charge me with that, I would plead guilty. And I did.
When you look back on that era, what’s your biggest regret?
My biggest regret is that I saw things going on that I should’ve known were wrong or I knew were wrong but then I rationalized them away. I didn’t say anything. I should’ve spoken up a number of times and said, “Wait a moment, this isn’t right,” and I didn’t. That’s my greatest regret.
What do you think stopped you from speaking out?
A couple of times it was because I was in meetings with the president and [Henry] Kissinger where they said, “This is life and death national security, people are going to die if we expose these sources.” So part of it was national security. Part of it was, to be perfectly honest, I wanted to stay in the inner circle. It was self interest.
Thinking back on it today, how would you characterize yourself pre-conversion?
I think I was the typical Type A person who rushes through life mostly using people. I thought much more about my own self-interest than anybody’s else’s. That led to the breakup of my first marriage; I was responsible for that.
When you think about that person now, how do you feel about him? Do you identify with him, do you see yourself in him?
I can’t imagine I lived the way I did. I cannot imagine. I shudder when I think about it, because I feel so totally differently about life. Now, please don’t get the impression that somebody who’s a really bad guy and then all of a sudden finds Christ, the next day he’s a saint. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve been 37 years as a believer in Jesus Christ, and I’ve discovered that every year you grow a little more than the year before. It isn’t like all of a sudden you turn a switch and you go from A to B. You do in one sense, because your whole worldview is very different; you realize you’ve got to see things the way God sees them, not the way you do. So that part changes fast, but it doesn’t immediately reflect itself in how you live. That part takes time.
Paul, who was the greatest apostle of the Christian Church, said, “I die daily.” He meant the old Paul had to die so the new Paul could live, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we all need to do that.
What was the effect of your conversion on your social life? I can’t imagine the new you fit very well into your old D.C. political circles.
I used to go to all the cocktail parties and drank too much and smoked constantly. I stopped doing that, but I still went back to the same people. Many of them couldn’t quite figure me out, but I didn’t abandon my old friends. I’ve always been loyal in my life, so I kept a lot of my old friends. And I have to tell you, over a period of time, many of them became believers.
Even to this day, I go out of my way to spend time with people who are in the same position I was in before my conversion, because I know how much they need to find Christ, and how much they need to have hope in their lives. I don’t just stop seeing people.
Interesting. Given that you shudder when you think about your past self, I would expect that your past social circles would feel profoundly alienating.
My attitude about the cultural question is a very different issue. When I think back to all the cocktail parties I went to where everybody was trying to be seen with the most important person in the room, or where everybody was elbowing everybody else out of the way — today I just can’t imagine doing that. The few times I’ve gone back to political events — I’m fond of my own friends in politics, but I can’t wait to get away.
I’ve always had a populist attitude, I was always offended by elitism. When I applied to college, I applied to Harvard and Brown and was accepted at both, and Harvard called me in to tell me they had offered me a full scholarship. I thought the dean was kind of uppity and I just got turned off by the atmosphere, so I went to Brown, which was considered the poor cousin of the Ivy League in those days. I just always wanted to be a little bit different. I didn’t like the elitist style of people in the Northeast, and today I found myself really repulsed by it. So maybe I already had those streaks, but they’ve been intensified.
Let me ask you about your time in prison. You were there for, what, about half a year?
I went to prison in June of 1974. I spent seven months there, and hated every minute of it, obviously. But I got out and was glad, because it was part of what I needed as a Christian: to see how other people lived, to be in a position where I was helpless and had to learn how to lean on God. And in the 35 years since I’ve been released from prison, I’ve spent all my time in ministry, most of it in ministry to prisoners.
What was it about your experience that inspired that decision?
When I was in prison, I saw the absolute futility of the prison system. There’s no way you can take a bunch of criminals, stick ‘em in a dormitory where they sit around at night comparing the crimes they committed and how they’re going to do it next time, and expect to rehabilitate them. It’s demeaning, it’s demoralizing, it doesn’t give people aspirations to do the right thing. It almost encourages the wrong thing. So I got out of prison and I realized: This isn’t working.
That’s what got me to start the prison ministry. But as I was trying to put Bible studies in all the prisons, they were growing so fast I couldn’t keep up with them. The figures were astounding. When I got out, there were 239,000 people in prison. Today there are 2.3 million. So I started asking myself, “Why is this happening?” The prevailing view well into the 1970s was that crime is caused by environmental factors — by dysfunctional childhoods, by racism, by poverty. So the criminals became victims, victims of society, which to me didn’t make sense. Then I came across two people who were doing studies on criminal behavior, and they came to the conclusion that crime is not caused by environment or poverty or deprivation. It is caused by individuals making wrong moral choices, and that’s exactly what I was experiencing working with thousands of prisoners. So I got in touch with those guys and learned a lot from them.
Why are those incompatible views? It seems to me that negative environmental influences could make it harder to make good moral choices.
Professor [James Q.] Wilson at Harvard did a study on causes of crime and decided it was caused by lack of moral training during the morally formative years. So it’s a character issue and it’s a family issue, breakdown of the family, which got me really interested in the biblical worldview.
[Psychiatrist] Samuel Yochelson said something very, very significant; he said crime is caused by people making wrong moral choices. The answer to crime therefore is the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle. I think that’s exactly what a Christian conversion is: to leave a wrongful style of life behind and realize, if you want to follow Christ, you have to live a different way. I think that’s the answer to the crime problem, which is why I’ve spent all my career on it.
A lot of your fellow conservatives are lock-em-and-leave-em types; they’re perfectly happy with the status quo of the criminal justice system. Why do you think that is?
When I first got out of prison and started talking about this in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, most of my conservative friends thought I’d lost my mind, and most of them were against me. Then I began to develop my arguments and write about them — I wrote two books on moral justice and restorative justice: the notion that, instead of just punishing people, you put them to work and [have them] make restitution and do service — and frankly since then there’s been a big change.
I tell my conservative friends who disagree with me, “You guys aren’t being conservative. You’re taking a big government solution, you’re thinking prisons are going to change people and that’s just not the case.” I think I’ve converted a lot of my old conservative skeptics.
A lot of people who work on prison reform issues hail from the left, including the far left. What’s it like to work alongside people with whom you disagree about so many other things?
I find you can work side by side. I’ve had no problems with that; I enjoy some of these people. There are some I find mean-spirited and just don’t want to work together, but most of them do. Especially in Congress. The latest bill that was just passed on level sentencing — so that cocaine users don’t get off easier than crack users — people are saying, “This campaign was led by an odd assortment of people, the ACLU and Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship.” And the prison rape bill was engineered by conservatives; Jeb Sessions, a republican from Alabama, for goodness sakes, took the lead along with Ted Kennedy.
So we’ve been building some unlikely alliances. We disagree profoundly on questions of religious liberty, but we certainly agree that prisons aren’t rehabilitating and that the prison system is a high-cost, unproductive solution. You learn to take people where you find them and not put them in a stereotypical category.
Let me ask you a few questions about wrongness and religion. We sometimes associate being wrong with being evil; if you read Saint Augustine, for instance, he grapples with the question of whether or not mistakes are sins. What do you think Christianity teaches about making mistakes?
Of all the religions and philosophies in the world, Christianity is the most interested in people who’ve made mistakes, because it says you can repent and be forgiven and start over again. Buddhism doesn’t offer that, nor does Hinduism, nor does Judaism, nor does Islam. Christianity is the religion of second chances. I’ve preached in prisons in 40 countries and I’ve preached in 800 prisons in America, and I talk about the fact that you can be forgiven of your sins and be given a new life. In Hindu countries, their eyes open like saucers because they’ve never heard that. I think Christianity is one of the most tolerant of all religions when it comes to making mistakes.
