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Ex-Con

The Remarkable Second Career of Chuck Colson

Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By JOE LOCONTE
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Sixty-seven-year-old Chuck Colson looks almost spry as he threads his way through the New Jersey State Prison, a maximum security facility in Trenton, New Jersey. The barbed wire, watchtowers, and 15-foot walls suggest a pretty exclusive club: Only men who've committed crimes earning them 25 years to life are admitted here.

Charles Colson

Charles Colson

But it is Easter morning, and Colson is here to preach. Over 200 inmates, in khakis and T-shirts, turn out to hear him. "Jesus turned the values of the world upside down," he tells them, "because he came not for the victors, but for the losers."

So while other religious celebrities are exchanging pleasantries with well-groomed congregants, Colson is mixing it up with violent felons. He shakes hands, embraces them, prays with them. Several slip notes into his pocket, thanking him for coming. "I'd rather preach in prison than anywhere else," he says later. "You're meeting people at a point of incredible need. You don't have to explain that they're sinners. They know it, and they're hungry."

As the founder of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest prison ministry, operating now in 83 countries, Colson has repeated the scene hundreds of times. Most every warden in America knows who he is. Thousands of inmates have read his book Born Again, where he recounts his jolting journey to Christian faith -- from serving in President Nixon's inner circle to sorting laundry during his stint at a federal prison for Watergate crimes.

Still, the image of Chuck Colson praying with prison thugs doesn't fit the stock portrait of one of America's most powerful Christian conservatives, which Colson clearly is. Soon after U.S. senator Sam Brownback arrived in Washington, he asked for a meeting with Colson, whom he calls a leader of "soul-based conservatism." Presidential hopeful Gary Bauer describes him as "the voice of real wisdom" for Christians in politics. James Dobson, president of the vast radio ministry Focus on the Family, phones him every few days for advice. Former drug czar Bill Bennett and Princeton criminologist John DiIulio -- the toughest of the tough-on-crime crowd -- both say Colson helped change their minds about the purposes of incarceration.

What is surprising is that, in an era so politicized that even cloistered monks might show up on Meet the Press, Colson himself rarely enters national politics. He makes only occasional television appearances, is seldom in Washington, and has never tried to build a political organization.

Over the last 25 years, the man who at one time would have "run over his grandmother" to win an election, has built something else: a vast and effective ministry of mercy to the nation's prisoners. His legions of church-based volunteers, drawn from virtually all denominations, are active in most of the nation's 1,600 state and federal prisons. His programs extend to both the children of inmates and the victims of crime. A state prison in Texas, run like a spiritual retreat center, is getting visits from criminal justice officials nationwide.

Along the way, Colson has established himself as one of the most important social reformers in a generation. His work among inmates earned him the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, placing him in the ranks of Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Mother Teresa. He's become a voice for "muscular" Christianity, denying liberal notions of human goodness, while insisting that faith produce good works. "He has helped recover a great reform tradition, the tradition of William Wilberforce in England, the abolition movement in America," says Martin E. Marty, one of the nation's foremost historians of religion. "He's showing what can be done to renew culture through these mediating institutions."

While some conservative Christians suggest pulling out of the culture war, the former Marine captain shows no sign of retreat. He dismisses talk of building "alternative institutions" as a one-way ticket to marginalization. His upcoming book (co-authored with Nancy Pearcey) How Now Shall We Live? is a plea for Christians to reengage their world with biblical thinking. "Our culture needs to be reevangelized," he says. "The Christian worldview must be brought to bear in new form and forcefulness on the intellectual and moral framework of contemporary life."
 
Two Conversions

One could argue that Colson always possessed a believer's zeal. From the time he served as an aide to U.S. senator Leverett Saltonstall in the 1950s, then founded a Washington law firm, through his role as special counsel to President Nixon starting in 1969, Colson knelt at the altar of politics and power. A manic work schedule wrecked his first marriage. Around the White House, his hardball tactics earned him the title "hatchet man." He baldly manipulated southern evangelicals and Catholics at election time. Time magazine labeled him "the toughest of the Nixon tough guys." Nixon himself called Colson "the guy who'll walk through a door without opening it."

Not a promising target for a weepy, walk-the-aisle-for-Jesus campaign. So perhaps it was providential that his first serious encounter with Christian faith was with the lucid prose and moral logic of C. S. Lewis. At the suggestion of an old friend, Raytheon president Tom Phillips, Colson picked up Mere Christianity in the summer of 1973 -- just as the Nixon presidency was in meltdown over Watergate. "It is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began," Lewis wrote. "For pride is spiritual cancer: It eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense." The book laid Colson bare and sent his lawyerly mind into a tailspin. Within a few weeks, he committed his life to Jesus.

In September 1973, Colson joined a weekly prayer group with, among others, the late senator Harold Hughes, a liberal Democrat from Iowa. Pundits roared. One columnist opined: "If he isn't embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be." By the following June, he would plead guilty to obstruction of justice, the first of the Nixon clique to fall. He served seven months at Maxwell Federal Prison in Alabama.

Prison sparked Colson's second conversion, this one on crime. The lifetime law-and-order Republican, author of some of Nixon's toughest anti-crime speeches, saw a justice system in free fall. Petty offenders got the same treatment as violent felons. Parole decisions seemed arbitrary. No one really expected criminals to stop committing crimes. "The system wasn't doing anything to restore or rehabilitate them," he says. "It was just warehousing them."

While at Maxwell, Colson helped organize a prayer group and through it saw the impact of faith on otherwise bitter and despairing men. "Therapy teaches people how to manage their problems," he explains. "But Christian conversion transforms the human will." He began to sense a call to enter what may be the least glamorous of mission fields.

Prison ministry in America dates back to the 18th-century penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, courtesy of the Quakers. Since then it's been confined mainly to Bible studies or Sunday services inside prisons. Colson's original idea was different: Give inmates intensive exposure to Christian teaching and fellowship, preferably outside the prison culture.

In 1976, soon after his release, Colson persuaded the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to furlough federal inmates to attend discipleship seminars. They would get two weeks of Bible training in a fraternity-like setting -- not in a lock-down facility, but in a Washington row house. Joe Pitts, a state legislator (now a congressman) from Pennsylvania, was so excited by the idea that he drove two convicts from his district to Washington in his own car.

That first initiative involved about 50 inmates. Most wardens balked at the off-site program, however, and within a year, Prison Fellowship was working almost exclusively inside prisons. Colson designed three-day seminars laying out the basics of Christian doctrine and Christian living. Bible studies, worship, and revival meetings were added to the mix. Over the next two decades these activities grew almost exponentially: Twenty-six thousand prisoners now meet for Bible studies alone, and there are a dozen different programs for inmates, their families, and crime victims. Last year the organization logged over 2,100 inprison seminars, drawing about 70,000 inmates. A budget of $ 38.7 million -- all privately funded -- supports 300 full-time staff and nearly 50,000 volunteers.

"They move from idea to acceptance to program faster and with more business acumen and heart than any organization I've ever seen," says John DiIulio, a board member and leading authority on faith-based crime-fighting programs. Imaginative partnerships with local churches are the key. When prison workers saw, for example, that offenders fared much better if connected to their families, Colson's outfit started the Angel Tree program, which provides Christmas presents for kids who have a parent in jail. In 1982, the program's first year, church volunteers bought gifts for about 500 children. Last year, 14,000 congregations -- Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, you name it -- participated, buying and wrapping presents requested by inmates for over half a million children. When possible, churches are matched with children in their own neighborhood, and church teenagers organize and host Christmas parties for the families.

Colson's most ambitious project so far is in Sugar Land, Texas, where Prison Fellowship has actually been running a wing of the Jester II Prison since mid 1997. Called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, it offers Christian education to felons serving the last 18 months of their sentences. State guards provide security, but Colson's staff runs the day-to-day activities of 125 men, about one third of Jester II's inmates. The men -- all volunteers in the program -- rise for a 6:00 A.M. worship service and spend most of the day in Bible study, supervised work, or school. Evenings are filled with parenting classes, meetings with crime victims, family nights, and more Bible study.

The director of Inner-Change, Jack Cowley (a dead ringer for Tommy Lee Jones), is a former warden with a low tolerance for sob stories. "It's going to be the hardest prison in the system," he says, "because we're going to raise expectations. We're going to expect the men to act normal, and we're going to give them choices."

It was just the right tonic for James Peterson, nearing the end of an eight-year sentence for embezzlement. All his life, he says, he took the easy way out and quit -- college, jobs, marriage -- when things got tough. No more: After enlisting in InnerChange, he wrote a letter to his ex-boss asking for forgiveness and pledging to pay him back. The former employer even agreed to a meeting. "I was the last person he wanted to see," Peterson says. "Today I'm like a son to him."

Peterson even turned down a chance at early parole so he could finish the program -- a decision that kept him behind bars another 10 months. Says Jester warden Fred Becker, "It might be the first time in American corrections we've had people refuse parole."
 
A Little Biblical Justice

Behind Colson's prison programs lie two theological ideas. First, crime is fundamentally an offense not against the state, but against individuals and the God whose image they bear. The justice system must pay more attention to victims and communities actually hurt by crime. The good Samaritan in the Bible -- "he went to him and bandaged his wounds" -- sticks his neck out, after all, for a crime victim.

A second concept, also drawn from the Bible, is that punishment should be restorative: It should help turn criminals into citizens. Chronic, remorseless, violent offenders must be put away, Colson says. But most inmates don't fit that description; many of them, with God's help, can change. Prison Fellowship stresses supervised work, community service, mentoring, restitution, and even meetings between victim and offender. The unabashed objective is Christian conversion.

To some it all sounds like a weak-kneed substitute for punishment. Wardens at a recent conference in Houston, for example, called InnerChange the "hug-a-thug" program. Some victims' rights groups worry that prison ministries can become another way to coddle criminals.

But consider the prison culture, Colson says. It's filled with scheming, scamming, and surviving. It does nothing to hold criminals personally accountable to their victims. And zero accountability usually produces zero remorse. "The current system does not work," he writes in Convicted: New Hope for Ending America's Crime Crisis (1989). "It ignores victims and their losses. Instead of rehabilitating offenders, it debilitates them."

The Colson version of biblical justice upsets the crime-fighting dogmas of the left and the right. Recall the words of Ramsey Clark, attorney general under Lyndon Johnson: "The basic solution for crime is economic." Over the years, liberals have added a bagful of therapeutic approaches to their economic model. Compare that with Colson: "No matter what its aggravating causes, there is only one taproot of crime," he says. "It is sin."

Conservatives may be more likely to talk about sin, but they love incarcerating sinners. Political scientist James Q. Wilson writes that "putting people in prison has been the single most important thing we've done to reduce crime." It certainly has been the most conspicuous: Last year the nation's prison population hit 1.8 million, and it's growing by nearly 1,500 people a week.

Higher incarceration rates, however, haven't made a dent in recidivism rates, the portion of ex-offenders who are rearrested for committing more crimes. DiIulio, who debated Colson several years ago over the need for more prisons, now thinks we have "maxed out" on the usefulness of incarceration. Even Wilson, in a recent City Journal article, agreed that although prisons are good at warehousing offenders, "they don't change people." The problem is that nearly all inmates will be released eventually -- and return to a neighborhood near you.

This is, of course, the acid test: Will religious belief really make a lasting difference in the lives of the lawless?

"We're not chumps. We don't think everybody is going to transform," says Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, the ministry's public-policy arm. "But if you saw six prisoners walking toward you across the yard, would it make a difference to you if they were coming from a Bible study?"

Social science data now suggest that it should. A study by T. David Evans published in 1995 in Criminology, the leading journal of crime research, links exposure to religion with a significant reduction in crime and delinquency. A 1997 report by the National Institute for Healthcare Research found that inmates in a Prison Fellowship Bible study in New York were three times less likely to be rearrested than those who weren't. A Prison Fellowship mentoring program in Detroit, which targets offenders at high risk of recidivism, claims similar results. Of the 60 inmates who've completed the InnerChange program in Texas, only five are back in the system, all for parole violations. Says DiIulio: "I would challenge a group of researchers to show me something that works better than this."

Admittedly, the studies are limited by small samples and insufficient follow-up. Yet they are important because they involve not wayward Boy Scouts but convicted felons: multiple offenders who already have tried job training and drug treatment programs.

Men like Ruben Vargas, who got mixed up in the Mexican mafia as a teenager, was arrested on drug charges, and landed 12 years in state prison. He arrived at Jester II unable to trust anyone and not happy about taking orders. Within a few months he put his faith in Christ, and almost immediately his outlook changed. Vargas was released last year, got involved with a church, and was hired as a pipeline welder. His employer noticed that every job he completed (welders call it a "bead") passed inspection, and one day he asked Vargas about it. His answer: "It's because every time I lay a bead I say, 'God, this is your bead.'"

Whatever the long-term results, jailhouse religion is making a comeback. When Myles Fish took a job with Prison Fellowship in 1984, wardens treated ministers as either a scheduling problem or a security risk. "Today there are so many groups going in, so many Bible studies taking place, that you're actually competing to get on the calendar," says Fish, now a senior vice president.

Jim Harvey, former regional director of South Carolina's Department of Corrections, was a warden of the old school. He oversaw 13 prisons and logged nearly 30 years' experience in criminal justice, but until a few years ago he didn't take prison ministry seriously. Then Prison Fellowship brought a week of concerts and other events into state facilities, beginning at a women's prison in Columbia. He felt obligated to attend. The main event was Christian artist Kathy Troccoli, singing about faith and forgiveness. About 400 women -- virtually the entire prison -- packed the gymnasium.

Dozens of women spoke, wept, and prayed with volunteers that night. "I've been through five prison riots, seven hostage situations, 54 murders, 57 suicides," Harvey says. "I supervised the first 13 executions in South Carolina since 1986. But nothing ever got to me like that did." Harvey attended every event that week and now does volunteer work in the prisons he once managed.

"We don't need to accept foolish liberal criminology ideas in order to fulfill our responsibility to reach out to people who've done wicked deeds," says Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton. "Colson is showing us that there's no substitute for religious faith in reforming people's lives."
 
Watergate as Watershed

It would be easy to overlook the incongruity of Colson's decision, back in 1976, to throw himself into prison work. It was a time when other religious conservatives were either rediscovering politics or founding glitzy television empires. Jimmy Carter was running for president as a born-again Christian. Newsweek declared it the "Year of the Evangelical." Yet Colson set out to launch what would become a major social reform movement.

Conservative Christians thought they smelled liberal Protestantism. Michael Cromartie, Colson's research assistant in the 1970s, recalls traveling with him to a conservative Baptist church in Memphis and getting a stony reception. "Chuck talked about the need to reach out to prisoners and work for prison reform," Cromartie says. "The guy sitting next to me wrote in his notes: 'Colson sounds like a social gospeler'" -- an activist more bent on changing society than converting hearts.

Such concerns have long since evaporated. When Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, for example, he asked Colson to take over his television ministry. James Dobson calls him "probably the most valuable resource the Christian community has today." He is easily one of its most prolific. His books -- ranging from crime to politics to church renewal -- top the list of Christian bestsellers. He writes a monthly column for Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism. His daily radio commentary on faith and culture can be heard on over 1,000 outlets.

To be sure, Colson's eager embrace of Catholics as co-belligerents in the culture was has sent some evangelicals into apoplexy. Five years later, he is still denounced for his part in crafting "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," a joint statement of theological and cultural concerns. "We're still getting hate mail for that," says a ministry staffer.

