I don’t remember when I first heard from Chuck Colson. Most likely it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Nor do I recall whether he called or sent a letter. But I was flattered he had bothered to get in touch with me. That I remember.
I’d never met Colson, didn’t cover the Nixon White House where he’d become semi-famous for playing political hardball, and hadn’t read his book, Born Again, about his conversion to evangelical Christianity while in prison. But I knew, just from reading about him, that Colson was for real. His wasn’t a fake jailhouse conversion designed to get him out of prison early or to fool folks into thinking better of him as a changed man. If Colson wasn’t authentic, neither was St. Paul.
Colson wanted me to give a talk somewhere about my life as a Christian while working in the secular national media. I said yes. Not that I had a great story to tell. I’d accepted Christ a few years earlier and hadn’t suffered for my faith. Quite the contrary, I’d gotten the opportunity to be a regular on TheMcLaughlin Group, a weekly TV chat show, and moved up the journalistic ladder from a newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, to a magazine, the New Republic.
Colson called on me three or four more times after that first summons, always to talk about some aspect of Christianity, politics, and the media. And my policy was, if Colson wants me for anything, I’m on board. When Colson contacted Brit Hume of Fox News to moderate a discussion on video, Brit responded similarly: “I did it because he asked me.”
Colson and I weren’t close friends, but we were brothers in Christ, a tighter bond than nonbelievers might think. I would run into him from time to time—in airports or at political events or Christian gatherings—and always came away encouraged in my faith and full of admiration for Colson. His death last week leaves a hole in many people’s hearts.
Why did Colson appeal to me, beyond the power and authenticity of his Christian witness? I can think of many reasons, but I’ll keep it to a few.
Until I met Colson, I didn’t know what “muscular Christianity” was. It was Colson. His was a kind of tough guy religious faith. Go to almost any church these days and you’ll see a lot more women than men. But when Colson talked, men listened. He was on the wavelength of successful middle-aged men, inmates who came to Prison Fellowship meetings in some previously Godforsaken jail, and lots of men in between.
This is no small thing. Men are inclined to think they’re self-sufficient and don’t require God’s help to get along in life. (Women seem to know better.) Colson explained why Christ wasn’t just for wusses. And then he led men to do what they’d never expected: embrace Christ as their savior and role model. And join their wives in church.
Colson’s faith dispatched him in many directions. After serving his seven-month jail term, he started Prison Fellowship, but that was only the beginning. Mike Cromartie, his assistant in the late 1970s, introduced him to dozens of Christian scholars and theologians from whom he learned the historical and intellectual depth of Christianity. “He feasted on it,” Cromartie says.
And he became a strong advocate not only of a Christian worldview, but also of ecumenism. He and Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran turned Catholic priest, promoted “evangelicals and Catholics together” as a social force in America. Neuhaus died in 2009, but the alliance endures.
Colson’s upbringing was in elitist New England. He went to Brown University. He became a national figure, sought after as a speaker. Yet his abiding commitment was to Prison Fellowship and its outreach to prisoners and their families. Its success in evangelizing prisoners and reducing recidivism is quantifiable, and it is now active in more than 100 countries.
He had an amazing rapport with prisoners. “He identified with these people,” Cromartie says. “He could get moved very quickly by being in their presence.” Some Christians thought Colson’s emphasis on redeeming the lives of prisoners reeked of the social gospel. Indeed it did. But Colson believed the obligation to serve those at the bottom was inseparable from biblical faith.
In 1999, a cover story in The Weekly Standard was headlined “Ex-Con: The Remarkable Second Career of Chuck Colson.” Having been interviewed, Colson knew a story was coming. But when he took that week’s issue from his mailbox, he was surprised to find on the cover a drawing of himself looking joyful. He called me that same day. He was appreciative and also very, very humble.