Christianity also preaches humility and an awareness of our human fallibility. Yet evangelicalism presupposes that you have access to the absolute truth about God. How do you square those two things?
I don’t think it’s hard to do at all. If you’re a Jew, you believe exactly what you’re taught, which is that you’re born of the covenant people. If you’re a Hindu, you believe exactly what Hindus teach about reincarnation, about karma and consciousness, about the idea that we are a dream in the mind of God. These are all truth claims. And I respect everybody’s right to make a truth claim.
My truth claim is that Jesus says, “No man comes to the Father but through me.” Therefore I want people to come to Christ because I want them to be forgiven of their sins. It is a truth claim, but it is not an exclusive truth claim, because what Jesus is saying is: Everybody is free to come. You don’t have to be born in to a certain heritage. You have to believe a certain thing. Everybody is free to come and be forgiven. That’s my truth claim.
What exactly does it mean to “respect” everyone’s truth claims, given that in the end you’re trying to get everyone to recognize your truth claim as the real one?
We can’t all be right. Ultimately I want everybody to find what I have found in life, I want to share it with people. But I also recognize that all religions have good things in them, and a lot of them share many common values. I believe moral teaching is universal, I believe we are made with a desire for certain goals and outcomes, that that’s just the way we’re wired. So Hindus have some very good values, Muslims do too. I don’t feel exclusive. I think a lot can be learned from different faiths.
In the end, you’ve got to decide for you, what is the right road to God? And Christians in that sense don’t have any wiggle room. We’re not given any leeway in that.
What do you see as the role of doubt within religious faith?
I see doubt as a confirmation that someone is a true believer. If we believed completely, if we didn’t have any doubts, we would be incapable of loving God volitionally. Richard Dawkins famously said, “If God really were God, he would have made himself well known to people.” Precisely the opposite. He wouldn’t make himself better known, he’d make himself less known. If we got to the point where we knew everything about Him and we had no doubts at all, love wouldn’t be love. It would be like looking out your window at the tree outside; you’d just take it for granted.
You’ve experienced two almost completely different lives, two completely different worldviews. Can you imagine undergoing other major conversions in the future? Are there things you believe today that you can conceive of rejecting in the future?
Well, I’m a Baptist, and maybe I’ll discover someday that adult baptism isn’t required. Maybe I’ll discover that I’ve had a misunderstanding of some of the doctrines of the faith. I certainly haven’t spent a life studying or writing like Aquinas or Augustine did. I don’t profess to have all the answers. I think there’s probably a lot of things I could discover I was wrong about.
But I can’t conceive that I could be wrong about the fundamental questions. Do I believe Jesus Christ is who he says he is? Does he speak with the authority of God himself? Is there a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? No, I cannot imagine I could be wrong about those things.
What about outside of religion? For instance, can you imagine having a change of heart on some of your political beliefs?
[laughs] I have those all the time.
Really? Like what?
You get disappointed in people, you think they’re doing the right thing and then they let you down. Maybe this is the best way to explain it. I reject ideology, because ideology is manmade. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the right or the left. I believe you should live your life by the guidance of revealed truth. Revealed truth comes to you, in the case of the Christian, through experience, through natural law, through preserving a moral order, through being very respectful and humble because you realize you have much less wisdom than the giants who’ve come before you. That to me is the conservative disposition. I find that very humbling. So, yeah, I think I could wake up tomorrow and say, “Maybe I was wrong about X or Y or Z.”
If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
Oh, my goodness. Half the politicians in America.
Ha. Do you want me to name one person?
No, not necessarily. You can name as many as you like.
Well, how many people are willing to admit it? I’ve established beyond a shadow of a doubt that many of the things written about me were false, but I can’t get certain people to acknowledge that. I don’t care if they do or don’t, it’s not something I lie awake wondering about.
But who would I really like to hear express a litany of all the mistakes they made? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. All of us would have a lot of talking to do.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .