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Photo courtesy of the Colson Center

Setting captives free

Religion | Remembering the life and legacy of Watergate operative, ex-con, and Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

WASHINGTON-When President Richard Nixon's knee-capper went to prison after pleading guilty to a Watergate-related crime, he touched off one of the most compelling stories of conversion and a redeemed life in the modern American church. Charles Colson, 80, hovered near death in Fairfax, Va., as WORLD went to press April 19. "It is with a heavy, but hopeful heart that I share with you that it appears our friend, brother, and founder will soon be home with the Lord," wrote Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske in an April 18 message, as his wife and children gathered at his bedside. Colson suffered a brain hemorrhage on March 30 that had left him hospitalized since.

Colson started his career as a hard-nosed political giant whom Nixon once told to "break all the [expletive] china" to get a job done. But he became a giant for a generation of evangelical Christians. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry to inmates and their families that has grown into the largest prison ministry in the world-with programs in nearly all U.S. prisons and in 115 countries. An avid writer and speaker, Colson also shaped the church's dialogue about religious freedom, culture, marriage, and abortion.

As counsel to the president in the Nixon White House starting in 1969, Colson's loyalty was absolute: when Nixon wanted to hire John Scali to join the White House communications' staff, Scali complained the job would aggravate his ulcers. Colson ordered the president's physician to tell Scali he was in good health and the job would be good for him, and the physician complied, according to Jonathan Aitken's biography of Colson (Charles W Colson: a Life Redeemed, Continuum, 2005).

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Colson's office adjoined Nixon's personal office in the White House. In the good days of the presidency, Colson and Nixon cruised around the Potomac River on a yacht drinking scotch and sodas. But that began to crumble after E. Howard Hunt, a man Colson hired to besmirch the reputation of Pentagon Papers' leaker Daniel Ellsberg, orchestrated the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

During the Watergate scandal, Colson's self assurance and religious apathy broke one night after a Christian businessman and friend, Tom Phillips, prayed for him. Phillips read this passage to Colson from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "Pride always means enmity-it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. ... As long as you are proud you cannot know God."

Colson said in his bestselling memoir Born Again that the passage described him exactly and precipitated his conversion. Prominent members of The Fellowship-Doug Coe and Sen. Harold Hughes-discipled him in his early faith, along with Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul. When Colson's conversion became public, many doubted the sincerity of Nixon's "hatchet man." One columnist wrote, "If he isn't embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be."

In June 1974 Colson pled guilty to attempting to spread damaging information about Ellsberg and obstructing justice. The judge sentenced Colson to one to three years in prison. At the time Nixon sent him a handwritten note saying Watergate would become a "footnote in history," and the country would remember Colson fondly. Though Watergate isn't yet a footnote, Nixon was right about Colson's reputation.

At a federal prison in Alabama, Colson the inmate found a small but steadily growing Christian group within the walls, as he recounts in Born Again. Upon his release seven months later, he decided to start a prison ministry. The logo since Prison Fellowship's earliest days has featured a bent reed, referencing Isaiah 42:3: "A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." It reflected Colson's belief that no one-not the most hardened criminal nor the most egotistical Washingtonian-was beyond hope.

Prison, on the other hand, was not rehabilitating, Colson said he learned, but rather a "steady, gradual corrosion of a man's soul."

"A lot of people falsely accuse Chuck of being overly political-but Chuck's whole emphasis has been to say that the root problem is a spiritual problem," said Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a close personal friend. George and Colson wrote a column together for many years in Christianity Today. "He was an evangelist at his deepest heart ... but he realized that preaching the gospel is not just dropping tracts from a blimp."

Once Colson left prison and started a successful ministry, "there was a lot of celebrity surrounding Chuck," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Cromartie served as researcher and travel companion to Colson then. In airports, people would recognize Colson as "the evangelical, former White House counsel, ex-convict," said Cromartie. Everyone in Christendom was sending him books to read, Cromartie added, and he was speaking in prisons all over the world.

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