Chuck Colson, the Watergate criminal who became a leading figure on the religious right, is dead at age 80. It will be interesting to see both his fans and his critics talk about his life and his views. His fans have already begun the hagiography, with the Worldnutdaily even declaring him to be a prophet:
News in 1973 of convicted Watergate figure Chuck Colson’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ was met with skepticism and ridicule by many in media. But nearly four decades later – with his death today at the age of 80 – Colson’s legacy as a historic evangelical leader with a distinct prophetic voice that has shaped culture and influenced countless lives is firmly established.
A prophet without a prophecy, apparently. Secularists like me will no doubt point out that Colson has been a consistent voice against equality — for women, for gay people and for non-Christians — since his conversion to Christianity. And we’d be right. In most ways, he was on the side of regressive policies.
But let’s also recognize that he was on the right side of many criminal justice reform issues, an issue that needs all the advocates it can get because neither party seems to give a damn. Justice Fellowship, one of his two major organizations working on those issues (the other is Prison Fellowship, which focuses on evangelizing prisoners), has taken strong positions against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of drug treatment over criminalization, against high telephone fees and other things that prevent inmates from interacting with their families, in favor of better mental health services for inmates, in favor of stronger policies to prevent prison rape and violence, in favor of reforming the juvenile justice system and in favor of reforming both sentencing policy and sex offender registries.
Those are good things and he should be applauded for that, even while we correctly criticize him for his advocacy of regressive and authoritarian policies in so many other areas. Even a stopped wingnut can be right twice a day — maybe more.