The Magazine

Ex-Con

The Remarkable Second Career of Chuck Colson

Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By JOE LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.