Moreover, Colson's rhetoric sometimes gets a little overheated. In a First Things symposium on the growing power of the federal courts, he recalled the German evangelical churches' stand against the Nazis. Still, in an "argument culture" that has traded persuasion for put-downs, he delivers cultural criticism that is sane and balanced.

Case in point: the Monica crisis. Appearing on Larry King Live after the Senate's vote to acquit the president, Colson stressed its impact on prisoners who already hold the justice system in contempt. Republicans mostly avoided the character issue, but he knew firsthand why it mattered, and said so. And while ministers such as Jesse Jackson and Tony Campolo became "counselors" to Bill Clinton -- and were diminished in the process -- Colson insisted that repentance be more than a lip-biting pose.

Ironically, Colson's influence as a Christian has its roots in the political arena, in Watergate. More than any other event, the great scandal of the Nixon White House chastened him as to the limits, and the temptations, of power.

On one hand, Colson argues that Christians are obligated to speak out on the vital issues of the day, whether abortion or education or religious freedom. On the other hand, he scolds his brethren when they sound like "medieval crusaders" and rely too much on politics to instigate cultural change. A theme he returns to frequently: Congregations must do a much better job of Christianizing their own members. "The church is no civic center, no social club or encounter group," he writes in his 1992 book The Body. "It is a new society, created for the salvation of a lost world, pointing to the kingdom to come."

Yet Colson is no pietist, enthralled by private spirituality. He holds the classic view of Christian discipleship -- that genuine faith always produces ripple effects beyond the individual and into the larger culture. Ask him about Paul Weyrich's recent letter to conservatives declaring the culture war lost, and he stiffens. "Evangelicals don't have a public philosophy," he says. "We either go all out with some ill-conceived Moral Majority -- which was heavy-handed, oppressive, triumphant, all the wrong things -- and put all the emphasis on politics, or we go 100 percent the other way." The art of politics, he says -- how we order our public lives together -- ought to be the business of Christians.

This view led Colson in the early 1980s to found Justice Fellowship, which lobbies for legislative reform in such areas as prison conditions and religious freedom for inmates. The catalyst was a visit to the notoriously unruly Walla Walla prison in Washington state. When Colson got there, the prison was in "lock-down" mode, with inmates confined to squalid cells 23 hours a day. A dozen men on death row had staged a hunger strike. Uneaten food and human waste were everywhere. Out came the old hatchet man: Colson immediately called a press conference in the prison yard, prompting an investigation and legislative reforms to relieve overcrowding.

It is just such hands-on involvement -- his long record of scandal-free, compassionate help to prisoners and their families -- that gives Colson his authoritative edge.

"Aside from all his writing and speaking, Chuck has spent a lot of time in prisons like Leavenworth, comforting inmates who are not getting out," says Cromartie, now a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "If only a few more TV evangelists had those experiences." Father Richard John Neuhaus, a longtime friend and editor of First Things, agrees: "It distinguishes him from a lot of political-religious entrepreneurs who announce every week the new thing God has told them to do that will usher in the kingdom."

Martin Marty, who recently edited a book series critical of religious fundamentalism, says even those who disagree with Colson's conservative theology do not doubt his conversion or fail to respect the ministry it has produced. "By anybody's certification, it stuck. It is very deep, very profound, very tested." Liberal columnist Coleman McCarthy, for example, who once lambasted Colson for "babbling Jesus-talk," conceded that in his prison work, "he has been tireless, wise and humane."

Perhaps this is Colson's rebuke to those who demand "a seat at the table" of national politics. Or confuse a government program with the Kingdom of Heaven. Or simply fail to go about God's work in God's way. Moral and cultural renewal may require more than helping the poor, visiting the sick, praying with prisoners -- but surely not less. "Perhaps civilization will never be safe," C. S. Lewis wrote, "until we care for something else more than we care for it."