Claude Allen in 2005 was on the ascent, serving as President George W. Bush's top domestic policy adviser. Early in 2006, arrested for shoplifting, he met with profound humiliation. Since then he has kept an utterly low profile. This is his first interview in more than six years.
Basic facts: Born in 1960, born again during your freshman year at the University of North Carolina. What sowed the seeds for your coming to Christ? The summer before my freshman year because I began to ask a lot of questions about my purpose in life. I read an article, "Lessons in History Ignored." It spoke about how the Roman Empire was not destroyed by external enemies but rather by internal moral decay. That made my soul ripe for the gospel.
After college you moved onward and upward: Congressional staff, law school, Court of Appeals clerk, big Washington law firm. Then you ran Virginia's Health and Human Services agency, became second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and moved to the White House. I turned down that White House position twice because, with a wife and four children, I was not comfortable with the nature of that job and the demands of it. Finally I said yes.
You started work at the White House in 2005 just when Katrina hit New Orleans. Great devastation, at a time when the president and all the senior White House staff were out in Texas. I had just come back from a trip to Alaska and Asia, and when Katrina hit, I was asked to take charge of the administration's response.
Is that the first time you ever dealt with hurricane realities? No. Several years before that time, at HHS, I discussed with the mayor of New Orleans and the emergency director what they would do in an emergency situation. They told me of their plan to move people into the Superdome. I discouraged them.
But they didn't change the plan. No. After Katrina hit a colleague of mine called from the Superdome. They were in crisis.
And you were also in crisis? I felt responsible because I didn't persuade them well enough not to do what they ended up doing. I began to have disruptive nightmares. A gentleman sitting on a lawn chair in front of the Superdome. He had died several days before and had a sign on him, "I've died. Please bury me." That image continued to haunt me. I became angry at God, very bitter.
That's when you started acting bizarrely? On the way home, I would stop by the local mall and wander around for hours to clear my head. On one of these occasions, I picked up a $500 Bose stereo at Target, put it in my cart, took it, bought it, stuck it in my car.
Then you decided you didn't need to spend that money, and … I went back in the store, got another Bose off the shelf, took it with my receipt to customer service, got a refund for it, left the store, went back to my car.
And then… I put the Bose in my car back in my cart, rolled it back in the store, left it there, and left.
This makes no sense. You were shoplifting, but not profiting from it? I could never go home with anything, because my wife would ask questions and I realized that.
But you were breaking the law. Absolutely.
How many times did this happen? Three times. Looking back, there were triggers: moving to a new house, issues within my family, something that occurred in the White House. The third time it happened, I realized something was seriously wrong. Then Christmas came along. I thought I could hold on.
Jan. 2, 2006: A Target security agent apprehends you. At that point did you talk with your wife and people in your church? Yes, and with the White House. At this time there was no charge. I was going to leave my job in the administration and get on with my life. But God did not intend for me to get away that easily.
As you found out on March 9. I was supposed to appear in court and pay a fine for a shoplifting misdemeanor. But the prosecutors decided to change the offense to a felony. I was handcuffed, put into a cell. A reporter was tipped off that this was going to happen. It all became very public. … when I got home there's media everywhere.
What are you thinking at this point? Great remorse. I knew it would hurt my witness for God, hurt my wife who had been so faithful and so loyal. The shame of it—my kids, they would face this. Suddenly you go from stellar career to common thief. I wanted to run away and hide, but my face was all over.
Amid that shame, what did you tell yourself? That Jesus died for every sin committed—past, present, future. There was no sin I could commit that Christ did not first cover it. Jesus has atoned for my sins.
Ending up with just two years of probation must have been a relief. My family and I were greatly blessed and greatly cared for in the midst of all of this. This has not been a comfortable time. It's not comfortable coming here to share this, because I still bear great shame for what I've done, but with all the regrets I have, I would not trade this experience. I have come to know my Savior in a very real and personal way. More than anything else, God has affected my heart toward those that I would be very hard-hearted toward.
Out of the public eye—I haven't found articles about you since 2006—what have you been doing? It's been seven years of God breaking me down and rebuilding me for His purposes. I've worked at the Gerard Health Foundation on three issues: pro-life, abstinence education, HIV AIDS prevention. I just returned from Zambia with 14 people, visiting an orphanage over there that has a remarkable model of how to provide for kids. (See "Saving Isaac," WORLD, Nov. 10, 2007.)
And you're a baby rescuer? We support a project that does neonatal resuscitation. As a part of my job I had to be trained in "Helping Babies Breathe," neonatal resuscitation—and I'm now a "master trainer." I travel the world teaching doctors, nurses, birth attendants, and midwives how to rescue babies who otherwise would be left to die at birth.
So when you look back on your trajectory? I am fearful for where I would be if I had kept on that trajectory of going up and up. I look back on the pain, and my sin, as God's gift. God gives us second chances, and I want to make the most of the second chance that He's given me. I want to do that in showing mercy and kindness to others who have not experienced that.
Toward the end of my interview with Claude Allen, he offered seven lessons he had learned from the book of Jonah and the teaching of John Piper:
"The first is that God answers us in spite of our guilt. I was guilty in what I had done and yet God purposed to answer me when I needed Him.
"Secondly, God answers us in spite of His judgment. He was not going to let me just get away with not answering for what I had done.
"Third, God answers us and delivers us from impossible circumstances. My family has not lacked food or shelter or clothing or relationships or anything. We have been greatly blessed and greatly cared for in the midst of all of this.
"Fourth, God answers us in the nick of time. He saved me and has saved my family repeatedly for the past seven years in the very nick of time. Not my timing, but His timing and for His purposes.
"Fifth, God answers us in stages, not all of which are comfortable. This has not been a comfortable time. It's not comfortable coming here to Patrick Henry College to share this, because I still bear great shame for what I've done. I regret what I've done. And yet, with all the regrets that I have, I would not trade this experience for anything, because …
"Sixth, God answers us in order to win us to His undevoted loyalty and love. And that's been my greatest joy, that I have come to know my Savior in a very real and personal way and it has meant the life to me.
"Last, God answers us in our guilty distress to help us to become merciful like God is merciful. I think more than anything else, God has affected my heart towards those that I would be very hardhearted towards. One night I had a dream about a thief. I had been reading through Luke 23, but had never been able to identify with the thieves on the cross. I was not a thief, I was not a murderer, I was none of that.
"In 2006 I was suddenly changed because of the series of acts I had engaged in. Very quickly I could identify with those thieves on the cross. The next day a gifted counselor asked the pastor I was meeting with: Have you asked Claude to read the story of the thieves on the cross and see if he identifies with them? When I told my pastor about my dream, he just leapt out of his seat and said, 'It's amazing how God is speaking to you, even now.'
"Even in the midst of all this trouble, God was caring for me and carrying me through all of it."
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Claude Allen: