On Chuck Colson: Can reporters see past Watergate?

It’s pretty interesting to read the obituaries of Charles Colson by those who were alive during Watergate and those who weren’t. It’s clear that some reporters are stuck in the 1970s, apparently unaware of how the state of evangelicalism was shaped by Colson’s complex life and legacy.

Colson’s rocky relationship with the media might have something with his life portrayal as reporters try to explain President Nixon’s “hatchet man” turned evangelical leader. Jonathan Aitken (who also wrote a tribute for Christianity Today) demonstrated in his biography Colson’s complex relationship with reporters, especially since his conversion was met with skepticism or cynicism.

Colson Has Found Religion was the New York Times headline. The news media across the country followed suit. Columnists, editorial writers, and cartoonists had a field day of mockery. Syndicated columnist Harriet Van Horne caught the general mood when she wrote, “I cannot accept the sudden coming to Christ of Charles Colson. If he isn’t embarrassed by this sudden excess of piety, then surely the Lord must be.”

Part of what seems to complicate the media’s relationship might be that the Washington Post‘s Woodward and Bernstein are the real heros for journalists coming out of Watergate. Someone like Colson, who had a conversion experience and spent time in jail, does not fit the narrative of who was on right side at that time. Though Colson had a rough relationship with the media, there was this little interesting bit:

The acerbic columnist Jack Anderson launched an investigation into the finances of Prison Fellowship after hearing rumors that Colson was enriching himself from his religious activities. After establishing that Colson earned a salary of only $59,000 from his ministry, and that the far larger sums he earned from his speaking fees and book royalties went not into his pocket but directly to Prison Fellowship, Anderson wrote several columns praising Colson and became a regular donor to Prison Fellowship. These anecdotes involving journalists in the late 1970s reflected a turning of the tide of public opinion about Colson.

Colson did not have the rosiest view of the media. In his recent column for Christianity Today, Colson noted how evangelicals are painted in mainstream media outlets.

Just what is an evangelical, anyway? The picture painted by the media—especially now that it’s election time again—is confused and often unflattering. From the infamous “poor, uneducated, and easy to command” label hung on us by The Washington Post years ago, to the perception that we are gay-hating political maniacs in the hip pocket of the Republican Party today, it’s not hard to understand that we have an image problem—and that we’ve let others define us.

Of course, we ourselves are part of the problem. Like those well-intentioned activists who met at a Texas ranch to anoint one of the presidential candidates in the Republican primaries. Or the pair of evangelical professors who wrote an article in The New York Times, criticizing evangelical leaders for their “rejection of knowledge” and for embracing “discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas”—such as believing that homosexual behavior is sinful and that Darwin was wrong.

Perhaps it is time to step back and ask once again what an evangelical is.

In the obituaries, some veteran reporters were able to draw on history to put Colson’s legacy in context while others appear clueless of Colson’s life outside of the White House, as Mollie showed in some of the early ones yesterday. In many ways, media outlets that didn’t shift the obituary assignment from the political reporters to the religion reporters overlooked the bigger picture.

The Los Angeles Times has a strange line in its obituary about Colson’s political involvement.

Though always conservative, except when he was advocating for fewer prisons and for the release of nonviolent prisoners, he was not very active politically on the national stage after his White House years.

Wouldn’t Colson call his efforts something like “compassionate conservatism”? Also, wasn’t he a huge catalyst in some of President Bush’s initiatives on AIDS in Africa, prison reform, etc.? At least, Karl Rove thought so.

In contrast, the Associated Press seemed to “get” Colson’s later life and legacy.

When Colson emerged from prison, “he had a lot of offers to do other things that would have made him a lot of money”, but he wanted to serve people who had been “forgotten” in society, [Mike] Cromartie said.

“I think if he’s going to be remembered for anything, he’s going to be remembered as a person who had a complete turnaround in his life,” he said.

While faith was a large part of Colson’s message, he also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases. He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.

