Magazine article Church & State

Evolution of a `Hatchet Man': Charles Colson's Transition from Prison Reformer to Religious Right Reactionary

Magazine article Church & State

Evolution of a `Hatchet Man': Charles Colson's Transition from Prison Reformer to Religious Right Reactionary

Article excerpt

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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.