In the wake of Chuck Colson’s death, we hear a lot about the two Colsons. The theme usually comes in the form of a stark contrast: the Chuck Colson sullied by his early political misdeeds versus the Colson redeemed by his later religious reformation. The early Colson gained notoriety for his authorship of the “enemies list,” his efforts to defame opponents, and his illegal actions under President Nixon. Later, after serving time in a federal facility, Colson seemed to emerge a changed man. He became a reborn follower of Christ and the creator of Prison Fellowship, a nationwide prison ministry. This narrative of two Colsons is pushed by Colson himself, whose own Fellowship describes him as the former “Watergate Crook.” The contrast between Colson past and present becomes the basis for a morality tale.
The problem with this simple narrative should be obvious. Even if one concedes Colson’s contributions in certain areas like prison reform in his later career, his adversarial and intolerant posture on many fronts suggests key points of continuity with the earlier Colson. He was closely aligned with the Religious Right for most of the later period, and actively engaged in the “culture war” on the side of social conservatives against moderates and progressives. On numerous issues he took positions seen as radical and close-minded by many Americans. Under the circumstances, it is worth treating the Chuck Colson transformation saga with skepticism.
There is little doubt that Colson was shaken in the aftermath of his transgressions and public humiliation. Moreover, there is no reason to question, it seems to me, the sincerity of his religious conversion under those circumstances. When the Christian Right first flexed its muscles in the 1980s, Colson was gun-shy about full-scale religious involvement in politics. Such a preoccupation with political affairs “diverts the church from its primary mission,” he stated in his book Kingdoms in Conflict (1987). He was openly critical of the dominionist goals of some in the movement, who talked of a Christian take-over and sought to impose a Christian solution on society. Taking a less controversial position, he endorsed religion’s role in working “through civil authority for the advancement of justice and human good” (p.118). His hero in this regard was William Wilberforce, the evangelical politician who helped to end slavery in 19th century Britain and worked with both religious and secular forces to bring it about.
But in his real life commitments, Colson never seemed willing or able to adopt the balanced approach of a Wilberforce. Colson was caught up in the moral fervor of the newborn Christian Right with its focus on sexual mores and its confrontational posture toward gays, feminists, liberals, and others. He was a dedicated follower of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), the philosophical father of the Religious Right, who stressed the need to confront the alleged evils of secularism. Colson became a leading proponent of Schaeffer’s version of Christian Worldview as a way of critiquing the enemy and providing a so-called biblical way of approaching the world.
As mentioned, Colson always felt uncomfortable with talk of theocracy. Nonetheless, he accepted the notion that Christianity had the leading role to play in returning America to its alleged Christian roots. He simply preferred to emphasize cultural and social, rather than political, means to bring about this transformation. In How Now Shall We Live?, he (and co-author Nancy Pearcey) makes clear his passion for redeeming “all God’s creation.” By this he means that all things need to be brought under the “lordship of Christ”: home, school, workshop, corporate boardroom, movie screen, concert stage, city council, legislative chamber (p. 296). In Colson’s vision of an ideal society, “there is no invisible dividing line between sacred and secular.”
Such blurring of lines, in direct repudiation of our Constitution and national ethos, is typical of the whole Christian rightist project. It is the necessary outcome of Colson’s working assumptions, namely, that secularism is an enemy to be eliminated from American life and that Christianity is designed to be a world-changing creed on all levels. The goal seems to be a society in which the biblical God stands as the final authority and evangelical Christianity plays the dominant role.
The commonly heard tale of two Colsons survives the veracity test only on a superficial level. In his second life, Colson took on the rhetoric of righteousness and professed to follow it. But his fervent efforts to subdue the perceived enemy (i.e. the upholders of a neutral, secular society) and to force upon others his own radical view of the world are more characteristic of the old Colson than his allies would like to admit.