My one quibble with the last paragraph is that he reads “while faith was a large part of Colson’s message, he also tackled…” I would guess that it was “because faith was a large part…” as Colson’s policy work was motivated by his faith. At the very least, Colson influenced the way evangelicals engage in politics, culture, evangelism and other areas, drawing on evangelicalism’s four emphases (as David Bebbington put them): the Bible, Jesus’ death the cross, personal conversion and evangelism. At CT, I put it:

In many ways, Colson’s life encapsulated the eclectic nature of evangelicalism. His example shaped how evangelicals would promote ministry and social justice, evangelism and ecumenicism, cultural and political engagement, radio and writing, and scholarship and discipleship.

This was not just one man who influenced one president. This was a towering figure over a large religious movement. Many will have a story to tell about how Colson shaped either their own life or someone they know. Ask an evangelical.

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  • Dave

    The Washington Post breaking-news service I subscribe to on line mentioned, in relating Colson’s passing, his role in Nixon’s re-election and his worldwide prison ministry, although not Watergate.

  • Martha

    I was alive during Watergate and I admit, when I heard of Mr. Coulson’s conversion, I rolled my eyes and muttered how it was funny the way all these guys suddenly found religion once they were in risk of going to prison, but the man was genuine and stayed the course and proved my cynicism was wrong (in this instance, anyway).

    I do understand the cynicism of reporters at the time (I shared it myself, after all) and I suppose the emphasis on the political angle is understandable, since politics is easy to explain to your readers.

    I imagine if there had been newspapers around in the time of St. Paul, we’d have gotten the same reaction to news of his conversion from “The Jerusalem Post” and “The Damascus Times”, and very probably they would have covered his martyrdom with “Former Sanhedrin hatchet-man executed in Rome today”.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Martha, good insight. Yes, it’s understandable how they would portray Colson they way he did, but it’s so short sighted, IMHO.

  • carl jacobs

    The better question would be “Do journalists want to see past Watergate?” After all, Watergate is the Epic Poem of modern Journalism. Chuck Colson is the Medusa turned to stone by Woodward’s reflective shield, or so the narrative goes. I think journalists want him in little stone pieces all over the ground.


  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Journalists should be skeptical of sudden conversions – indeed, sometimes I wish they were more skeptical – but after nearly 40 years of Colson’s work with Prison Fellowship, Breakpoint, etc., it seems strange to be judging the 80-year-old primarily by the deeds of the 39-year-old.

    NPR gives headline space to Colson’s religious career, though I’m not sure the headline writer understands what that career actually was:

    Watergate Figure, Evangelist Chuck Colson Dies At 80

    Barbara Bradley Hagarty speaks with Barry Lynn as a critic of Colson’s 2nd career, though I wish Lynn had been longer on specifics and shorter on catchphrases:

    “Sadly, when he went from being Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, he turned into a man who thought he was God’s hatchet man,” Lynn says. “Literally turning these very formidable political skills that he had in the service of very far-right religious and political agendas.”

  • northcoast

    Martha, I think a clue to Mr. Colson’s sincerity would have been that he didn’t try to use it to avoid his sentence. Frequently a prison inmate will think that being born again will help secure an early parole, and I guess that there have been cases that it has worked.

  • Jeff

    “Barbara Bradley Hagarty speaks with Barry Lynn as a critic of Colson’s 2nd career, though I wish Lynn had been longer on specifics and shorter on catchphrases:”

    I wish Hagarty had offered some pushback to Lynn — or better yet that NPR had found someone better to speak with than Lynn, someone without an ax to grind, someone who was not an ideologue and a partisan.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Time precludes my doing the reading that should precede a comment, so forgive me, but I’ve been wanting to say something: as one who works in criminal justice, I would like to see an objective report on Colson’s impact on my field. He is quoted as saying that he was moved by an inmate saying that “no one cares”. I know that today many people care, many ministries exist to help the convicted felon in prison and re-entering the community. Did such ministries really not exist before Prison Fellowship? Did Colson’s work really bring such changes to society?

    And yes, I have seen lots of jailhouse religion. Cynicism (to which I am prone) is not the most helpful approach. We all of us are broken sinners who fail at our best intentions (Romans 7:15)). Compassion for our fellow sinners is well worth the effort. And yes, it can be a real effort.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Passing By, that’s great. There’s an idea for a reporter to chase. Question is: what kind of outlet would pursue that?

