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Jeffrey Peck/Prison Fellowship

No easy answers

Q&A | Chuck Colson says conservatives should move beyond political illusions

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

At age 79, Chuck Colson remains one of Christianity's leading cultural commentators. The founder of Prison Fellowship and the Wilberforce Forum, his most famous transition was from the Nixon administration (1969-1973) to prison for obstruction of justice. He professed Christ in 1973 and since then has authored or co-authored more than 20 books laying out a Christian worldview, along with daily BreakPoint commentaries heard by millions of people.

What irritates you the most about typical conservative political positions? That many who take conservative political positions aren't really being conservative. Conservatism starts out with modesty and humility. We don't believe we come up with all of the answers for solving the world's problems. The greatest enemy of traditional conservatism is ideology, because ideology is man-made. I live by revealed truth, I live by wisdom of the past. When I hear conservatives being arrogant and not civil in their discourse-that's not my kind of conservatism. The talking heads on TV calling themselves conservatives . . . I cringe.

The two conservative talking heads on television with the highest ratings right now are Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. What are your thoughts on them? They have very colorful, occasionally entertaining, more than occasionally outrageous shows. TV is a show. Jacques Ellul said in the '60s that media will gravitate to centers of power and people will succumb to a political illusion. Ellul was a disciple of Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who in the 1850s made this prophetic utterance: Someday, someone will invent a giant talking tube by which you can address the whole nation at once. Surely the police will arrest him, lest the populace become deranged.

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The talking heads are part of the political illusion? It's the only thing they talk about, yet politics is only a small part of what makes life work. Politics is but an expression of culture. The talking heads at night think they are the arbiters of all that's true and right and just, and the ultimate determinant is who they can get elected. Not true.

So do laws lead and culture follows? Or does cultural change lead to political change? Look at William Wilberforce, who two centuries ago had two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners-by that he meant a spiritual awakening. He understood that you could change the law, but it would be of little effect if you didn't change the hearts of the people. I believe that cultures change from the bottom up. Habits of the heart, dispositions of people in culture: Laws eventually reflect those. Laws become moral teachers, but only because they incorporate what is already a moral value in a society.

The Christian tradition of equality before God led to Wilberforce's anti-slavery activity and much besides, but now the egalitarian banner is being used to advance a host of non-Christian and anti-Christian understandings. Why is that happening? It's part of our DNA as Christians to believe that human beings are created in the image of God, so all human beings deserve to have their life protected, and they deserve dignity. The most revolutionary doctrine ever introduced into Western civilization was when Jews and Christians invaded the Greco-Roman empire, which had slaves, and said they believed in the image of God in every human being. This is why we've fought slavery as Christians since the seventh century. That's being warped today by egalitarian views that say everybody is entitled to the same outcome in life. That's an ideological proposition based neither on evident human reason or Scripture. It's Utopian thinking, which always leads to tyranny. Watch out.

What changes do you see coming in America over the next 10 years? We're going to be surprised by the economic upheavals. They're unavoidable when you look at the debt that we are incurring and building into the system.

Do you think the current emphasis on economic issues detracts from examination of social issues? Republican House members, advised by Newt Gingrich, came to the conclusion that we should just focus on economic issues because that's all people care about: Leave out all moral issues. Emails blitzed them and they gave us a concession by affirming life, marriage, and liberty in one paragraph, out of 7,000 words.

Should we separate economic and moral issues? It's a huge mistake to separate those issues, because it's impossible to preserve freedom without nurturing virtue. If you break down the family structure, you break down the primary vehicle for inculcating character during the morally formative years. The less capable you are of governing yourself, the more you're going to be governed by others. What happens when the system collapses? Who steps into the void? Government.

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