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Setting captives free

"Setting captives free" Continued...

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

As Prison Fellowship got off the ground in the late 1970s, the Moral Majority also formed, and criminal justice wasn't on the agenda. "When Chuck would go around and talk about prisoners and prison reform, it was a splash of cold water," said Cromartie. "Chuck was pricking the evangelical conscience" and making sure that "the most forgotten people in our society" weren't forgotten. He later began Justice Fellowship, a public policy arm to push for criminal justice reforms.

A Southern Baptist, Colson remained politically and theologically conservative his whole life, but Prison Fellowship gained a reputation for working with both Republicans and Democrats. He also learned to work across theological aisles: Colson developed relationships with top Catholic scholars like the late Richard John Neuhaus and later Princeton's Robert George. (Colson's wife Patty is Catholic.) Out of that alliance came the 1994 initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which proved to be controversial and opened a rift with his mentor Sproul, who believed Colson was minimizing the differences between Catholics and Protestants. "It's been really great for both sides," said Robert George, particularly for the "ecumenism of the trenches" on pro-life and other issues.

When people think of Colson, "First they think of Watergate," said Robert George. "They'll think of Chuck as an activist, an organizer, and institution grower. What is often overlooked is Chuck as an intellectual leader" springing from his "high view of the relationship of reason and faith."

In 2010, Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George (no relation) composed the Manhattan Declaration, a statement of the church's values on marriage, religious freedom, and abortion that half a million people since have signed, including evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican leaders. Colson penned the now well known last lines of the Manhattan Declaration: "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

In Colson's own life, his relationship with family warmed over the years. As a young Marine, Colson married Nancy Billings in 1953, and their marriage ended in divorce 10 years later. They had three children. He then married Patty, his wife of 48 years, and after his conversion became a fierce opponent of divorce. "Back in his law days and his White House days he did not prioritize his family in a way that was healthy," said author Ellen Vaughn, who worked with Colson for 24 years as co-author of some of his books. "Over the years he began connecting with the kids and Patty in a whole different way. ... She was not just a means to his end."

Colson the man also was warmer than the average Washington figurehead. When he walked into a room, "there was a real humility and a real compassion and care for others," said Vaughn. He hugged people a lot in a city that doesn't hug and he was a meticulous thank-you note writer. He also was a practical joker who served drinks with fake flies frozen into the ice cubes and composed phony memos to his staff.

All that Colson undertook came with a certain "relentlessness," said Vaughn. "He would really press and drive many to distraction, but he pressed himself most of all, never seeing anything as improbable." Yet even in urgent calls to the church, said Vaughn, he was an optimist: "He said, 'We're chief of sinners and we're saved. There's no one beyond hope.' ... He wasn't hanging up and saying, 'Come quickly, Lord Jesus.'"

So it was perhaps fitting that when Colson collapsed on March 30, it was in the middle of delivering a speech at the Wilberforce Weekend Conference hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview in northern Virginia. Paramedics examined him before airlifting him to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove a pool of clotted blood from the surface of his brain the following day. Colson remained in critical condition at the Washington, D.C., area hospital in the weeks following surgery, though colleagues were optimistic about his recovery as he showed signs of apparent consciousness and improvement.

In his final speech, he challenged the Wilberforce audience concerning public hostility toward Christians, saying, "If things are bad, don't think it's going to be solved by an election. It's going to be solved by us."

But he warned his audience not to listen to caricatures of Christians: "We're also seen as wanting to impose our views on people. Don't let them tell you that. We don't impose anything. We propose. We propose an invitation to the wedding feast, to come to a better way of living. A better way of life. It's the great proposal."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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