  • GhaleonQ

    The A.P. did a nice “just the facts” obituary, but an emblem of moral development deserves an equally weighty obituary, I think. I checked the London Telegraph’s, and it was quite nice. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9219298/Charles-Colson.html Bonus: I don’t think it messed up key events! (You have to set a low standard for a controversial figure.)

    The Telegraph’s, at best, sympathetic to a high church or orthodox Christianity. However, their house style and views didn’t seem to affect the piece.

  • http:rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    I thought NPR’s story was really good. It spent a lot of time on Chucks post-conversion career, which is probably much more important to most people than his pre-conversion career. I even think it was fair, even though I greatly dislike him, to have Barry Lynn comment on Colson’s Prison Fellowship, since Prison Fellowship does use some gov’t money to run it’s programs.

  • northcoast

    This is my response to Passing By. Despite the cynicism of my above comment, I am in favor of the outreach and have participated in Kairos weekends. Kairos and Prison Fellowship are the two nationwide (and international) prison evangelism programs that I am aware of. They started about the same time.

    I think there were earlier attempts by individual denominations to develop programs based on the Cursillo weekends, but the ecumenical nature of Kairos (and Prison Fellowship, I guess) can appeal to inmates who might not be attracted to a particular denomination.

  • David

    Maybe this just stood out to me, but in the NYT obit, you read this sentence:

    “After having what he called his religious awakening behind bars, he spent much of the rest of his life ministering to prisoners, preaching the Gospels and forging a coalition of Republican politicians, evangelical church leaders and Roman Catholic conservatives that has had a pronounced influence on American politics.”

    The religious illiteracy is striking. When you write “Gospel” with a capital G, you are referring to a book of the bible. When you confirm that this is what you’re talking about by making it plural (“Gospels”), then you make it sound like Colson only preached from those four books, and never the rest of the bible. But I suspect they meant to say “the gospel.”

    Of course the Times piece ended not with redemption, but guilt under the law:

    “In 1973, while looking for work after leaving the White House and fearing that he was going to wind up in jail, Mr. Colson got into his car and found himself in the grip of the spiritual crisis that led to his conversion. “This so-called White House hatchet man, ex-Marine captain, was crying too hard to get the keys into the ignition,” he remembered. “I sat there for a long time that night deeply convicted of my own sin.” “

  • Paul von Guerard

    Chuck Colson was a repentant sinner placing his life in the hands of Jesus. As folks reflect on his past Mr. Colson rejoices in eternity with the faithful who have gone on before. Believe it or not, that is the hope that motivated his efforts to minister the gospel of Jesus to prison inmates. His writings and example have inspired me over the past 34 years to share the Love of God with inmates. Sure some folks use “faith” as a smokescreen and are insincere, however we are not their judge. As for Watergate, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” As for unbelievers, you are in the prayers of all believers, including, until recently Mr. Colson.

  • Bill

    The WaPo had this opinion piece by Michael Gerson. It focuses on his conversion.


    I well remember Watergate, and I remember thinking then that Colson was working a con. But it later became obvious that it was a most curious con. Confessing a crime, accepting punishment and helping others. It seems that many people don’t believe in changes of heart and redemption. But while skepticism is healthy, cynicism is not.

  • Mark C.

    The fact is that Colson’s post-Watergate career rests very much on his role in the Nixon administration and in Watergate. Set against that backdrop, his conversion story pulled more than a few strings that Evangelicals react well to, enabling it to fit a classic mold for such stories. It was his political career that made him a public figure and get attention for his activism after prison and made him a figure of interest to the media on his death. Further, that his conversation wasn’t really that radical (he remained very conservative) also meant he could appeal to both the political and religious sides of conservatives and become as much a part of the rise of highly political Evangelicalism and highly Evangelical politics. It’s really little wonder that the media has so emphasized his Watergate-era political career. It really is what made him, for good or ill. I can’t help thinking that there might be some hagiographic tendencies at work, and a desire to see him considered more from one perspective than another.