Evolution Of A 'Hatchet Man'

Charles Colson's Transition from Prison Reformer To Religious Right Reactionary

Chuck Colson's public image is that of a mild-mannered prison reformer, a man who went from being the "hatchet man" who orchestrated President Richard M. Nixon's infamous "dirty tricks" to a devout Christian determined to improve the lot of men and women behind bars.

The reality is something different. In the years since his religious conversion in 1973, Colson, who pled guilty to obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal and served seven months in a federal prison, has increasingly sounded more like a TV preacher than the moderate evangelical he is portrayed to be.

Colson adds an intellectual sheen to his hard-line views. Although his primary influence is the late evangelical guru Francis Schaeffer, he can quote Erasmus and likes to sprinkle his writings with references to a wide range of theologians and philosophers. But at the end of the day, it's clear he's little more than Jerry Falwell with footnotes.

Colson has it all figured out: Christians of his stripe should reign supreme over all aspects of life. Anyone who fails to adopt his religious outlook isn't taking Christianity seriously, is "post-modern" or has fallen prey to moral relativism.

At times, Colson sounds like a Christian Reconstructionist. Writing in the conservative Catholic journal First Things in 2000, Colson quoted Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a Dutch theologian, politician and noted Calvinist, who observed, "There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign, does not cry out, 'Mine!' Christians must recognize this in order to know the fullness of life in Christ, to be able to formulate a defense of Christian truth in every single area of life, and to begin taking back our culture in the name of the King of kings."

Colson was not always so extreme. Following his release from prison, he penned a best-selling autobiography titled Born Again and founded Prison Fellowship. The group's budget grew to over $30 million annually, and Colson became a popular figure and much-sought speaker on the lecture circuit. Colson, who now serves as chairman of Prison Fellowship's Board of Directors, also frequently traveled to prisons and preached to inmates.

In those early years, Colson claimed to be above the political fray. He criticized right-wing and left-wing groups for taking positions that he said were too extreme. His emphasis on rehabilitation of prisoners over punishment often earned him kudos from the left and a reputation as a true humanitarian.

It didn't take long for Colson to begin drifting into the Religious Right camp. In his 1988 book, Kingdoms in Conflict: An Insider's Challenging View of Politics, Power and the Pulpit, Colson claimed to be staking out a middle ground on church-state relations, but in fact, the book, which was reissued two years ago, is replete with shopworn Religious Right canards, harsh attacks on church-state separation and assaults on the Supreme Court rulings that uphold that principle.

Colson has returned to those themes time and again. In 1999's How Now Shall We Live?, Colson and coauthor Nancy Pearcey blast public education, endorse religious school voucher programs, criticize the theory of evolution, excoriate reproductive rights and demand that government post religious codes like the Ten Commandments. The book, which was accompanied by a study guide for church-based programs, has been influential. Last year, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said the Colson tome influenced him to promote church-based politicking.

Colson makes his disdain for church-state separation clear in the book. He says public education is doomed because it is rife with evolution and "humanistic" ideas and fails to base its instruction on Christianity (or more accurately, Colson's version of Christianity.)

"A faulty view of creation has led directly to the conceptual and moral relativism that plagues modern public education," he writes. "Equally disastrous has been the loss of the biblical teaching on sin and the Fall [of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden]."

Colson's reach in the evangelical community is significant. He writes a regular column for Christianity Today, and his daily radio commentary, "BreakPoint," is heard on hundreds of religious stations. In 1993, he received the Templeton Prize, a million-dollar cash award given annually to the person who has done the most to advance conservative Christianity. (Colson donated the money to Prison Fellowship.)

Unlike some in the Religious Right, Colson is willing to work with non-fundamentalist Christians who share his far-right views. He has worked hard to build a political and religious alliance between evangelical Protestants and right-wing Roman Catholics.

In 1994, Colson and conservative Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus teamed up to issue a joint statement, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," that demanded vouchers for religious schools, religious activity in public schools, an end to legal abortion and the abandonment of church-state separation at the Supreme Court. Among the signers were TV preacher Pat Robertson and the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor.

Two years later, Colson and Neuhaus struck again when Neuhaus' journal First Things published a special "symposium" titled "The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics." The symposium, which Colson took part in, came under fire from some other conservatives for being too strident and stating that the U.S. government was no longer legitimate; it even flirted with the possibility of revolution, presumably an armed one.

Colson bashes gays with abandon and takes the standard Religious Right view of male supremacy in marriage. Writing in Christianity Today in November of 1996, Colson and coauthor Pearcey asserted that "Churches need to preach once again a full biblical message on manhood: That men are called to fulfill an office as moral and spiritual head of the home. That maintaining a family is not 'women's work,' it is a man's job."

A month earlier in Christianity Today, Colson and Pearcey attacked one of the pillars of republican government, flatly asserting, "Contrary to what most Americans think, the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court final say on constitutional questions."

Like many in the Religious Right, Colson seems to believe that the government should have the ability and perhaps even the duty to promote his chosen version of Christianity. In November, he made it clear in First Things that he wants no competition from non-Christians in his prison program.

Colson asserted that prisons are fertile recruiting grounds for "radical Islam" and wrote of visiting a prison where Muslims with "hard, angry expressions" refused to even shake his hand. He advocated legal curbs on "radical" Muslim groups behinds bars but said the ultimate answer is "bringing the gospel into the prisons and telling inmates that in Christ their sins are forgiven."

Although he's prolific, it's difficult to say how much of Colson's output is his own. Last year, he admitted that ghostwriters pen much of his material. Colson defended the practice, saying he gives his coauthors credit when he feels he should. Ironically, the situation came to light just as Colson was criticizing historian Stephen Ambrose, who had been accused of plagiarism. (One of Colson's former coauthors, Michael Gerson, is now the top speechwriter in the Bush White House.)

Colson does more than just pontificate in magazine pages. He has also engaged in partisan politics on occasion. Speaking at a Promise Keepers rally in 1996, he blasted Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, for vetoing a school prayer bill and called on attendees from North Carolina to vote for Robin Hayes, the GOP gubernatorial candidate.

Colson also denounced the Supreme Court for striking down a constitutional amendment in Colorado designed to take away the rights of gay people, asking, "How do we fight? Politics." Pointing to Hayes, Colson added, "Thank God, Christian men like this are in politics."

"During the first two decades after he left prison, he invariably criticized Christian political activism for its self-righteousness," wrote Plotz. "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 [Pat] Robertson, but he seems angrier and angrier, and he is more and more willing to wade into politics."

Colson is close to President George W. Bush. With "faith-based" initiatives becoming more popular in Washington and in the states, Colson may find that, despite his radical views, his influence and access to public funding are only increasing.